COVID Creativity - Zem Zem
Business: Zem Zem Mediterranean Restaurant
Owner: Ali Shukur
SBDC Advisor: Andrea O'Brien
If the pandemic got controlled, and enough new employees could be hired, Ali Shukur and his family would consider expanding beyond Zem Zem, their Middle Eastern restaurant on Manchester’s Willow Street, which opened in 2019.
With 15-year-old daughter Rema translating, we learn what brought Ali and his family to Manchester from Iraq in 2009. “Obviously our home country wasn’t very safe. We had a war and my dad lost his brother. We were in danger, and here there were more opportunities.”
With a family member already residing in Manchester, it became the obvious choice for their new home in 2009, settling here with young daughters Rema and Teba, now teenagers.
Once here, Ali and his wife, Huda, cooked for other businesses, including the Spice Center, a specialty grocery and cafe in Manchester, now closed. In Iraq, Ali had been in business, and Huda was a school teacher. Their cooking in Manchester got rave reviews and they dreamed of opening their own restaurant. In 2018, they set that dream in motion when they contacted the NH SBDC and got connected with business advisor Andrea O’Brien.
Andrea says Ali and Huda did so much of the start-up work themselves. “We try to empower people to do as much as they can while being there when they need us.”
A family friend had referred the Shukur family to the NH SBDC when they began to get serious about starting their own restaurant.
“She was so helpful. She helped with everything. Everything,” Ali said. “Anything we needed, we called her, and she would call us to check on us.”
O’Brien first helped them to write a business plan, and ultimately got them connected to Chris Duffy, a business advisor at the Regional Economic Development Center (REDC). After their first meeting--and tasting Ali and Huda’s food--Duffy suggested that they apply for a loan from REDC's New Americans Loan Fund, which helps first-generation immigrants to New Hampshire develop businesses and create jobs.
With that loan, 2019 became the start-up year for Zem Zem, and it was not without its usual challenges. But, Rema explains, they were doing well, getting discovered in their location very near the Mall of New Hampshire and at the intersection of several busy corridors. They were garnering a loyal following and attracting newcomers.
And then 2020 arrived, and 2020 was not a friend to restaurants.
“It was quite a shock in the beginning,” Rema says. “But everyone struggled.”
Andrea helped them apply for the various pandemic relief programs, and they got some help from the PPP and EIDL programs. They hope to access the new round of PPP, with Andrea’s help.
“Since Day 1 she’s been with us. We call her for her recommendations, and she’s providing us resources even before we ask for them,” Ali said.
So far Zem Zem has stayed above water through last year’s closures and this year’s continued restrictions. Dining is completely take-out, though they did manage some outdoor dining on the sidewalk outside their storefront in the warmer months. Supplies being what they were, they had to raise their prices a bit. In addition to take-out entrees of dishes like kabobs, falafel, and hummus, ZemZem offers catering services, and cakes made by Huda. (O’Brien advises one to try the pistachio version.)
Rema is managing the restaurant’s Facebook page and will be posting to Instagram and TikTok soon. The family is optimistic about the new year.
“The challenge now is a lot of people are scared of COVID,” Rema said. “With masks and social distancing, we have more faith for this year, and customers are comfortable with how we’re handling COVID, with all the safety measures in place.”
This client story is part of NH SBDC's ongoing collection of COVID Creativity stories about businesses surviving and thriving during COVID-19.