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Posted on Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 5:55 a.m.

As more Middle Eastern restaurants compete for business in Ann Arbor area, is there such a thing as too many?

By Janet Miller

With two new Middle Eastern restaurants ready to enter downtown Ann Arbor, two existing restaurants ready to expand, a market already flush with Middle Eastern food and even an area Big Boy restaurant offering Mediterranean favorites such as hummus and tabouli on its salad bar, the Ann Arbor area has become a magnet for the cuisine.

With Middle Eastern restaurants ringing the city and popping up in Ypsilanti, the fiercest competition may be in downtown Ann Arbor.

It may, some brokers and restaurant owners said, be overkill.

“The pie is only so big,” said Jim Chaconas, commercial broker with Colliers International. “The food is good, but I think we’re at the saturation point.”

When Jerusalem Garden opened in 1987, it was the lone restaurant of its kind.

“No one knew what baba ganoush was,” said Ali Ramlawi, Jerusalem Garden owner. “Now, it’s mentioned in Bud Light commercials.”


Ali Ramlawi, owner of Jerusalem Garden in downtown Ann Arbor.

Janet Miller | For

With the recent addition of two Middle Eastern eateries, downtown and the University of Michigan campus area will have at least nine restaurants that serve Middle Eastern fare.

In the greater Washtenaw County area, there are close to 20 restaurants serving Middle Eastern fare, from the sprawling Palm Palace on Carpenter Road to the cozy Star’s Café in the Westgate Shopping Center.

The fierce competition didn’t sway Kassem Chammout from expanding into downtown Ann Arbor with his third La Pita Fresh at 529 E. Liberty St., in space once occupied by Beyond Juice. He expects to open by early May.

He opened his first La Pita Fresh in Dearborn, followed by a second near the campus of Wayne State University. He said his Ann Arbor location would be fashioned after his WSU site, with fast, affordable food and a menu heavy with sandwiches for students and workers on the run. While he will have seating for 40, he expects 70 percent of his business to be delivery and take out.

He will be less than two blocks from the new La Marsa Mediterranean Cuisine at 301 S. State St., in the old Cosi space, which is also scheduled to open in May, and two more short blocks from Jerusalem Garden.

“I think the market is there. Let the best restaurant win,” Chammout.

But Ramlawi said the market has maxed out.

“It’s going to be cannibalism. I predict one or two will fold in 24 to 36 months,” he said, referring to Middle Eastern restaurants in the area.

The growth could launch a price war where no one turns a profit, he said.

Yoshi’s, a Middle Eastern spot on East Liberty within shouting distance of Jerusalem Garden, closed in January 2010 after being in business less than six months.

Still, Ramlawi said, the competition will make him improve.

“We need to find ways to become more efficient, friendlier and fresher. It will keep us on top of our game,” he said. In fact, Ramlawi plans to open a second, smaller Jerusalem Garden near downtown, in the fall.


The interior of Palm Palace on Carpenter Road.

Angela J. Cesere | file

“I’m not going to sit back, either,” he said.

Areas outside downtown are also seeing Middle Eastern restaurants take root. Ali Hijazi opened Zamaan Cafe in the Plymouth Green Shopping Mall seven months ago and hopes to open a second Ann Arbor location soon. He also has a location on Packard Road.

Hijazi said he’s not surprised that more Middle Eastern eateries are opening in Ann Arbor.

“I know a lot of people who are interested in the area. They come to Ann Arbor, they see the big crowds and they feel it’s a good business location,” he said. “But the key isn’t who is going to open. The key is who is going to stay.”

With the city jammed with Middle Eastern restaurants, it’s important to separate from the pack, Hijazi said. “We have a lot of new plates you don’t typically see in an Arabic restaurant. We don’t stick to just a Middle Eastern menu.”

That means dishes that suit American tastes and desire for variety, such as cauliflower in some of the dishes or topping hummus with eggplant.

"Everyone loves eggplant here,” Hijazi said.

With the largest Middle Eastern population in the United States in Dearborn, it’s not surprising that Michigan has seen a rise in the number of Middle Eastern restaurants setting up shop, said Andy Deloney, vice president for public affairs at the Michigan Restaurant Association.

At the same time, diners have grown more willing to sample a variety of foods, he said.

“The biggest trend we see is the diversification of the palate. Diners want to try new things," he said. "But you wouldn’t see this kind of growth without demand.”

That demand, in part, is for Middle Eastern food. Rich in olive oil and garlic, it can be healthy. And it’s relatively inexpensive, which dovetails with another trend, Deloney said. Michigan diners are looking for inexpensive, casual but quality food. It’s those restaurants that are making it in Michigan’s tough economy.

Ann Arbor is a natural for ethnic restaurants, said Bela Sipos, with Reinhart Commercial.

“Ann Arbor is wonderful place for different kinds of food. Ann Arbor's a little more adventuresome when it comes to food,” he said. Time will tell, he said, if the market is saturated for Middle Eastern restaurants:

“How many of any kind of restaurant can Ann Arbor handle? I don’t know the tipping point.”

Janet Miller is a freelance reporter for


Jack Atkinson

Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 6:03 p.m.

