'We saw it as our mission to try and lift the community with falafel during lockdown,' say owners of Temple Fortune hotspot

For the owners of falafel hot-spot Balady keeping the business open during lockdown gave their business - and the community - a big lift


The owner of one north west London’s most highly praised falafel bars has said he has resisted closing down the business during the coronavirus pandemic in the hope that his tasty chickpea snacks could lift the community in truly dire times.

Before the virus took hold in the UK, the falafel, shakshuka, sabich, hummus and salads of Temple Fortune eaterie Balady proved to be such a hit that the three brothers who own it took the plunge and opened a meat and fish restaurant named Alaesh only three doors away.

“We made what I now think was a smart decision not to worry about the finances and to stay open,’’ Oz Sabbo, the eldest of the three brothers behind Balady, told the JC this week.

“Coronavirus arrived just one month after we had opened our second restaurant, which we had invested £120,000 in, and we were really stressed, we didn’t know what to do.

“It was either close everything down and sit at home depressed and scared and working out how to get a government loan — or stay open and at least try to show the local neighbourhood that we were optimistic that our business had a future.

“We saw it as our mission to carry on and try and show we were there to provide the community with falafel.

But it took a phone call with Mr Sabbo’s father back in Israel to convince the three brothers they “needed to focus on the food and try to make people at least a bit more happy at a time when many were in a state of panic”.

Their father’s job as a private tour guide in Jerusalem had come to a crashing halt as a result of the lockdown in place there.

“I was explaining our situation to my father and he turned around and said, ‘At least you have a little bit of work — I have no tourists, nothing.’

“He said, ‘As long as you can work, work. Try to make people happy with your falafel.’’’

Mr Sabbo, who was born in Jerusalem to a family that had owned their own restaurant, admitted “things were very hard” during the early weeks of lockdown when customers where thin on the ground.

But as orders began to arrive, the trio hired a car for the business and began delivering food to customers themselves.

“We had lost about 80 per cent of our business but I just decided to block my brain from even thinking about the money,’’ he said.

“I remembered the words of my grandma in Israel who always said to be that work should never be something you did just for money.

“She said that you had choose to do something you wanted to go out to do every day, rather than something where it was just about making money.’’

As word got around that Balady, and the new restaurant Alaesh, were offering delivery service or pick-ups for the few customers who were willing to leave their homes, business began to improve.

The brothers then turned to delivery company Deliveroo to help deal with the growing number of orders.

“Slowly but surely customers started coming back and then we found we were getting new people who had not even heard of Balady before,” said Mr Sabbo.

“And in our local area, because we were open, the butchers opened and other businesses began to try to carry on. It had a positive effect all around.’’

Regular health and safety checks carried out throughout the Covid-19 pandemic were also a reassuring occurrence, said Mr Sabbo.

“We were strict about wearing masks and keep distances, but it was good to have the temperatures in the kitchen regularly checked.

“They were actually impressed that because we are Kosher we had a third person who was checking all our vegetables for cleanliness as well.’’

While business has not quite returned to where it was before, the three brothers are already planning for when customers can sit inside their restaurants again.

They are yet to learn how many customers will be able to sit inside their small eateries — but the boom in takeaway and delivery orders will provide a welcome boost.

Two years ago, Balady opened to rave reviews, with Giles Coren gushing about his visit to the eaterie in his column for The Times.

Customers were quickly streaming through the door and Balady’s falafel, salads and other dishes — all of which are parev — were being requested for barmitvahs, weddings and business conferences.

Mr Sabbo opened a pitta bar in Jerusalem in 2003, selling it a couple of years later after deciding he could use the money to move to London and open up a venture here.

After opening on the Finchley Road site initially with middle brother Leon, and more recently with further help from youngest sibling Sagive, they set about trying to offer Moroccan-inspired Israeli food to north west London.

“I saw that most of the Israeli restaurants in the UK where trying to adapt their food for English tastes,” said Mr Saboo.

“We import our chickpeas, we bring in our tahini from Lebanon and Moroccan spices from Israel. Our biggest goal is to try to make our food as close to the food as close as we can to the Holy Land — a Tel Aviv atmosphere in London.’’

Leon Sabbo says that he will always put “quality over quantity” when it comes to his falafel and hummus. He refuses to use preservatives and baking powder — and suggests one box of falafel in Balady would be turned into two in other eateries.

While Balady continues to remain vegan and vegetarian, Alaesh offers spice-infused lamb and Moroccan-style fish dishes alongside salads and burgers cooked on an open fire with bone marrow.

So convinced are the trio of more positive days once the lockdown is fully lifted that they are already working on some new additions to the menu.

“I’ll let you into a secret — we are going to be introducing these delicious baguettes that we are importing from Israel, which people can have instead of pitta bread,’’ said Mr Sabbo.

“We will carry on keeping our menus simple. All the influences will continue to be inspired by the food our grandma used to cook us.

“The things she used to cook us when we were young and that we still haven’t stopped loving.’’


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