Some restaurants rest on a foundation of silver spoons, financed by those with privilege and means, and some restaurants are built on the shifting sands of desperation and an uncontrollable urge to do something that feels personally important.
With its modest takeout-only model tucked just off Kenmore Avenue in Tonawanda, Poppa Pete’s – A Lebanese Joint, is the latter.
Talk to owner Pete Deeb for 30 seconds and you’ll realize he’s an open book. He’ll probably tell you that a painful odyssey through the restaurant industry ultimately dragged him, kicking and screaming, into restaurant ownership.
Deeb wears his heart on his sleeve. In most industries, being an open book can hold you back, and in Deeb’s case, it did. He succumbed to the creation of Poppa Pete’s because he needed to work for himself, not for other people, and embrace who he thinks he is meant to be.
“In my mind, I feel like I’ve always been used, because of a lack of education, a lack of knowledge or lack of a degree,” Deeb, who dropped out of high school but ultimately got his GED, told us in a recent phone interview. “So after 15, 17, 20 years, I started to think, ‘I’ve gotta own myself and the time is now. That’s just kind of how this all went down.”
With Poppa Pete’s being “a Lebanese joint” – you’d think Pete Deeb would be full-blooded Lebanese. But like most of us, his American heritage story is more complicated than that. Ironically, many of us yearn for The Old Country, but when so many American are of mixed heritage, that old country we yearn for could depend on the day. In that respect, “Lebanese” Pete Deeb is like so many of us.
“My mother’s mostly Italian and my father’s mostly Lebanese-Italian,” he said. “Both sides of my family were always just cooking and cooking and cooking.”
The hand-rolled grape leaves and lentil-rice bowls called mujadara on Poppa Pete’s menu are based on Lebanese family recipes, but the other creations are the results of research and development. Deeb said he would watch Lebanese cooking videos on YouTube and research Lebanese street food as a way to develop his current menu – all the while reconnecting with his immigrant grandfather’s heritage. Deeb said it was also important for him to offer vegan options, something he felt was lacking in the University Heights-adjacent stretch of Kenmore Avenue.
“Most of my jobs have been in restaurants and most of my jobs have led to leadership roles, which helps you assume the full knowledge on how things in a restaurant are run,” he said. “So, it wasn’t hard to come up with a concept in a time like this.”
The combination of tradition and research is a winning one. The grape leaves (6 for $8.50, 12 for $14.50) we tried were complex, aromatic and lingered like your favorite dinner party guests. Still crunchy after the 15-minute drive home in a plastic takeout box, our falafel wrap ($9) flexed fresh flavors and strong herbal notes. The pulled chicken wrap ($9.75) was expertly seasoned, with strong coriander and cardamom flavors that cut the richness of meat, tahini and tzatziki.
The takeout-only menu also includes several different wraps, salads, hummus, tabbouleh, as well as build-your-own rice and mujadara bowls. Available soft drinks include bottled teas, lemonade and San Pellegrino sparkling waters.
The well-seasoned food is why you’ll keep coming back to Poppa Pete’s, but an added bonus should be spending a few moments talking with Deeb. His disarming honesty and relatability is a big part of Poppa Pete’s pull.
“How I’ve operated throughout my career as a chef, even working for other people, is – my customers come first, and they were never really my customers until this point,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of people in this industry who never cared about The Ticket; to jump and fix a problem or talk to a customer. For the most part, we always try to reach out to everybody. We try to connect to people. That’s always who I’ve been, honestly.”
It’s been a punishing past year for all of us and this probably isn’t the best time to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, even a takeout-only spot. But for Deeb, being his own boss and personally appreciated by his customers is more than he could have ever hoped for. It all sounds like a dream come true – a ray of sunshine piercing through the charcoal grey clouds of personal struggle.
“It’s super emotional,” he said, describing his reaction to Poppa Pete’s early success. “Cause it’s not something I thought would ever happen.
“It’s heavy, you know? It’s like, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Poppa Pete’s – A Lebanese Joint
265 Kenmore Ave, Kenmore, NY 14223 (on the side of J.J.’s “House of Breakfast” Cafe)
Hours: Monday to Wednesday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sunday CLOSED