Ali Alsubai, Yemen Café
October 14, 2020
Brooklyn’s Yemen Café isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a safe haven.
We chatted with co-owner/manager, Ali Alsubai, about sharing culture, uplifting community, and navigating food delivery during COVID-19 at Brooklyn’s iconic Yemen Café.
Connecting the Middle Eastern community in Brooklyn
“My father Yahya Alsubai and uncle Muthana Nassir, opened Yemen Café in 1986. They realized that for first-timers coming to the US from the Middle East, navigating an entirely new culture and environment can be hard. They knew that Middle Easterners needed a place to connect with their community, and Yemen Café became their first stop. My family didn’t just make them feel more at home through the Yemeni Cuisine, they provided them with shelter, community, and some money to start out in the US. We were filling up their lives, not just their stomachs. Since day one, my father and uncle have been focused on giving back to the community. My dad and uncle were never worried too much about making money. They wanted to help people, feed people, and make sure everyone had what they needed. To this day, we give back no matter what. And that’s what I love most about my family business.”
Located along the iconic Atlantic Avenue, Yemen Cafe is world famous for its Haneeth - slow-roasted lamb that melts in your mouth served with rice and potatoes. Yemeni cuisine is hearty, heavy, and meant to be shared.
“We tend to eat together off of one big plate. In our culture, we share four or five courses off of one big plate. We’re all in one group, in a circle, the food’s in the middle. It’s literally what brings people together. The way we share food is unique, I love it.”
For a restaurant that specializes in shared cuisine and community building, COVID-19 didn’t just affect their business, it affected their tradition and culture.
“We were shocked when COVID-19 hit. We knew the number of coronavirus was increasing and we heard news that indoor dining would not be available anymore only for takeout and delivery. But we didn’t know exactly when will it happen or what time. Next thing you know the city ordered restaurant owners the indoor dining would not be available to customers the next day. However, City officials were going to restaurant businesses The night before without any sort of notice was telling owner’s that immediately by 8 PM indoor dining will not be available anymore only for takeout and delivery. It was outrageous because it happened all of a sudden, we had customers in the restaurant eating, customers had reservations, and it was a busy day for us that day. For weeks we felt lost not being able to have anyone in our restaurant. Our business dropped dramatically. Most of our customers love to come in and dine in because of the atmosphere, service, and most of all our delicious food.”
Balancing tradition and innovation
An innovator who is always discovering new ways to help his family business grow, co-owner/manager Ali Alsubai grew up in the family business, but he had his own life too. He finished college and started working in marketing. He realized that he could utilize his marketing knowledge to support Yemen Café, but convincing the older generation to do things differently wasn’t easy.
“Yemen Café has been open for over 30 years. When my father started it, they focused on consistency and quality. They wanted to make sure that customers were eating authentic fresh Yemeni food at Yemen Café. From day one, we've bought high-quality ingredients because that's what keeps the quality of the food great and authentic. You hear stories of people who start doing well, and that leads them to change their quality or ingredients to make more profit. The old-fashioned way is what makes our food incredible, but you can’t rely on the old-fashioned way for other parts of the business. My father & uncle aren’t risk takers, they think, ‘As long as everything running smoothly that’s all that matters.’ But I know we can be bigger and better, so I focus on developing new ideas for the restaurant, new ways of helping out, better ways of serving our customers.”
The pandemic was an opportunity for Ali to implement his innovative ideas on both the business driving front and the community building one.
Streamlining Yemen Café's delivery business with Otter
“I love the business so much, and I see it as my job to figure out ways to make things better everyday. We were always doing delivery, but in April, delivery started to take off, and we had to figure out a better way of doing it. We had four or five tablets hanging around, either we were screaming orders to the kitchen or punching it in to the POS system. When I heard about Otter, I signed up for a demo and instantly saw how beneficial it was. Otter consolidated all of our tablets into a single tablet with one printer, it made me feel like I really didn’t have to worry about anything. No one was yelling back to the kitchen anymore or took time to punch it into the POS system, we weren’t missing orders, and the support was second to none. At the end of the day we could see our performance data – exactly how many items we sold and what they were."
"Even with all of the features Otter has, it’s still simple and easy to operate - even for old timers. To me, Otter is like Apple. The interface is simple and that’s what I love about it. It’s everything you need to be successful in delivery right there on a single tablet. It gives us the freedom to focus on our food and our community without having to worry about the logistics of online orders.”
After signing up for Otter, Ali and Yemen Café were empowered to serve and support their community through delivery, and their community supported them right back.
“During the pandemic, New York really showed up for small businesses. Our community never gave up on us, so we didn’t give up on them. We weren’t making money, but we’ve always been focused on giving back no matter the circumstances. Helping out is in our blood.”
Supporting the community that supports Yemen Café during COVID-19
The effect COVID-19 was having on New Yorkers, particularly first-responders, moved Ali and Yemen Café family to take action.
“We started paying out of our pockets to support first responders through our food. We donated meals to the people that were keeping our community alive in the pandemic – from hospital workers, to the fire department, to the police department. Yemeni cuisine is comforting and community building. First responders were risking their lives everyday to keep us safe, and this give-back let us show them how grateful we were. As more and more people began seeing what we were doing, they wanted to get involved. We had a lot of sponsors coming in to help us help others. Our culture is about uplifting others. Once you help somebody, in the future, help will come to you."
You can support Yemen Café by ordering delivery on Doordash, Postmates, Grubhub, Uber Eats, Caviar and Seamless. Make sure to try Ali’s three favorite dishes - “The roasted lamb, that’s the number one seller that we have. Fasah - vegetable stew mixed with shredded lamb served with hot clay oven bread. And the third is the roasted chicken, a half chicken roasted in the oven served with rice.”