Actually, I wish one or two (or, three!) would venture out to Chelsea. Throw in an Indian and/or Thai restaurant, for good measure.


Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 1:43 p.m.

This article is borderline racist. We don't have the same discussion about too many "New American" Restaurants cropping up. The subtext to this is fear of Middle Eastern culture.


Tue, Apr 12, 2011 : 12:20 a.m.

Are you serious?


Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 12:28 p.m.

More Middle-Eastern please! Though I'm waiting for a restaurant that serves top-quality lamb, and tabbouleh that isn't full of hard parsley stems *I know it's a pain to pick 'em out, but it's the right way!* and please, please somebody put chilled macerated fruit-n-cream on their dessert menu *swoon*


Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 5:24 a.m.

I feel there are too many sub shops... But then I heard that Jersey Mike's will be opening up in Ann Arbor this year so I am happy with one more sub shop. I do love middle eastern food...and as long as they have hummus as good as Palm Palace they will succeed!


Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 1:59 a.m.

I liked LaShish better than Palm Palace...I go to Canton to LaSharm for the best food. Palm Palace is skimpy on their portions in comparison and the prices are ridiculous. The environment of the restaurant is great but I feel like they allowed themselves to become somewhat "americanized" in comparison to the old owners. And yes I've heard the rumors of the former owners so nobody needs to even go there.


Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 1:58 a.m.

Is there too much office space? Are there too many gas stations? As David said the market will decide and weed out the ones that either cost too much or don't serve the best food. As long as someone is willing to invest who are we to say the can't or shouldn't? Although it seems there are plenty of examples of poor decisions when it come to new businesses.


Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 12:24 a.m.

Just a correction: Dearborn, or Metro Detroit, does not have the largest Middle Eastern population in the country. This is incorrect on a few counts. First, the largest Middle Eastern population is in Los Angeles, because of the Iranian population. Second, Dearborn is home to a large population of Arab Americans, not Middle Eastern Americans, as Iranians are not Arab. Finally, the population of Arabs in Dearborn, about 30,000, is not the largest total number in any city in the U.S.--it is the largest concentration of Arabs in any U.S. city.


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 11:44 p.m.

Personally, I love Middle Eastern cuisine. However, it seems there is a pizza place, and/or burger joint on every corner.


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 5:23 p.m.

Not all the local middle eastern restaurants are the same by any means: The best felafel comes from the unprepossessing HAIFA FELAFEL; Palm Palace...part of a chain...has nice dine-in ambience and good value/quantity for $$.; ayse's ( turkish) and the syrian bakery ...both in different plymouth road malls...have distinct other- than- lebanese cuisine although the atmosphere in both is sort of 'take-outy'. In the meantime we lost the 'red sea' ethiopian which for food ( although not atmosphere) was superior in variety and spicing subtleties to the iconic 'blue nile'... and again , afghan cuisine is a truly magnificent amalgam of south asian and middle eastern ingredients but duplicates neither...and i'd consider investing in one if it came to own and the owner wasn't a taliban front or connected with the corrupt karzai government ( as the best afghan restaurant chain in this i.e. owned by the karzai family).


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 4:25 p.m.

My absolute least favorite food , my answer is yes !

black canoe

Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 4:24 p.m.

I love the freshness of Middle Eastern food. While it may seem like a lot for A2, there are none where I live. I work in A2 so appreciate there's more than one so I can have ME food regardless on which side of town I happen to be when I am hungry. each restaurant is different. Are all Asian restaurants alike? Burger places? What a silly question.


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 3:59 p.m.

But you missed the best of all...Ali Babba. It may not look like much, but it tastes great!


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 2:26 p.m.

There are way too many McDonalds, Burger Kings, Fridays, etc....

Judy Freedman

Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 1:50 p.m.

We need a good Mexican restaurant!

David Briegel

Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 3:27 p.m.

I love Mexican Village down by the bridge. Easy to get there with good parking and I love the food. And the bakery for dessert!


Mon, Apr 11, 2011 : 10:18 a.m.

Try La Casita on Washtenaw on the east side of the same building that houses Hucklebee's party store. Owned by Mexicans. Same is true for La Fiesta on Cross St. in Ypsilanti.


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 1:49 p.m.

Pita Kabob at Williams & State is the best!

David Briegel

Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 1:49 p.m.

Are there too many Italian restautants? Burger joints? Asian? Mexican? The free market decides! Does anyone have to frequent any of the above?

Jimmy McNulty

Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 12:24 p.m.

Pita Pita on Washtenaw is a sure thing every time for good food.


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 10:39 a.m.

An afghan restaurant would be a welcome culinary addition.


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 10:25 a.m.

Just look at the number of Asian restaurants to the west and east of AA. There need to be more MiddleEastern places around.


Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 8:45 p.m.

People, people. Have tried almost all at one time or another. Palm is best locally but for the yummiest middle eastern food, drive a few miles to Dearborn and eat a Cedarlands. Reasonable, delicious. Diner type ambiance but not "stand in line/gobble at sticky table" atmosphere. While you are at it, make a visit to the Arab American Museum. It is a hidden gem destination.