TRAVERSE CITY — Nabiel Musleh’s master’s degree in international relations seems fitting, given his unofficial role as northern Michigan’s ambassador to the Middle East.
Musleh owns Zakey Middle Eastern Cuisine, 149 E. Front St., and is revamping his menu and remodeling the dining area to celebrate Zakey’s six-year anniversary in August.
There have been plenty of ups and downs along the way, and Musleh said he’s thankful for the opportunity to serve unique food and a healthy dish of diversity to the Grand Traverse region.
“You are a guest in my house if you come in here,” Musleh said. “I love politics, I like history and I like people to understand that the Middle Eastern culture is great people. They are kind and they share.”
It was a long road to get Zakey up and running. Musleh came to the United States from Jordan in 1977 to get an education in the Flint area.
He dreamed of working for the United States government, but President Ronald Reagan put a freeze on hiring for foreign service, and Musleh instead veered into the restaurant business.
He plodded through food industry jobs for nearly 30 years, and worked in fast food shops, franchises and full-service restaurants. He came to Traverse City in 2004 to be closer to his son, Adam.
It was Adam who sparked Musleh’s fire to create Zakey. The father and son were enjoying a Middle Eastern dish of falafel pitas when his son asked for the Arabic word for delicious.
“I said, ‘Zakey’ and he said, ‘That’s it!’” Musleh said. “I said, ‘It’s got a ring to it.’ It’s more Americanized and you can remember it. It’s better than Adam and Nabiel Cuisine or the Falafel Shack. He was my major force.”
Musleh first opened Zakey in a tiny building “with three or four tables” at Three Mile and Hammond roads. He labored there for nearly three years before heading downtown. It was difficult at first to lay the groundwork for Middle Eastern cuisine here, he said. Many diners wanted to compare his dishes to Middle Eastern fare they’ve enjoyed downstate.