Thinking back to a childhood spent working at his father’s restaurant in Iraq, Qutaiba Hassoon said he never could have imagined owning his own business in the United States.
Yet here he is in Portland, owner of the new Falafel Time restaurant in the former Papa John’s space at 1053 Forest Ave.
“I never thought about managing a business even five months ago,” the 25-year-old Hassoon, a Deering High School and University of Southern Maine graduate, said. “I wanted to move back here and my dad gave me the idea.”
It should come as no shock that Saeed Saeed implored his son to open a restaurant since Saeed operated Mais Alreem in Iraq’s Diyal province before immigrating to America with his family in 2008.
After coming to Maine, the family briefly owned Haggarty’s, which served Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine, from 2012-2014. Saeed closed the restaurant due to health issues, but always wanted to get back into business.
Enter Hassoon – known by many as “Q” – who was looking for a new adventure and desired to move back home. A few months later, he opened Falafel Time.
“Simple, huh?” Hassoon said with a laugh. “I applied for other jobs but didn’t like the offers and wanted to do this.”
To observe the operations at Falafel Time feels like a trip into their family’s kitchen. Hassoon’s mother, Anaam Jabbir, helps run the operation with Hassoon and Saeed. Other family members are among the employees, and they speak mainly in Arabic, working quickly to fill orders.
“I’m proud of him,” Saeed said of his son moments after tossing a pizza in the oven. “He’s always worked under someone and now he’s in charge. Owning a restaurant is hard work, but he’s good at customer service and wants to take care of the customers.”
Forest Avenue a ‘melting pot’
Falafel Time is the latest example of the growth – and continued diversification – of the outer Forest Avenue restaurant scene.
Pizzaiolo opened its second, larger location over the summer in the former Casa Fiesta space. Binga’s Stadium is slated to move to the former Maelily and Ryleigh’s diner building. Neighborhood staples Mekhong Asian Bistro, Saigon, Thanh Thanh 2 (and yes, Dominos) are now flanked by more than a dozen other eating establishments along a 1.2-mile stretch of Forest Avenue between Woodfords Corner and Morrills Corner.
City Councilor Andrew Zarro, whose District 4 includes outer Forest Avenue, said in an email that the city’s overall expansion includes major growth off the peninsula. Restaurants like Falafel Time are what Zarro described as a “revitalization effort” led by community groups like Friends of Woodfords Corner, Friends of Morrills Corner, and Portland Buy Local.
“A part of what makes Forest Avenue businesses so wonderful is the diversity they bring to our community,” Zarro said. “We have multigenerational businesses, restaurants, and markets representing dozens of cuisines and cultures, new startups, and also shops that have been in operation for decades.
“Forest Ave is becoming a melting pot of what makes Portland special: the intersection of community, economy, and environment.”
‘It’s about having more options’
Falafel Time has only been open since Oct. 18, but it already has a few regular customers.
Alex Mathieu, a University of Southern Maine student, said he stumbled upon the restaurant while picking up a 2DineIn delivery order from neighboring Ginza Town. Mathieu, a native of Armenia, quickly felt welcomed.
“It’s not the same exact food, but it’s the same kind of food (as Armenia),” he said. “I met Q and he was so friendly and hospitable. I ordered food that night and it was the best Middle Eastern food I’ve had.”
Falafel Time’s menu is designed to meet various dietary needs and preferences. The falafel is gluten-free, most meat dishes are halal, and there are vegetarian options.
The inherent challenge of navigating the crowded Portland restaurant scene is not lost on Hassoon, but he believes Falafel Time will carve out its own niche.
“I don’t see myself as a competitor,” he said. “It’s about having more options. I’m a big believer that people like to try different foods, and even if it’s something similar, there are so many different flavors.”