In the typical professional journey, it is not uncommon for a career change to occur along the way. Few professionals, though, have experienced the level of career reinvention of Mahmoud Karanouh, who traded in an engineering position with Sikorsky Aircraft for the chance to operate his own Fairfield eatery featuring the Mediterranean cuisine of his youth.
“I’ve had this concept since I was 15,” said the 26-year-old Karanouh. “The original menu was a 10-page menu.”
Zazi Mediterranean Grill owner Mahmoud Karanouh (center) prepares eggplant slicing with employees Christophe Weir (left) and Celine Lebron (right). Photo by Phil Hall
Karanouh was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, until his family immigrated to the U.S. He received a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, with a focus on aerospace, and was recruited by Sikorsky in 2011 while still in school.
“I pretty much had a secure job,” he said. “I was on the Black Hawk (helicopter) program for them and I spent the last year and half for them back in Dubai.”
While his occupational focus was on aircraft engineering, his imagination kept returning to Mediterranean recipes. Karanouh saw that the hospitality world was shifting away from old-school fast food service to a new dining experience with more adventurous and healthier choices.
“I saw the concept with Chipotle and Moe’s that casual restaurants are coming along, and this is going to be the next big thing,” he said.
Working with his wife Zahra — whose nickname inspired the new restaurant’s name — Karanouh self-financed the launch of Zazi Mediterranean Grill. To his good fortune, the eatery’s location at 2075 Black Rock Turnpike was nearly ready for him to move in.
“This used to be the Muscle Maker Grill, so I lucked out in that it was already built out to be a restaurant,” he said. “I never had to put money to the capital costs that would go into a restaurant, like a walk-in freezer. I was given the keys.”
“From the day I signed the lease, it took about a month and a half to develop, design and build this from the ground up. The money spent here was a little over $100,000 and it was spent on décor and technology and some equipment in the background. But for a typical restaurant that you would have to build from the ground up, you would be looking at $250,000 to $300,000.”
While Mediterranean cuisine is not unknown on this side of the Atlantic, Karanouh exercised caution in putting together his menu by emphasizing the familiar rather than the exotically obscure.
“It is easier to focus on things that everybody knows,” he said. “Everyone knows what a falafel is, but not everyone knows what moussaka is or the specialized Mediterranean cuisine that we grew up on. This way, I would not have to put a lot of energy into teaching people about the food.”
“However, I put a spin on what you would usually see. So for a basic tabouli, you would make with bulgur, but I make it with quinoa because it is a little healthier. That gives it a modern touch.”
Karanouh’s customers have offered ideas for a menu expansion.
“A lot of Israelis have asked for shakshuka, which is a Mediterranean breakfast with an eggs-and-tomato sauce concept,” he said. “A lot of people asked for lamb and we ended up making a switch to our menu to add lamb. And we are now working on some fish recipes. We are open to our customers, and if we see a trend and we will make a change so we can make our customers happy.” We also have a breakfast concept — build your own parfait and egg and cheese in pita — but we may do that down the line.”
Karanouh has relied heavily on social media and word-of-mouth to market Zazi Mediterranean Grill and he is partnering with nearby Sacred Heart University as a sponsor of its athletic department to bring more awareness.
But too much attention nearly sank his endeavor when he first premiered the eatery’s offerings.
“We had a soft opening for family and friends on September 20, but everybody thought we were open and we got swamped, so we had to shut down for two days because we ran out of food,” he recalled with a laugh.
Karanouh said he is exploring adding Spanish and North African offerings to his menu. And he is focused on presenting ingredients that are fully organic and free of genetically modified organisms.
He plans to add delivery service to his business. And he would like to open more Zazi locations in Fairfield County and beyond, he said.
The novice restaurateur is not nostalgic for the career he left behind.
“Nothing prepares you for being an entrepreneur,” Karanouh said. “I was working for a billion-dollar program at Sikorsky with important clientele in the military — it had its form of pressure. But being here, having to deal with cash flow being tight and dealing with customers, inventory and suppliers, there are days I wake up ask, what did I do to myself. But then I realized I wasn’t meant to be an engineer — this is what I was meant to be.”