After moving to Turkey to study to be a dentist, Palestinian chef Said “Sam” Mousa decided to move to the United States to pursue that education. When he arrived in 1974, he took a different path: starting out as a dishwasher in Chicago, he ended up climbing the restaurant-industry ladder there, then moved his family across the country to open a restaurant here in Atlanta. Now, he owns four restaurants in Georgia.
In an interview with Georgia Voice, Mousa discussed Mediterranean Grill and his journey to becoming a beloved Atlanta-area restaurateur.
“I was a busboy in Skokie, Illinois, outside Chicago, and I learned [about restaurant operations],” he said. “And I started thinking one day I would have my own business—that’s when I was 21 years old.”
He opened Mediterranean Grill on December 22, 2001, as a response to a need for Mediterranean restaurants he saw in Atlanta. This month, the flagship store in Decatur will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
“I used to visit the great city of Atlanta, and I found out that it could use this concept of Mediterranean regional foods, so I made the decision to quit my job, sell my house, and move the family to the city,” Mousa said. “It was great timing … because the city was really hungry for this kind of food and there was no Mediterranean restaurant.”
After two decades and expansion across the Metro Atlanta area, the COVID-19 pandemic posed unique challenges for restaurants and small businesses like Mediterranean Grill. Customers are excited to see the store back open, but struggles with hiring and maintaining financial footing abound.
“The future is unknown, but the restaurant business is going to change, and everybody has to adapt,” Mousa said. “Everything we need for the restaurant business is hard to get nowadays, and if you find it, it’s triple the price.”
Yet Mediterranean Grill has worked hard to keep prices down and stay afloat. During the early days of the pandemic, the restaurant offered costumers a discount. However, some of the customers — many of whom were doctors working at the affiliated hospital — requested to pay full price.
“It was hard to stay [open], so we offered half price off for two months,” Mousa said. “And I had doctors who came to me and said, ‘Listen, I want to pay full price to support our favorite restaurant.’”
When Mousa retires, the business will pass on to key members of his team: his sons and some of his most trusted employees. But he is not retiring just yet, as he continues to commit himself to the great customer and employee experience that he sees as central to running a restaurant.
The restaurant is able to build a great team because of the way in which they champion hiring people who want to work.
“We believe in hiring people who want to work from the beginning, it didn’t matter your color, your intentions, the way you think, if you believe in God or don’t believe in God, if you’re straight or gay, we don’t pay attention to those things,” Mousa said. “We had the best people here for years, and when they left here to go to school, someone said, ‘Working in the Mediterranean Grill is a school of life.’”
Beyond the care Mediterranean Grill exhibits for its employees, it also really focuses on customers and their experience. Lasting relationships with customers can span years and circumstances.
“The restaurant business is people’s business,” Mousa said. “It’s how you deal with your customers, your community, your employees. We pay close attention to our employees, and that’s why we have people here who’ve been with us 19 years, 18 years, 16 years, and they’re going nowhere. They became like family, and we care about them.”
“We have good relationships with customers,” he continued. “I have seen kids who are going to medical school here, and their parents used to be students here and eat here. Like this doctor who brought his son who was in medical school. He said, ‘I want what I used to eat, when I was a student at Emory.’”
Of course, customer service is not the whole story without delicious food to back it up. Despite rising prices of raw ingredients, Mediterranean Grill continues to make everything in-house daily and sources local ingredients.
“We have buyers who buy from the source, and they go get stuff locally,” Mousa explained. “We try to shop small and use quality ingredients.”
If great customer service sounds good to you and you want to try some of these incredible ingredients, you can visit Mediterranean Grill at one of its four locations in Decatur, Midtown, Marietta, or Athens. Check out the menu and order online at mediterraneangrill.com.