As Ahmad Kiblawi welcomes a guest into his new establishment, Shawarmania, it’s immediately clear that he is warm and winsome, and genuinely glad for the visit.
How does it come to be that Kiblawi, with Palestinian roots and who has spent most of his life in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, has opened a restaurant in Mankato, Minnesota, USA?
“One day, I decided I was going to go to the US. The idea was to finish college. So, I moved here in 2006 to attend MSU,” he recalled.
He’s been here ever since and over time, many members of his family, all with their own unique stories, have moved to the Mankato Area as well.
Mankato is Home
“I love it here. For some reason I just feel like I belong here. I feel like this is my home,” Kiblawi said. “I know the area, I know the people and the people know me, I have a lot of friends, and I make friends. Mankato is not crowded. People are nice. When I go back home, I have fun, but I always want to come back to Mankato.”
When asked about the most important things, he offered, “I would say family. I want to spend time with them, even though it’s hard when you have your own business. But family comes first.” Kiblawi has a wife of just a few years and a daughter of seven months.
When I go back home, I have fun, but I always want to come back to Mankato
Kiblawi’s establishment, Shawarmania, on Bunting Lane just off of Monks Avenue, is both restaurant and grocery store. “Shawarmania is a Mediterranean Grill. I want people to know that we’re trying to serve the best shawarma that we possibly can.”
The grocery store, purchased in 2015, was the foundation for the restaurant, “We carry a mix of Middle Eastern products,” he said. “From dry products to desserts to snacks to spices to frozen items. We love to have people come in and ask about using our products and we say, ‘We’ll teach you!’”
From a Dream
How does one go from immigrant student to local business owner?
“I worked at Massads for 8 years. The Massads are great people,” Kiblawi said. “After a few years working there I decided, one day I wanted to have a restaurant in Mankato.”
“In 2015 we bought the grocery store,” he recalled. “It gave me a lot of experience even though it was a struggle. I believe that if you’re patient and learn you’ll get there somehow.” The grocery store was moved to its current location on Bunting Lane in July 2018.
“The past two years I started making a plan about the restaurant. I started working on the menu. I did a lot of study. I went to restaurants in Minneapolis, and restaurants in Chicago, and restaurants in Detroit that have similar cuisine to what I wanted to do. I tried their food and came up with ideas.”
“The restaurant opened on May 13th this year,” Kiblawi said. “We got really busy the first week, especially the first two days. It was Ramadan so a lot of people had been fasting. They came all at one time! It was a disaster to be honest with you. But we got it done. We got it under control.”
Kiblawi explained some of the dishes the restaurant offers. “Palestinians are famous for Shawarma, Falafel, Humus, salads, and desserts. We have a Palestinian dessert called Kunafa. It’s layers of cheese and dough with sugar syrup added and then baked. It’s pretty tasty and very sweet.”
“Our kabobs are Persian style,” he continued. “They’re a little different than Palestinian kabobs. I consider Persian kabobs the best. It’s the spices. We have beef kabobs, chicken kabobs and lamb. All of them marinated Persian style. Of course, we also offer Gyros.”
Kiblawi plans on offering many different dishes from different cultures.
“We have a Friday special called Biryani. It’s a south Asian dish that you often find in Indian restaurants. It takes a long time to make. The rice goes through two cookings. That’s why we offer it only once a week. We try to make it original. We try to make it perfect and tasty.”
I’m passionate about what I do. When people walk in here, I want to treat them the best that I can.
What is Halal?
There is a sign on Shawarmania’s door declaring the offerings inside, “Halal.” Kiblawi gets a lot of questions about what this means.
“The translation in English would best be, ‘Allowed to.’ Kosher is the same idea. You’re allowed to eat this, and you’re not allowed to eat that. Halal can be anything. It can be meats. It can be drinks. Anything that goes to your body,” he explained. “It’s not related to Sharia Law – people ask about that.” Among other things, he said, “It has to do with the way you actually process the meat or slaughter the animal.”
Although the restaurant has been open since May, Shawarmania’s Grand Opening is this Friday, June 28th from 4 -7 pm. “We’re going to be offering samples of some of the food we serve,” he said.
If you visit Friday, or any other day it will be worth the trip! Kiblawi promised to have specials during the Grand Opening that will be “worth coming out for.”
“I’m passionate about what I do,” he said. “I want to make sure people are happy. When people walk in here, I want to treat them the best that I can.”