Saud Niori took over Figs Mediterranean Café in the Palisades after his brother’s unexpected death.
Walk into Figs Mediterranean Café in the District's Palisades neighborhood, and you'll be greeted by a man with a wide, warm smile and a light East African accent.
His name is Saud Niori, and he's quick with recommendations for your lunch order.
"We've got the fattoush salad, the cucumber citrus salad, the beet salad over here... my favorite is the curried chickpeas, which is a little spicy," he says. "It's fantastic."
Saud is clearly an enthusiastic restaurateur. But he was never supposed to be the owner of Figs -- that was his older brother Abdulkader's dream.
Abdu, as everyone called him, was a chef who had worked for years in the local restaurant industry. By 2011, he decided it was time to buy his own place.
"He was ready to do something different," says Saud.
In August of that year, Abdu brought Saud to Figs and basically said, "Surprise! I own this." Abdu was now his own boss. And he had big plans for his restaurant.
"He was telling me that he was going to have to make a lot of changes because the previous owner, the customer service was not as good. Let's just put it that way. And so it was hard to change, to bring all the people back," says Saud.
And Saud says his brother was making great progress in bringing the neighborhood back to Figs. But then, in January 2012, Abdu died unexpectedly.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Saud.
It was a Tuesday morning. Abdu took his kids to school and then went to the gym. While he was working out, he had a heart attack.
"They put him in an ambulance... they were driving him to an ambulance, and that's when he died."
At first, Saud says, he didn't know what to do.
"You know, he was like a father, a brother, a friend, he was everything to us. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what's next."
Jenny Pierson, a Palisades resident and Figs regular, says Abdu's death was "just the most unimaginable tragedy."
Pierson says she arrived at the restaurant the day Abdu died to find the restaurant's chef, Khadija Banouas, in tears.
"You know, we all die. But we don't generally expect people to die suddenly, and we don't expect people in their 40s to die suddenly," she says. "And Khadijah kept stressing that day, you know, Abdu seemed fine."
She says everyone in the neighborhood presumed that was the end of Figs. But Saud says he knew almost immediately what he had to do. His family, including his sister-in-law and his brother's five children, needed him to step up, and take over the restaurant.
"I was looking at his kids, and his wife, and everybody else, and I mean, they don't have anybody else but us."
Keeping Figs open and thriving means long, long hours at work, and not just for Saud. Khadija makes all of the restaurant's food — a mix of Moroccan and Lebanese specialties — from scratch each day, which means arriving as early as 6 a.m.
Khadija says she's been happy to work for Saud, and for his brother before him.
"I like Saud, I like everybody, says Khadija. "It's very nice people... it's nice for me."
Saud shares Khadija's devotion to Figs...but coming here, to this place that meant so much to his big brother, is sometimes difficult. Each day, he looks at pictures of Abdu tacked up next to the cash register, and updates his brother on the restaurant's progress.
"I just look at it and say, 'Hey, this is the sale last night. We did this much.' And just try to keep him updated on what's going on, I guess."
Abdu may be gone, Saud says, but he's determined to keep his brother's dream alive.
[Music: "Dream a Little Dream of Me" by Henry Mancini from The Best Of…]
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