Since 1984, the Massad family has been a staple of Mankato dining.

First came Meray’s, a sit-down restaurant that introduced meat-and-potatoes Minnesotans to the shawarma in all its garlicky glory. Then Najwa’s Catering began in 1995 to offer the shawarma and other Mediterranean favorites. That same year, Massad’s opened at the River Hills Mall, offering a fast-food version of the family’s famous food. Finally, in 2007, the Massads opened Olives, an upscale fine dining experience and one of only two independent restaurants featured in the Hilton Garden Inn.

While each eatery is run by a different member of the family, overseeing the entire food empire is Najwa Massad, the family matriarch. Najwa is both a brilliant businesswoman and a wonderfully welcoming hostess, both practical and personal, possessing both a sharp mind and a soft heart. It is this juxtaposition of values that brings her such success, for she knows that creating a warm environment is just as important as creating a delicious meal.

“When you come into [our restaurants], it’s like you’re coming into our house,” she said. “You need that connection with people, that kindness. Some of my best friends were my customers to begin with, and now they’re considered part of our family. That’s the Massad trait—that welcoming. That’s who we are.”

Submitted Photo - Najwa Massad, business owner, and current mayor of Mankato, MN
Submitted Photo – Najwa Massad, business owner, and current mayor of Mankato, MN

A long journey

Najwa was born in Lebanon in 1955. In 1960, her family moved to Mankato to be nearer her grandmother, who had immigrated several years earlier. She quickly came to view Mankato as her home, attending school at St. John’s Catholic School and then Good Counsel Academy. However, in 1971, her family returned to Lebanon to visit relatives, and Najwa made a decision that would change her life forever.

“I fell in love with [the country],” she explained. “I thought it was absolutely beautiful.”

She didn’t just fall in love with the country, though—she also fell in love with a local named John Massad. Even though she was only 16, she eloped with him and stayed in Lebanon when her family returned to the U.S. three months later.

During the war, with the bombs and everything going down, yes, we were scared…. we’d all huddle together, but we’d laugh. We were scared, but, when you think about it now, we really had some good times, sitting there, without electricity, laughing and talking.

“The [culture shock] was huge,” she recalled. “I always tell the younger generation, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are to live in this country. You have no clue, not one iota, of how pampered and fortunate you are.’”

Some of the adjustments were inconvenient but not impossible, such as learning to live without hot water and boiling light-colored clothes instead of using a washing machine. Other things were harder to bear, especially when Lebanon was plunged into a civil war. Suddenly, the family had to learn how to survive days without electricity or running water, all the while weathering bombings and sniper fire outside their front door. Because the Massads lived on the bottom of their apartment building, their neighbors would often take refuge at their place since it was the safest. Sometimes, a dozen people would hide in the bathroom, considered the safest room, together.

Yet, according to Najwa, some wonderful things came out of such bleak times.

Submitted Photo - Najwa, John, Karla, and Meray Massad
Submitted Photo – Najwa, John, Karla, and Meray Massad

“During the war, with the bombs and everything going down, yes, we were scared thoughtless,” she said. “In the evenings, we’d all huddle together, but we’d laugh. We were scared, but, when you think about it now, we really had some good times, sitting there, without electricity, laughing and talking. I think we need more of that.”

In 1975, the Massads, now including daughter Meray, visited Mankato for Najwa’s little brother’s high school graduation. However, since the war was escalating even further in their home country, they were stranded in the U.S. The next three years were a struggle, especially since no one would hire John because he didn’t speak English. Eventually, he found a job at Good Counsel Academy, working in the kitchen. He so impressed the nuns with his cooking skills that he eventually became head of the academy’s kitchen, feeding about 400 boarding students and nuns.

If you say Massad’s in Lebanon, it’s automatically restaurants—John’s family is generations of restaurants. So, it’s second nature to him.

The family, which now included Meray’s little sister, Karla, was finally able to return to their home in Lebanon in 1978. John helped manage his family’s three restaurants while Najwa stayed home with the children. While they tried to regain a sense of normalcy, the war continued, with four months of bombing. John had to dodge sniper fire to get to work some mornings. Najwa finally called the U.S. Embassy for help in returning to Mankato but was told there was nothing that could be done.

Finally, in 1982, the fighting eased up enough that the family was able to find help at the American embassy in Beirut, which put them on a ship heading for Cyprus. From there, they flew to London, then Chicago, then Mankato. As soon as they settled in, finding their first home in an apartment above the Wagon Wheel, they immediately began planning how to open their own restaurant.

“We had restaurants in Lebanon,” Najwa explained. “We have a very good name over there. If you say Massad’s in Lebanon, it’s automatically restaurants—John’s family is generations of restaurants. So, it’s second nature to him.”

Still, not everyone was supportive of their plans.

“I remember one guy coming to me and saying, ‘You won’t last six months,’” Najwa recalled. “Oh, my. When you tell a Lebanese woman that they’re not going to make it, it’s like, ‘Okay, buddy, watch us.’”

Starting something new

Najwa and her husband purchased a small piece of land in downtown Mankato, utilizing all of the tight space by designing a two-story building. In 1984, they opened Meray’s (named after their daughter), serving Americanized versions of traditional Lebanese foods. The chicken shawarma, instead of traditional lamb shawarma, was by far their most popular item.

“Our motto is: American fast, Mediterranean healthy,” Najwa said. “We don’t fry things; all we fry is the French fries. We don’t want to skip on the quality.”

Meray’s became so popular with customers that, when the Verizon Wireless Center (now renamed the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center) opened in 1995, the Massads were asked to become its official caterers—and that’s how Najwa’s Catering began. About the same time, John opened Massad’s at the mall, hoping to eventually build a franchise around his new fast-food eatery. For two years, the Massad family ran all three eateries, but eventually they couldn’t keep up with the high demand by their loyal customers. So, they decided to close Meray’s and focus on the other two.

“It was just too much for us,” Najwa said. “We knew we wanted to concentrate on Massad’s and franchising that, since that was the future.”

That plan worked for several years. John and Najwa focused on the restaurant business while their daughters pursued other interests—which was fine with Najwa.

“I had tried to do a blood transfusion to suck the restaurant blood out of my kids and put in new blood, so they wouldn’t go into the restaurant business,” she said. “It’s 24/7, especially if you own your own business. If there’s water coming out of the pipe, you’re the one who’s called at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Submitted Photo - Najwa Massad addressing the team at her catering business.
Submitted Photo – Najwa Massad addressing the team at her catering business.

But things changed once again when the Massads were approached by the Hilton Garden Inn about opening a restaurant at their new site in Mankato.

“My first words were, ‘Absolutely not,’” Najwa said. “But Karla said, ‘Hmm, that would be fun.’ And she and her dad started talking. Now, we’re running Olives. No one listened to me.”

Olives opened in 2007, serving higher-end Mediterranean dishes. A unique feature at this restaurant is the open kitchen, so guests can watch their food be prepared and see how much care goes into it. Karla is the general manager, while John oversees everything in the kitchen.

“Anything that is made in Olives is touched by John,” Najwa said.

Among the three restaurants, the Massad family is also assisted by several employees, many of whom are high school students. According to Najwa, many begin working at one of the eateries at the young age of 14, and most stay until graduation.

“People ask me, ‘What’s your biggest accomplishment?’ The answer is my kids,” she said. “These kids, it’s my mission to teach them what the outside world is like. Always, family is No. 1, school is No. 2 and work is No. 3. I have total respect for them, and I think they have total respect for me. They know that we’re all on the same level. I always tell them, ‘The name on the door, that’s only ink.’ Without each other, we could not accomplish Najwa’s Catering.”

A new era

Najwa made local history in November 2018 when she was elected as Mankato’s first female mayor. She won with just under 57 percent of the vote, a solid victory that was the result of months of hard work and connecting with the Mankato community. Her platform revolved around finding ways to encourage young people to stay in Mankato after graduating from high school and college—a solid goal that she realized is made up of many factors, such as better access to affordable housing and more daycare options.

In the last year and a half, Najwa has continued to work towards these dreams, along with continuing to run her catering business and restaurants. While it can sometimes be difficult to juggle both priorities, Najwa said she is “very, very blessed” to have a reliable staff who helps her take care of business when she’s working on city affairs.

“I’ve got a wonderful staff, and I’ve got a wonderful daughter, Karla, who is my rock,” she said. “So, if I have something that I have to do, I do it. I made a commitment to the community, to the people here, that I would do it to the best of my ability. Right across the street [from the Civic Center] is the Intergovernmental Center, so when the soup is on, I run over and do what I have to do, and then I come back. That’s how I balance, just like we all balance 100 different things. You prioritize. My business is my No. 1 priority. That is my life.”

Of course, the biggest priority as Najwa runs her business is to continue offering quality food and a welcoming atmosphere.

“We get so many good comments from customers,” she said. “When we’re sitting at the dinner table and people come up to us to say how excellent our food is, that makes us proud. And it’s not just the food but the whole experience.”

What to order

While you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, Najwa has a few suggestions about what to order at each of the restaurants.

At Massad’s: either the trademark Shawarma or Massad’s salad

At Najwa’s Catering: the Chicken Tawook

At Olives: a shawarma pizza

Fun fact: Not only did the Massads introduce the first shawarmas to Mankato, they were also the ones to first serve sushi in their restaurant.

A national audience

In 2013, the Massads opened a second location for Massad’s Mediterranean Grill on Monks Avenue, and the restaurant did very well for the next few years. However, the family decided to close it in 2019 after securing a partnership with Scheels to sell shawarmas and sauce at some of the sports store’s many locations, including Colorado, the Dakotas and Nebraska. They explained that the decision stemmed from their desire not to stretch themselves too thin.

Grace Brandt
is a wandering reporter whose home base is in Mankato. Throughout her career, she has written for more than two dozen publications.