There is a school of thought that claims that most major events in human history were accidents. The events did not happen by accident, but by chance or happy coincidence.
A lot of business stories are like that. Fifteen years ago, some snowboarders partnered up to sell snowboards online. They couldn’t find the right software program, had to design their own, and voila – Shopify.
Shopify always seemed like the best local example of a “history is an accident” business story. But maybe there is a better one. A story that answers a decades-old business question and also explains why Ottawa’s restaurant industry is unlike any other city in Canada.
It’s a shawarma story.
It would be hard to overestimate the popularity of the shawarma sandwich in Ottawa. For those who’ve never eaten one (hard to imagine), shawarma is a pita bread made with meat roasted on a vertical rotisserie (in Ottawa, the meat is normally beef or chicken), then topped with an embarrassing amount of pickles, onions, garlic sauce, hummus and pickled turnips.
The word is derived from the Turkish word cevirme, which means to turn (a reference to the rotisserie), and shawarmas are popular all over the Middle East. In Egypt and Lebanon, shawarmas are sold by numerous street vendors and are considered the most popular fast food in both countries.
It is also the most popular fast food in Ottawa.
While it’s hard to get definitive numbers on such things, there are 196 shawarma shops in Ottawa, according to the Yelp Yellow Pages. That equates to more shawarma shops than all the McDonalds, A&W, Burger King, Wendy’s and Harvey’s restaurants in the city.
More shawarma shops than fast food burger joints. Is there any other city in North America that can claim something like this?
Ottawa also has more shawarma stores than sub stores, and three times more shawarma than pho.
“It’s insane how popular shawarmas are in Ottawa,” said Sarah Chown, a spokesperson for the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association. “I’m not a fan myself, but everyone I know just loves them. They are all over Ottawa.”
So – how did that happen? What made shawarmas so popular in the country’s capital? En route magazine even went so far as to call them “Ottawa’s quintessential food?”
No beaver tails. Not poutine. The shawarma.
“Why are shawarmas so popular in Ottawa — geez, that’s an old question,” Chown says. “It’s debated, but how can you ever answer?”
I’m going to propose by finding Ground Zero. The first shawarma shop in Ottawa. Find out what happened next.
And we can. The first shawarma shop in Ottawa opened on Elgin Street, between Gladstone and Frank, in the spring of 1984. It was called Marroush and was co-founded by 24-year-old Moustafa al Hajjar, whose job before becoming a small business owner was a dishwasher.
News reports and documentaries have been made about Marroush, which closed its doors in 2012, but al Hajjar has rarely been interviewed. Many people think his name is Marroush.
‘That’s the name of a restaurant chain in Lebanon,’ he explains when I track him down. “I thought people from Lebanon would know the name and know what I was doing. Having the name Marroush was like having free advertising.”
However, no one outside the Lebanese community had heard the name or understood what he was doing.
“People would come in and ask for a burger and I said, ‘No, no, it’s shawarma,’ and then they said, ‘No burger? You’re a restaurant, aren’t you?’”
That took two years. Marroush was in trouble, the restaurant was likely only weeks away from closing its doors when al Hajjar decided to extend its opening hours to 3am every day.
Later that same week, the bar crowd discovered after-hours shawarma.
This is the place in the story where history-is-accident kicks into high gear, as everything that happens next came as a surprise to al Hajjar, and by extension, the city of Ottawa. No event was planned. No event was unimportant.
And so, just to be clear, the popularity of the shawarma sandwich in Ottawa has a lot to do with alcohol.
“The musicians playing in the local bands, the bartenders and the waiters from the downtown clubs, it was like discovering Marroush all on the same night,” Al Hajjar recalled. “Suddenly it’s 2 a.m. and we’re full. On Elgin Street, people were queuing to get in. It’s crazy.”
It was going to be crazy for the next 20 years. On Elgin Street, people are queuing up to enter the shawarma shop. People were given numbers while they waited. People selling their songs. People dance on tables when they entered the restaurant.
On weekend nights, the Ottawa Police Department routinely directed traffic on the corner of Elgin and Gladstone, just to accommodate Marroush’s overflow.
“The bar crowd saved us,” says al Hajjar. “The bars in downtown Ottawa, that’s where shawarma started.”
Al Hajjar is now 60, still in the shawarma game (he runs King Shawarma on Ogilvie Road), and he uses the word shawarma as if it were a proper name, as if it were a word to be capitalized forever. “Shawarma is something special,” he says several times during the interview, without a hint of youthful, play-along irony.
He even seems to get melancholy when I tell him about En route magazine, and that there are nearly 200 shawarma shops in Ottawa. “Two hundred,” he repeats a few times. “Man, I remember we didn’t have two customers.”
So – a question for the man who started it all – why are shawarmas so popular in Ottawa?
“A lot of reasons,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone who’s ever worked in a shawarma shop wanted to open one, act like bassists, there’s a reason.”
“You act like bass players?”
‘Yeah, haven’t you heard that joke? It’s like Shawarma.”
For the record, here are the other reasons Al Hajjar has for the popularity of the shawarma sandwich in Ottawa:
The city has a large Lebanese community. The shawarma is value for money – “Which do you prefer, a spring roll or a shawarma? Come on.” It costs very little to open a shawarma shop.
Opening a shawarma shop is also the rare opportunity to become royalty. “It’s always Shawarma King, Shawarma Prince, Shawarma Princess, Shawarma Palace. Did you notice that?” he says.
Yes, we noticed that.
And then there’s the bassist’s reason, the reason that Al Hajjar says is the most important.
“You work in a shawarma shop, you cut the meat and soon you think ‘I can do this.’ You leave and start your own shop. You can’t leave McDonald’s and start a McDonald’s, right?”
Never thought about it. Where does the bass player fit in?
“Shawarma is like that joke about learning to play bass.”
If you’ve never heard it, here’s the joke: Student starts taking electric bass lessons. The first lesson teaches the student some notes. Second lesson the student learns some scales.
Student does not show up for the third lesson. Didn’t show up for the fourth lesson. Music teacher one day meets the student in the street and asks what happened. Student answers:
“Sorry, I wanted to send you a note. I joined a band.”
Same story. But in Ottawa, everyone bought turnips and opened a shawarma shop.
This article originally appeared in OBJ’s winter news magazine: