A new bistro is setting up shop in the space that Mugshots vacated nearly two years ago in Manayunk.
Smiley’s Café made its debut on Cotton Street in early April, just in time for Manayunk’s StrEAT Food Festival. In addition to coffees and smoothies, Smiley’s offers Meditteranean fare, from Greek salads and chicken gyros to crispy falafels topped with lemony hummus and baba ganoush.
The owner’s path to Manayunk
Ahmad Chehab, the owner, learned how to cook by watching his uncle prepare meals in their native Lebanon. At the age of 16, he emigrated from Beirut to central Florida to live with an older brother. In 1979, soon after his high school graduation, Chehab started his first food business: selling pocket sandwiches on Daytona Beach. He has operated some form of food service ever since.
Chehab developed his cookery and entrepreneur skills in Gainesville, FL., where he owned and operated a Middle Eastern café called Falafel King for 25 years.
There, he developed a reputation for making his own sauces, and bringing what he calls his “magic touch” to food on a daily basis. His cheerful personality also generated recognition, and the community came to know him as “Smiley.”
Two of his longtime and well-known clients also gave his store a nickname: their vegetarian family frequented Falafel King so often that brothers River and Joaquin Phoenix called it “Tabbouleh Land.”
During his time in Gainesville, Ahmad Chehab connected with students at the University of Florida whom he later mentored in the restaurant world. Over the years, these relationships fostered some of Chehab’s multiple business partnerships. It was one such enterprise that brought Ahmad Chehab north five years ago. Soon after moving to Philadelphia, he met his wife Loubna and decided to start a new foundation, a store that he alone could operate while pursuing opportunities for his recipes in the wholesale market. Chehab chose Manayunk because it reminded him of Miami’s Coconut Grove, a carefree and eclectic neighborhood adjoined to a busy metropolis.
Building a customer base
Chehab calls his opening a “soft” one until he can turn the café’s backroom into a lounge resembling the mythical cave of Ali Baba. Although he will not have a bar, he plans to bring belly dancers and hookahs to Smiley’s.
Chehab also plans to continue the perks that popularized his restaurant among college students in Gainesville: patrons will receive a free smoothie and a song on their birthdays, and one day a week, he will offer dollar sandwiches to students.
In the meantime, Ahmad Chehab is concentrating on building his customer base, which is growing due to word of mouth. He says his cooking “comes from the heart,” and like the protagonist in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, he has a knack for guessing the favorite dishes of his customers. After asking one customer about her favorite foods, he mixed together parsley, cilantro, garlic, onion, mint and falafel and handed it to her in a small bowl. “I’ll cover my ears,” he then said with a smile, “because you will scream with happiness.”
“I go out of my way to put a smile on somebody,” said Chehab. “Life is too short not to be happy.” The best way he can do this, he says, is by cooking the food that he loves with fresh ingredients and “treating everyone first class.”
Smiley’s Café is open for dine-in and take-out meals every day from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.