For Eli Berchan, it certainly seemed like the universe was telling him to open his Lebanese restaurant, Sumac Mediterranean Cuisine, in Hollywood.
Prior to coming to Los Angeles, Berchan was living in Lebanon and working in event management and organizing destination weddings. At the end of February, 2020, he had come to Southern California to attend an industry conference. “The last day of the conference was Covid day one, and I ended up being stuck here,” Berchan recalled.
Since he wasn’t able to go back to Lebanon, he rented a place in Hollywood, and soon found out the owner happened to be Lebanese. Berchan was doing some private cooking to get by and sent his landlord, Ferris Wehbe, some traditional Lebanese food he had prepared to thank him. A few months later, on August 4, 2020, a massive explosion famously took place at the Port of Beirut, destroying Berchan’s office and everything he and his wife, Stephanie, had in Lebanon. “I called her frantically and I was just like, ‘Leave everything and just come,’” Berchan said. They liquidated their cars in Lebanon and Stephanie left with just $5,000 to come to Los Angeles.
Soon after, Wehbe messaged him asking if he would be interested in opening a restaurant, with the landlord as a silent partner. “When he told me about opening the restaurant, it was music to my ears. I had a location in mind,” Berchan said. He took Wehbe to the current restaurant location, which is one minute away from where Berchan lived. It was only then that Berchan discovered that Wehbe was actually the landlord of the restaurant’s location as well. Berchan took it as a sign that this was meant to be, and they signed the papers in November of 2020. Sumac Mediterranean Cuisine opened a few months later in March, 2021.
Although Wehbe no longer owns the building and the Berchans bought out his shares in February of 2022, they can’t forget that everything happened thanks to their original landlord. “We owe him big time because he really believed in us and he made this happen,” Berchan said.
Eli and Stephanie Berchan want their customers to explore the food that they grew up eating. “If a dish is not on the menu, it’s because Stephanie and I don’t really eat it,” Berchan explained. Sumac serves primarily Lebanese cuisine, prepared the way the Berchans typically eat them back home. One exception is that Sumac serves rice with their kabob since American customers are used to it. In Lebanon, they typically eat it with salad and sometimes french fries and pickles. One of their bestsellers is the chicken shawarma with garlic, pickles and french fries wrapped in a pita bread.
Eli and Stephanie first met at a wedding, but later found out they had actually grown up in the same town of Machghara, in Beqaa Valley, which is one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world. Eli Berchan’s family owned a pomegranate grove, so they use a lot of pomegranate in their food – sprinkled on top of the dolmas and baba ghannouj, for example. Of course, their fattoush salad is also made the traditional way with pomegranate dressing. “We don’t claim to be the best Mediterranean or Lebanese restaurant in town,” said Eli, “but we are our own best.”
Sumac’s baklava is made fresh every day with the same recipe Eli’s grandmother has been making since 1967. That was the year his grandparents moved from Lebanon to Cleveland (Eli himself was born in Cleveland but his parents took him back to Lebanon when he was less than a year old). His grandfather opened a restaurant, but in the meantime his grandmother was secretly selling baklava to her neighbors so she could have some savings of her own. Made with 30 layers of phyllo dough and high-quality butter, the family’s baklava is perfectly crispy and filled with walnuts. Within three years, she had saved $20,000 (the equivalent of about $150,000 today). She later gave her savings to her sons to start their business, and they opened a jewelry store. “From baklava to diamonds,” is how Berchan tells his family’s story.
Eli Berchan says the restaurant is an extension of his home. Not only is it family run (his sister, Nancy Berchan, has another job but helps out at the restaurant when she can), but they also get to know and chat with their customers. Sumac now does a lot of catering as well, and much of that came from word of mouth and from customers that the Berchans have befriended over the past year and a half. But even here fate seems to play a role in Sumac’s success. Eli told a story about how he landed some business catering for the Sephora film studio. “One night, when Sephora staff were leaving the studio not too far from us, they saw us making about 30 trays of baklava around 1 a.m.” Berchan recalled, “They saw us through the windows because we had converted the restaurant into a makeshift kitchen to be able to do all the prep and knocked on our door.” After chatting with them, Berchan found out that one of the people was responsible for getting staff catering for the studio. These days Sumac regularly caters for their breakfast and lunches and is one of their trusted catering partners.
It took major world events for Eli and Stephanie Berchan to take the leap to open Sumac, and so far it seems to be working out. “We’d seen it all – when the world was up and we were up, and when we were at rock bottom…” Eli explained their decision to be adventurous, “From then on, the only way was up.”
Published on January 03, 2023
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