BY: Daniel Gil/Contributing Writer
Issa Dubbaneh hovers over a scorching grill on a blisteringly hot Wednesday in April, expertly mixing za’atar spice and olive oil. To his right is his wife Muna, who rolls and tosses dough mixed with flower next to him, while their son Johnny handles the customers and cash.
The Zayt & Za’atar stand at the Foggy Bottom Farmer’s Market is a tiny operation with one grill, and a couple tables for rolling the dough and mixing spices and sauces, but its size is what keeps the Dubbaneh family working closely together.
“It’s lovely working with them. We differing opinions of course, but at the end of the day we’re family,” says Johnny, as he rings up another customer. “We learn a lot from each other… My parents have taught me a ton about the industry, food prep, and restaurant operations just as I’ve taught them about business management, relationship building, and marketing.”
Johnny and his two brothers handle more of the business side, with the help of his two sisters in communication and design, while his parents are the chefs behind the food, having brought their crafted recipes of Arab cuisine from across the globe.
“You get used to the heat,” says Issa, as sweat pours out from under his striped black and white hat. He works quickly, getting passed dough by his wife as customers attracted by the smell line up to get a snack.
Issa, 59, is from Palestine and has been living in the United States ever since he made the decision to study civil engineering at the University of Maryland 40 years ago. However, Issa dropped out of school because he wanted to pursue his passion: cooking. So he entered the restaurant business and hasn’t looked back. Most of Issa’s family is in the U.S., so he feels no need to return to his home country.
Similarly, his wife Muna moved to the US at a young age. She was born in Jordan, and once her older brother moved to America for school, her family slowly followed.
“One person goes, and that’s how it starts,” Muna says enthusiastically, as she weighs dough on a small scale, making sure each customer gets a fair portion. She has now been living in the US for 37 years.
Diana Morales, who sells juice at the farmer’s market a few tents away from the Dubbaneh family, has nothing but nice things to say about them.
“They are the kindest people. They always help me get my things off the truck before the market opens and it’s so nice seeing a family support each other the way they do. Their food is also really good too,” Diana says with a smile. “It’s like a little piece of Arab culture they’ve brought from home.”
This notion of bringing a piece of Arab culture to the D.C. community is something that resonated strongly with Johnny. At 24, he feels a need to not only connect with his familial roots, but also experience more of the culture his parents were raised in.
While he greatly enjoys working with his parents, Issa and Munatry to stress the importance of focusing on their full-time jobs and have been trying to steer Johnny and his brothers away from the restaurant business. Their father managed his own two restaurants for 30 years, and constantly tells them how much hard work and effort must be applied to be successful.
However, Johnny has found much joy in learning more about his culture from food and in being able to share that with people.
“One of our favorite things is when we hear someone mention that having Z&Z at the farmers market brings back the feeling of them being home in the Middle East,” he says. “Food is a great platform to share culture, and that is our aim at Z&Z, to sit down with us and share our culture.”
See more amazing photos from Zayt & za’atar on their Instagram page: @zandzdc