DarSalam owner Ghaith Sahib lived through a war to get where he is now.
The chef and business owner grew up in Baghdad, living through wartime until he narrowly survived a car-bombing as a sophomore in college. He and his family members lived as refugees in countries throughout Europe, eventually landing in Portland in 2010. Sahib went on to open one of Alberta Street’s most beloved spots, a colorful Iraqi restaurant often filled with devotees and his own family members; in 2015, he opened a second location, a DarSalam lunch buffet popular with downtown workers.
Still, it wasn’t exactly easy once he got here: In 2017, a man walked into his Iraqi restaurant and threw a chair at one of his employees; that man was later charged with a hate crime. And then, in March, he had to close his two restaurants and lay off several of his employees — including his own family members. “When COVID-19 hit, it was hard on my entire family,” he says. “My father said, ‘Ghaith, you are the big brother here; it’s your job to support the family.’ It was a lot of pressure.”
So after losing around $40,000 in a matter of weeks and paying his expenses with credit cards, Sahib reopened his original Alberta Street restaurant in April for takeout orders. He didn’t stop there. During one of the most difficult years for business owners, Sahib went on to open two more restaurants in six months, in his words, “to save the family.”
March 16, the day Gov. Kate Brown announced that dining rooms would close to address the climbing coronavirus cases across the state, was an emotional day for the Sahib family. Many of Ghaith’s family members — his mother, sister, brother, brother-in law, even his 82-year-old father — are employees of DarSalam. In a moment, the entire family’s workplace disappeared. “All my family, big family, we get our income from the restaurant,” he says. “Not to mention my staff family — we have a couple of employees who have been working with us for years.”
Sahib decided to close down the downtown restaurant first, initially keeping the Alberta location open for takeout and delivery. Within a few days, however, he closed that restaurant down as well, worried about the health of his workers and family. He didn’t like the idea of getting into more debt by applying for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and he wasn’t finding any success applying for grants — unemployment payments alone were a challenge. Finally, he was approved for a $10,000 grant, enough to start climbing out of the debt he had accumulated since the pandemic began.
But it wasn’t enough to just get out of debt: Sahib still felt responsible for keeping his family afloat. “I’m kind of person that can’t give up,” he says. So he started thinking through what would make the most sense for a reopening. A buffet in downtown Portland — the same neighborhood where protests against police brutality and systemic racism continued, where police regularly sprayed tear gas — wasn’t it. “I used to have this big lunch buffet, beautiful sales, events, plus the catering… But [since COVID hit] downtown was really suffering,” he says. “We are with Black Lives Matter 100 percent, but my business has been broken into four times. At night, I couldn’t sleep.”
Instead of reopening downtown, he decided to look into small restaurant spaces in quadrants without DarSalam locations, where he could offer grab-and-go sort of dishes. He nabbed a tiny curio cabinet of a space in the Pearl District, right on Fields Park. There, he and his family served takeout packages of pickled mango salad flecked with parsley, little doughnut-shaped falafel tucked into flatbread, and saucy braised lamb shanks over rice and eggplant stew. “It’s a very small, tiny place, so we went, ‘We can do this,’” he says. “We had so much success, that I said, ‘Well, let’s do more.’”
Months after opening the Pearl District location, he found another spot, this one tucked between Por Que No and Baka Umai on Hawthorne. Sahib flipped the space in three weeks, and the family opened another DarSalam there, again focused on takeout. They were floored by the wave of business, thanks to the restaurant’s new neighbors and longtime customers. “People are saying ‘We’re so glad you’re in Southeast, we’re so glad you opened a business during this time,’” he says. “Small business owners, we bring life to this city. Bars, restaurants, coffee shops, theater. Without them, no life.”
Now, with three businesses open, Sahib has been able to bring his family back into the fold. He has siblings stationed at each location across the city, helping keep those businesses — new and old — standing. “I feel so lucky for my family... Without them, I don’t know if I can do it,” he says. Soon, he wants to focus on bringing back his “staff family,” rehiring the 30-odd employees he had working at the businesses pre-pandemic. However, the Sahib family is still bracing for the months ahead as business owners.
Still, the Sahib family has grit. And surviving so much has made them feel more confused about how glib people can be about the virus — choosing to prolong the pandemic and make survival so much harder. “Growing up in Baghdad, we have so much drama, war drama. We lost friends and family, I was subject to a car bomb in 2005 and almost lost my life. We dealt with so much, as a family,” Sahib says. “This life experience, we didn’t ask for it… Stay six feet apart, put on your mask.”
One day, Sahib wants to reopen his colorful restaurants for dine-in, with their live music and events and bowls of aromatic braises and share plates of baba ganoush. “Hopefully we’re almost there, a vaccine is coming soon — hopefully,” he says. “I don’t know, but we have to have faith. It’s not about religion, but we have to have faith.”