Masoud Awartani, an economist by training and an entrepreneur by occupation, is a shadow of his former self. Standing in the doorway of his ranch house in Greensboro's northwest suburbs, he speaks with difficulty. He has a couple days growth of beard and he's shed 40 pounds from what was once a burly physique.
A hospital visit to remove a cancer mass in his abdomen stretched into almost a month because his intestines were not functioning properly and he experienced a buildup of fluids. He's been convalescing at home for 10 days, and he anticipates that it will be at least a month before he goes back to work. Still, he feels fortunate. First for his wife, Annah, who took off work to care for him and research his condition. Then for the customers and community members - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Quakers - who are praying for his recovery.
A close third in Awartani's hierarchy of gratitude are the employees - three full-time workers and one part-timer - who have kept the restaurant he owns with his wife, Annah, going in their absence. Zaytoon began its second year of business in June, when Masoud Awartani went into surgery. The month of illness and recovery proved to be more profitable than the first month of business.
"High appreciation to the greatest employees I have ever dealt with," Masoud Awartani says. "The numbers are up from this time last year.... The wheel of success is coming for us. To go up in such a rough economy, and especially when I'm not there, I'm like, 'Whoa!' It's thrilling."
Masoud and Annah practice a shared value of equality. The couple, who are both now 44, met at the university in Amman, Jordan and relocated to Greensboro two decades ago to pursue graduate studies at NC A&T University. Masoud majored in agricultural economics while Annah studied adult vocational education.
"I'm significantly paying over minimum wage," Masoud Awartani says. "The employees are happy and satisfied. This is not a boss-employee relationship. This is a friendship. From day one, I paid generously. I'm not going to be a millionaire, but I've always felt that I needed to share what I have."
And yet labor costs are not Zaytoon's biggest hurdle. Nor is the treatment of employees the central ethical plank in Zaytoon's mission as a small business.
The restaurant's business model rests on its use of organic and locally grown food, and the Awartanis hope that their customers will reward their attention to quality and ethical food preparation with loyal patronage. A code of ethics scrawled on a dry-erase board in the well lit restaurant on the first floor of the US Trust Building spells out their commitments: No use of the additive monosodium glutamate; no hormones; no animal byproducts; all organic flour and butter; organic chicken, beef when available; and local goat cheese.
As much as possible, Zaytoon buys food from Greensboro's two farmers markets. When produce is at the peak of its season, they realize a savings. Otherwise, their commitment to locally produced food tends to increase their costs.
"In general to run such a restaurant is a big challenge," Annah Awartani says. "To do organic and to buy local, in general our cost is high. When you have a mission it's very hard to compromise."
Masoud Awartani adds, "We use the top feta cheese. My food cost is high. That is my problem. We're trying to offset that with sales. We need more customers. We need to do more caterings.
"We have the highest food costs in the market," he continues. "Thirty-five percent of our costs are food. We are at the rock bottom of the profit margin."
The restaurant initially set wages by calculating a range of percentages of its gross sales. The wages themselves and the percentages are numbers Masoud Awartani declines to disclose. The Awartanis try to give raises for experience and performance when they can afford to. One downside of the generous pay structure is that the restaurant has on occasion had to reduce employee work hours.
"I will not play with the wages," Masoud Awartani says. "I might have to cut hours, but I will not demote anyone. If the business slacks down, I'm sorry but I will have to send someone home early, probably the part-time person. It happened a couple times between November and December."
The Awartanis support a proposed citywide minimum wage increase to $9.36 per hour.
"I would have to raise wages by a small percentage, so it's not going to hit me hard," Masoud Awartani says. "Zaytoon will not be hurting greatly if we were to pay $9.36."
He says the increase from the current statewide minimum wage of $6.15 is justified by inflation.
"From my economic background, if you increase the income of the middle class, they will tend to spend the extra money on luxuries, and there might be some chance for some families to save a little bit," Masoud Awartani says. "This [additional pay] that is going to add to their income is going to go back to the market and the city. It's more prosperity to the local economy."
He waves off concerns that the increase would drive corporate stores outside the city limits or shut down small, independently owned businesses.
"I know this increase in the minimum wage, it's around thirty percent," Masoud Awartani says. "It might have a certain effect on chain stores with the profit margins that they set. In my opinion it should not be a drastic hit.
"For a small business," he continues, "it should not be bad enough for them to shut down. They only have three or four employees, so their labor costs are not that great. If a business is to live or die on a three-to-four hundred dollar difference, that's a shaky business. That's a business that's already dying.
"It will affect the large business more, but they can absorb the costs. Food prices are much lower for a large business. They know how to negotiate prices down and buy in bulk."
The man is in passionate flush, navigating a discourse on the reconciliation of economics and ethics. He speaks at a steady clip and chooses his words decisively even though his pallid skin tone and the weary arch of his eyelids betray the toll the surgery has taken. Masoud's wife pours a glass of water for him, sets it on the coffee table in the front room and leaves the house to go check on the restaurant.
On this sweltering Wednesday afternoon around 2 p.m., employee Andrew Dudek sweeps the tiled kitchen floor as a couple lunchtime stragglers refill cups from the soda machine. When a new customer appears, Dudek offers a cheerful greeting and attentively jots down the order.
"We had a good day today," Dudek tells Annah Awartani. "We got rid of all the spinach turnovers."
Though the two haven't seen each other in the seven weeks since Masoud went into the hospital, Annah's husband is effusive in his praise of their employee.
"All the time I'm saying to Andrew, 'Thank God I see a mature man,'" Masoud Awartani says. "I enjoy my relationship with him. He's a friend. Most of the guys are nearer in age to my children to be buddies."
Another employee also receives singular commendation.
"Ghadir Laymoun - that's the lady who carried Zaytoon on her shoulders," Awartani says. "She knows every recipe. She keeps up with the books. There is not enough thanks. I wish I can get back to the restaurant to give her a break."
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