- From left: Ray Khattar and Mary Mohammed. photo Scott Munn
Best Falafel: Ray's Falafel
Today—July 26th—should be one of the proudest days of Raymond Khattar's career.
But stepping into work at 7am, the first thing Ray sees is his son. For almost five years, the framed photograph of the handsome young man with the wide smile and coyly cocked chin has greeted Ray in the morning.
Maybe Ray looks at the photo a bit longer today. Because when he puts on his signature green apron, like he's done more than 9,000 times before, he does so not only as Halifax's uncontestable falafel king but as a father mourning the fifth anniversary of his son's death.
And the day goes on, just as it has for more than two decades.
If you haven't met Ray in the 25 years he's been at Scotia Square, look for the vendor with the longest line.
"I don't need to say I'm the best," says Ray. "Other people say it for me."
Four women help Ray prepare today's food. They chop and bustle about making chicken, side dishes and falafel.
But before his son, before the women, before the chicken and side dishes, there was just Ray and his falafel.
Ray's Falafel opened August 14, 1981. The shop was much smaller then. A 22-year-old Ray stood fresh-faced behind the counter awaiting his first customer. This isn't what he imagined he'd be doing in Canada.
Before immigrating Ray studied civil engineering in Lebanon. He came to Canada in 1980 with his wife, Hannie, to live with her brother. Ray needed three more months in school to earn his degree, but never finished. He was educated in French and the metric system. Canada was still using imperial measurements and only St. Francis Xavier University had French programs.
Ray got a job helping build Purdy's Wharf Tower One. He was laid off when the job was finished. Facing unemployment, Ray did the only other thing he did well—falafel.
The secret to Ray's falafel is the special blend of spices. The right amount of the right spices brings out the flavours evenly. The recipe has never changed and relies on authenticity. Ray's never westernized his falafel and won't stock any ingredients but the basics.
"Whatever I eat at home or in Lebanon I do it here," he says. "Some people like to add ham, cheese or mustard to modernize it, but to me you gotta make it the right way."
Ray's falafel instantly won people over, but in 1981 the average Haligonian's appetite didn't include falafel. So, Ray worked as a street vendor on the side—giving free samples hoping people would come back. They did.
When Ray serves the lineup at lunch today he talks as though his lips are trying to keep pace with his quick hands. He jokes and talks casually. He calls everyone "friend." You can tell he means it.
"Whatever I say comes from right here," he says, pointing to his heart. "To me, it's not work. It's something I enjoy. It's like being at a club."
When things started to take off Ray considered expanding. He dropped his plans when his son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
"I didn't want to keep busy. I like to spend more time with my son," explains Ray. "Now he's dead. For who am I going to do it for now?"
Now, Ray's happy just talking with his regulars and tourists. He likes watching his friends bite into a falafel and sign OK with their hand—what Ray calls "the 30."
"When you come to people and give them food and they look at you and say it's delicious—to me that's like getting one million dollars. I keep people happy."
His friends came to his son's funeral and left flowers and condolences at his shop. Ray worked to soothe his pain—talking with his friends about his son. It's a memory. "Sometimes I don't want to accept it, but it's something that's a fact. You gotta accept it."
Ray's belief—making others are happy will make you happy— helped him through the years. Ray's 13 consecutive Best of Halifax and Best of Food awards and his smile attest to his good judgment.
The Chronicle-Herald once named Ray's Falafel the third restaurant in Nova Scotia to try if you haven't before—only behind da Maurizio and Opa!.
"When you go to da Maurizio and Opa! they serve you on a silver plate, but look how I serve to you—foam and plastic," he says pointing to takeout boxes and cutlery. "It's not the way you serve, it's what you give."
The same can be applied to Ray. It's not how life has been served to Ray, it's what he's got from it. And as long and difficult as it's been, Ray's found happiness.
Best Cinnamon Bun: Mary's Bread Basket
"I'm thrilled," says Mary Mohammed when she hears that Mary's Bread Basket is to be inducted into The Coast's Best of Food Hall of Fame. "I never thought it would come this far."
