Photography by Shari Mukherjee
I first met Samar Alwanan, owner of Almadina Restaurant, on Facebook in the spring of 2020. I stumbled across a brave and vulnerable post she had written in a local Facebook group asking for community support.
When the pandemic lockdowns started and restaurants had to close their dining rooms, Almadina had only been open about a month. Because it was “new to town,” the restaurant had very little name recognition and was struggling to attract business despite being located in the heart of downtown. Samar needed help or she’d be forced to close the doors on the restaurant she and co-owner, Feras Ramadan, had worked so hard to create.
I was touched by her vulnerability and her willingness to ask for help from a community of strangers. That’s not an easy thing to do, but as Samar reminded me when I asked her about the post, “Women will do anything. We fight to be successful.” And she’s right. In an industry dominated by men—only about 7% of restaurant kitchens are run by women, according to a 2020 article by Forbes—women really do have to fight to be successful.
Samar has always loved cooking and has a talent for it. She grew up cooking with and learning from her mother when she was a young girl living in the northern area of Iraq. Her mother, Haseeba, was her biggest culinary influence, and the food she made inspired Samar. In fact, Haseeba helps out at the restaurant and even makes the dolma (Iraqi-style stuffed grape leaves) by hand. That’s really what I love most about Almadina; everything is freshly made in-house—you won’t find any frozen falafels or pre-packaged sauces. Samar expresses, “You need to love what you’re doing. If you do it just to make money, it won’t be good.” And trust me, Almadina’s food is good!
In the beginning, things were a bit difficult. Pandemic aside, Samar also struggled to find a delivery service that could supply her restaurant with the ingredients she needed. She found herself driving to Minneapolis once or twice a week just to get groceries.
Samar, like most mothers, also has difficulty balancing everything. As a mom to an 11- and 9-year-old, she says it is “stressful. Sometimes I feel like I don’t give the kids their time.” This was especially hard when the restaurant was new. Staffing was a challenge, and she had to be present from open until close. Once she found staff, there were some problems at first with quality control. “I could teach my staff my recipes, but they don’t care the way I do,” she says. “They could make the dish with the same ingredients, but it would have a different taste.” It seems cliche to say that love is the secret ingredient, but it really is true. Samar says, “You need to love what you do and do what you love.” And unfortunately, love isn’t so easy to teach.
Almadina’s menu is a variety of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern classics with vegan and gluten-free options. Although Samar can cook nearly anything and is familiar with most cuisines, her menu reflects the food she loves to eat.
Lentil soup, Samar’s favorite dish, was the first thing she remembers making on her own, and all these years later, it’s available on her menu to order. She shares, “Even the Americans like it. It’s one of the most popular items.” If it’s your first time trying the food at Almadina, Samar recommends ordering the Almadina Feast. She says, “It has everything and is a good way to sample.” ::
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Almadina is located at 101 N Broadway Avenue, Rochester