Janelle De Souza
While he is stepping down as chef of Joseph’s Restaurant, its owner, Joseph Habr, said the business will be back in 2022, with his children at the wheel. He and his wife, Helen, founded the restaurant 20 years ago and their children do not intend to forget what they built.
On a September 3 Facebook post, the Lebanese restaurant thanked its staff and customers for their loyalty since it opened its doors in September 2001.
“However, the time has come for the new generation to take the reins. As such our business model will be changing and the Joseph’s you know will be diversified. Our era will be no more from September 30, 2021 but as one door closes another opens. So please stay in touch and we’d (sic) keep you posted. Until then, we hope to see you soon, stay safe and best wishes from us.”
There has been speculation that the restaurant, in Rookery Nook, Maraval, closed because of financial difficulties brought about by covid19 restrictions, especially as in-house dining was stopped on April 29, leading several fine-dining restaurants to close either temporarily or permanently.
But Habr stressed that is not the case with Joseph’s.
“People think it’s because of covid19 and the government not opening (in-house dining for restaurants), but this is not our reason.
“I’ve been in business for 35 years in Trinidad. I am tired. It’s time to relax.”
Habr told Business Day he had some health issues over the past few months, but now he is better, he is ready to relax and spend some time with his first grandchild, who was born in July.
He said he took a while to decide to retire, but after discussing it with his family, especially his children Marie-Anne and Maurice, he made the move.
“Two of my three children promised me to continue Joseph’s – but not now. We want some time to relax. I want to concentrate on myself and enjoy this time with my family. When one door closes, another will open.”
Helen added, “Over the many years in the industry, we have had the privilege of meeting many wonderful people and I look forward to a new chapter as we pass on the torch to our children.”
Habr said he does not blame the government for doing what was necessary to protect the population, even though Joseph’s Restaurant, like many others, has been burdened by the covid19 restrictions.
Decades of excellence
Habr and Helen started their food business at Ali Baba in Town Centre Mall in Port of Spain before moving to Royal Palm Plaza in Maraval. Then, about 20 years ago, they opened Joseph’s Restaurant in Rookery Nook.
“My dad was one of the first people to commercialise Arabic food in TT. Before, if you wanted Arabic food you had to go to the home of an Arab to enjoy it,” said Maurice.
Habr started studying the culinary arts at age 14 at a hot school in Lebanon. He moved to Trinidad in 1986 and started working at a clothing store. One day, he made lunch and the store owner told him he needed to open a restaurant.
“I made him a special chicken and he said, ‘If you put that chicken in TT, you’ll kill KFC.’”
He has seen a lot of changes in the local restaurant industry over the years, some positive and some negative.
Habr recalled there was not a wide variety of wine available for purchase when he opened Ali Baba in 1991 at Royal Palm. He said at one point he was looking for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and there was only one in the country.
Meanwhile, Maurice lamented the Americanisation of TT’s restaurant industry, particularly the practice of putting a time limit on patrons’ seating or subtly urging people to leave so other customers could be seated.
Habr said, “You have to know what people like. Some like two-course meals, some like five-course meals, some eat and run away. Everybody’s different. You have to learn your customers, you have to learn your service, you have to learn how to move.”
That skill was taught to Maurice, who prefers dealing with customers, while Marie-Ann is the chef.
“It’s something my dad taught me,” said Maurice. “Wherever you are you have to know from front of house, kitchen, cleaning – you have to know everything. And you have to show that you’re willing to do whatever you have to do.”
Habr says running a restaurant is a difficult business but if people like it and are willing to work hard, they will learn the intricacies of the business and do well.
Maurice said, “Everything in this economy is uncertain, so we will use the time to reflect and figure out our next move.
“But more than likely, by January 2022 we will have a more solid idea. It will be impossible to give up something that my mom and dad built for 35 years.”
Marie-Anne added, “While we were growing up, seeing my parents work hard to give us a future was everything for me. We sacrificed a lot as a family, we were always working or at the restaurant. It’s what I know and grew up in.
“I value what my parents built and I look forward to modernising and rebranding Joseph’s in 2022.”