"It" is the business that she founded in 1983 at the age of 53, in the brand-new, not-yet-fully constructed Halifax Farmers' Market, the outgrowth of a flourishing home-baking business that was derailed by a visit from a health inspector.
"I'd started baking health bread because one of my sons had asthma and allergies. Soon I was making more than my family and friends could eat. I started selling it at the Dairy Deli, and then at a health food store on Spring Garden Road, and my sales just grew from there. But one day a health inspector showed up at my house, and said that I faced a $200 fine or time in jail if I didn't stop selling bread I'd made at home. I worked hard for my money, and I didn't think I'd look cute behind bars, so I stopped."
But Mary, a "true Bluenoser," born in Nova Scotia after her parents arrived here from China, didn't stop for long. If she couldn't sell the bread she made at home, she thought, she'd open a bakery.
"My husband didn't like that idea," she says. "He was from the old country, he wanted to be the one who provided for the family." It was a rough time, but eventually her husband—who was born in the West Indies and worked for the Defense Research Establishment of the Atlantic in Dartmouth —came around. It took a year to secure funding and find a place to set up shop.
"We visited many banks," Mary says, chuckling, recalling that her lack of business expertise did little to convince bank managers that she was a good investment. "Once, a bank manager asked me, "What will you
do if you get more business than you can handle?' I guess he was hoping I'd say I had a back-up plan, but I just looked at him and said, "I'd laugh all the way to the bank!' He laughed and laughed."
Once she had funding, Mary set up shop in the Farmers' Market, in a shop that was so small that "customers would come in one door and stand at the counter, and then they had to go out a different door, because there was no room for them to turn around!" Business was slow in the beginning, but as devoted customers braved the construction zone and word of mouth spread, things began to pick up. A contract to supply a local Sobeys store brought in some extra money and greatly increased exposure.
"People were so surprised that the business took off so well, because I never had much publicity or did much advertising," Mary says, crediting occasional shout-outs from local radio personalities and articles in The Coast with boosting business. As people began to flock to Mary's Bread Basket, Mary added the now-famous cinnamon rolls and other pastries to her repertoire, realizing that "over the counter, people want something fast, that they can eat on the spot. Bread is something you take home."
Soon, Mary had to move the business to a bigger location, just around the corner. That's where people still line up for a Saturday morning cinnamon bun, grins on their faces no matter the length of the line. The smiles could be because "people love to eat things that are hot and fresh and right out of the oven," or because the cinnamon buns are made with "the best, most expensive" cinnamon available, cinnamon Mary has told more than one person acts as an aphrodisiac. Or maybe it was because they wanted to see Mary.
"People just loved to come down to see me, this funny lady in the white cap," says Mary, laughing. For 23 years, Mary and her white cap—"I needed to cover my hair, and I don't like ball caps"—were a fixture at the Saturday morning Farmers' Market.
"Oh, we laughed at the market, but we had some sad times too. When I started the business, I said to my husband, "I want to know who eats my bread,' and I did get to know my customers. We went through a lot together: I watched their children grow up, they told me when they got cancer, or when their husbands died. When I finally decided to sell the business, I cried and cried, because I knew I would miss the relationship I'd had with my customers."
Mary sold the business to Allan McNeill in May 2006, and continued to work at the counter on Saturday mornings until the following Christmas.
"I stayed long enough," she says. "I wanted to stay long enough to get him on his feet, and then I was finished. It was never my livelihood, it was just something I did for fun, and you can't do things that way if you have a family depending on you. He has his ideas, and it was time to let him realize them."
Happily retired, Mary still loves to bake and to spend time with family and friends. And she still laughs and laughs.
Mike Landry is listings editor at The Coast. He may be a tiny guy, but he’s always got room for falafel.
Austen Gilliland is copy chief at The Coast. She never says no to a fresh, hot, Saturday morning cinnamon roll.