April 18, 2014 6:23 pm

The Syrian who gave up his tech career to open Seattle restaurant

Wassef Haroun wanted a project that would help him reconnect with his homeland and help Syrians in need
©Jose Mandojana

Wassef Haroun in his Middle Eastern restaurant, Mamnoon

Eager to challenge the negative stereotypes about the Middle East that he encountered in the US, Wassef Haroun, a Syrian brought up mostly in Lebanon, decided to leave his career in technology to open a Middle Eastern restaurant with his Iranian-Syrian wife, Racha.

The restaurant in Seattle, is called Mamnoon – the Arabic and Farsi word for thankful. And gratitude infuses every conversation about the support Seattleites have given Mamnoon since it opened almost 18 months ago. The diverse crowd includes locals looking for a unique experience, travellers from across the US and immigrants from the Middle East, India and Israel. Winning the best new restaurant accolade from Seattle Magazine in 2013 enhanced public interest in the Harouns’ “experiment”.

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Going in to the restaurant business was not an obvious choice for the couple, but they wanted to do something that connected them with their homeland and gave them the opportunity to help Syrians in need. They have organised charitable events at the restaurant in aid of the UNHCR Syrian Relief Fund and also donate the proceeds from their speciality breadbaskets – the mainstay of every meal at Mamnoon. Conversations with customers have led to invitations to address community groups about the plight of the 2.5m Syrian refugees and the millions more displaced within the country’s borders by the conflict.

The couple have moved around a lot, including two stints in Seattle. They first moved there from Abu Dubai in 1989 after Microsoft recruited Haroun to create Hebrew and Arabic language products. Moving at three weeks’ notice, Haroun felt the opportunity to join the company at such an early stage in its international development was a lucky break. Yet the transition proved difficult for his wife. The city was emerging from a 10-year economic slump and there was a pervasive feeling of negativity in downtown Seattle, where the couple lived in an old townhouse in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood.

Haroun recalls feeling the gloom lifting as he crossed the two bridges linking Seattle to Redmond, where Microsoft’s headquarters buzzed with optimism. Haroun, a mathematics and computer science graduate, thrived in the intense, caffeinated work environment, but he regretted seeing too little of his wife and two young children. “Racha spent several lonely soccer seasons standing in the rain in her Prada coat, watching the children play,” he says.

The so-called “Seattle Freeze”, which the family experienced during their first 11 years in the city, disappointed them after the warmth and friendliness they had encountered as graduate students at Rice University in Houston, Texas, during the late 1980s. The reluctance of locals to show emotion to newcomers was unlike anything they had experienced before. Even after years of socialising with people from school and work, Seattle never truly felt like home during their first stint there.

“We were dumbfounded by the heartfelt sadness that people expressed at our going-away party when we decided to move to Paris. The realisation that people valued our friendship showed us how wrong our perception was and really stoked our affection for the place.”

Haroun left Microsoft to start a Paris-based venture capital firm investing in technology start-ups. “Living in Paris felt like a second honeymoon,” he says. “Business was interesting, but not intrusive. We stayed up late, enjoyed the vibrant cultural life, and shared great food with great friends.”

But this was interrupted by the arrival of their third child. They soon realised Paris wasn’t a great place to raise an infant. “We needed to drive to the hypermarket for nappies and carry the stroller up the stairs because it wouldn’t fit in the elevator.”

When I first moved to Seattle, people tended to be rather insular. The tech boom has attracted professionals from all over the world

- Wassef Haroun

A move to Dubai in 2004 brought them closer to siblings who lived there. But they felt that it could not be a permanent home. “The Emirates’ decision to prevent long-time residents from becoming permanent residents fosters a real disconnect between expats and natives,” says Haroun.

Although impressed with Dubai’s transition to a service economy and trade entrepôt, he disliked the rampant commercialism and consumerism. When one of the tech start-ups in which he had invested required him to become an operational part of the management team and to travel to India and the US, Haroun decided to move again. He considered Bangalore, Boston, New York and San Francisco before opting to move his family back to Seattle.

The humility of Seattleite professionals impressed him. “The absence of bling and bravado was a welcome change,” says Haroun. The high concentration of “smart people” who shared his belief in the value of life-long learning also appealed. And the public’s commitment to protecting the forests, lakes and mountains surrounding Seattle added to the city’s attractiveness (the Madrona forest, Lake Washington and Seward Park are all a short walk from the couple’s contemporary home where they have lived since 2006).

“Seattle’s organic growth strategy has meant that the old car dealerships and industrial buildings that dotted the city’s Capitol Hill district are now an interesting mix of living and working spaces,” says Haroun, “which was perfect for our new venture.”

An old friend and colleague from Microsoft, intent on building a loft apartment on the top floor of a two-storey building, needed commercial tenants on the ground floor. “It was kismet,” Haroun says. The restaurant is located on a hilltop overlooking downtown and Elliott Bay.

With a nod to the Seattleite preference for all things casual, the couple created a takeaway counter at the front of the restaurant. The imaginative fusion of local and imported ingredients found on the menu is also apparent in the decor. Contemporary wooden screens, created by a US artist reimagining traditional Middle Eastern design elements, create a series of intimate dining areas where patrons can enjoy the couple’s hospitality and reinterpretation of traditional family recipes. The Harouns also hold monthly salons featuring Arabic music, film and culture.

“When I first moved to Seattle in 1989, people tended to be rather insular. The tech boom has attracted professionals from all over the world,” says Haroun. “The global expansion of homegrown companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks has broadened the horizons of many locals. I’m taking great pleasure in challenging people’s world outlook.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● Local business support for research and economic development

● Hiking, skiing and sailing are within easy reach of the city

Cons

● Seattle is one of the cloudiest cities in the US with only about 75 clear days a year

● Intense competition for private school places; the quality of state schools is inconsistent

What you can buy for . . . 

$500,000 An entry-level home in a desirable area of the city

$1m A four-bedroom home with water views and a mature garden

$2m A spacious, contemporary home overlooking Elliott Bay

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