How Mardini’s Became a Mediterranean Neighborhood Staple

3 mins read

Mardini’s Deli Cafe, a family-run fixture of the Willows neighborhood, has offered authentic Mediterranean food for more than a decade. Chef Laith Shaheen has spent his career in pursuit of a better life for his family.

Shaheen grew up in a village in Palestine before moving to the Bay Area. He said, “I worked in construction. In my village, everybody knew each other. One of my family friends was a chef for a university, and he told me I should learn to cook because the work was better. I started working for him and he taught me to cook, how to cut vegetables, and more.” Shaheen met his wife, Mary, in 1990 and they had two sons, Alfred and Mike. 

Shaheen moved to the Bay Area in August of 2004 in order to be closer to his wife’s family. Two days after he arrived in the United States, he began working at a restaurant called Taboun in San Francisco, making $9 per hour in addition to driving his children to school every morning before work. He said, “I had to work for three weeks just to go out one night to take my family to eat. I sat down with the boss in my restaurant and I asked him, ‘How are people making money here? How are they paying rent?’ Everything is expensive!” 

Shaheen had a distinct ambition of owning a house, saying, “When you own a home, your life becomes better because you don’t have to pay rent. No matter what happens, everything is easier.” Although he had years of restaurant experience in Palestine, coming to the United States and not speaking English made it challenging to navigate the restaurant industry. He recalled, “They used to tell me, ‘You are good but because of your accent, it’s hard to give you [higher level] work.’”

So, he took on more hours, working 18-hour days while also cleaning the bathrooms and floors of the restaurant in order to earn more money. His wife began to run a daycare out of their house, which she does to this day.

As he gained a greater understanding of the restaurant industry in America, Shaheen eventually decided that he wanted to own his own restaurant. He said, “After three years of saving, I decided that if I can’t do every job in this restaurant, how could I have my own restaurant? I worked very, very hard to learn.” 

Once he and his wife had saved up enough money, they began asking around to find a restaurant to purchase in San Mateo County. “I decided to have a Mediterranean restaurant because that was my work back home. I started asking around, and I heard about Mardini’s,” he explained. Mardini’s gained its name from the previous owner, and Shaheen decided to keep the title, explaining, “In the beginning, I didn’t care too much about the name. I just wanted to work very hard to start making income for the restaurant. Sometimes people call here for Italian food since Mardini’s is an Italian name, but this is a Mediterranean restaurant. So, maybe we should change the name to something Mediterranean.”

Mardini's Deli Cafe
Mardini’s Deli Cafe

Decades of work in food retail have proven exhausting. Shaheen shared, “I don’t like to work. I’d like to be able to sit around the house, and only work some days. But, I have to spend a lot of money on gas, electricity, everything for the restaurant, and rent and bills for my house. So, I work 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.”

After many years of long workdays and painstaking remodeling, Shaheen created the restaurant that can be found on Willow Road today. “Before, the drink cases were all along the back wall—it looked like 7/11,” he said. “I wanted to add booths and more tables so we could serve more customers.”

The restaurant is now complete with shelves of baklava, enticing rotating racks of gyro meat, and an extensive menu displayed on large screens behind the counter. However, Shaheen remains nostalgic for Palestine. He reminisced, “Palestine is more beautiful and much more relaxed. Here, I work-work-work because it is so expensive. But my wife wanted to be here and all of her family is here.”

Inside Mardini's Deli Cafe
Inside Mardini’s Deli Cafe

The pandemic also brought its own difficulties, and business continues to fluctuate. Shaheen said, “Sometimes work is very good, sometimes it’s empty. Sometimes I’m lucky, sometimes I’m not.”

Shaheen and his wife now own a home in Foster City, and continue to work long hours to serve the community good food and support their family. Shaheen’s favorite dish at Mardini’s is the falafel, and he has a penchant for remembering his regular customers, from families who live near the restaurant to the firefighters from the station on Middlefield Road. He can always be found behind the counter with a smile and an enthusiastic, “Hello!”

Amala is a senior at M-A, and this is her second year in journalism. She enjoys using journalism to explore education policy and highlight extraordinary individuals in the community. She is also a part of M-A’s Leadership-ASB, and spends her free time at the beach.

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