Canadian Pizza Magazine

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Elvis, fame and the fortunate


The only word in the English language that Moe Atallah, owner of Moe’s
World Famous Newport Restaurant in Ottawa, doesn’t know is the word
“no.” This quote, a local Ottawa joke, can be interpreted in different
ways.

The only word in the English language that Moe Atallah, owner of Moe’s World Famous Newport Restaurant in Ottawa, doesn’t know is the word “no.” This quote, a local Ottawa joke, can be interpreted in different ways.

Moe 
Moe Atallah, owner of Moe’s World Famous Newport Restaurant in Ottawa. Photo courtesy of Moe Atallah.


 

For one, Atallah’s background of being a near penniless immigrant arriving in Ottawa from civil war-torn Lebanon and working long, arduous hours for minimal wages pays homage to his inability to say “no” and just give up.

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Instead, he has fashioned a local food empire, earning fierce loyalty from his employees, customers and the Westboro neighbourhood where he saw such great promise some 30 years ago.

Another equally justifiable interpretation of Atallah’s inability to say “no” is evidenced by his seeming inability to discourage local charities. The list of groups that Atallah supports is long, though it’s quite unknown to the general public. He doesn’t expect notoriety in exchange for his goodwill and seems happy to remind reporters, “I love every second of the things I do because I feel so blessed for what this country has given me and my family.”

My interview with Ottawa’s best-known and best-connected pizza entrepreneur got off to a rough start. I picked a time of year and a time of day when I was sure the restaurant would be quiet for the interview. Boy, was I wrong.

Even in mid-afternoon, this place is rocking with locals and acquaintances continually coming by to say hello and slap Atallah on the back. Everyone wants a piece of this guy.

As the back-slapping and phone calls continued, I eventually asked Atallah if he had a quiet place or an office we could use. He deadpanned: “Are you kidding?”
 
Humble beginnings
In a nutshell, hard work, caring about people, caring about his product and being personable have gone a long, long way in establishing Atallah – and his restaurant – in the community. Longtime client Hallam Johnston puts it this way: “It’s a success because Moe’s always in the shop.”

Atallah, who learned the local pizza trade after his arrival from Lebanon in 1976, really began from the bottom up. Working 80-hour weeks and willing to do any job in order to learn the industry, Atallah asked not to be paid for a week, in order to prove his mettle. Soon after, he settled on a weekly salary of $125, living in a tiny room with a cot for a bed, and sharing the bathroom with other boarders down the hall.

 “I was so happy to have a job, that, for the same salary, I worked seven days a week instead of what I’d agreed to. I wanted to learn everything, from helping out in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, washing dishes, cooking,” Atallah says. “I felt then like I feel now – I can never, ever pay Canada back.”

After being tapped for a manager’s position, he began honing his skills as a people person. It was while working as a manager that Atallah met his wife Donna, a waitress whose application he turned down. Today, Atallah runs a second shop just down the road from the Newport Restaurant. This smaller eatery is named Donna’s.

Building loyalty
When Atallah bought the Newport Restaurant 25 years ago, the business was doing OK, but under his leadership, things have really taken off.

Loyalty is what his success is all about. The guys who made the sauce and mixed the dough all those years ago are still in the kitchen. Most of the employees I spoke to have been with Atallah for at least a dozen years. Atallah is just as loyal to his staff as they are to him.

Nine years ago, that loyalty was on display for Canadians across the country to see. The restaurant made national news in 2002, when Heather Crowe, a longtime waitress at the restaurant, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Although Crowe had never smoked, she developed cancer from second-hand smoke. When Atallah learned of Crowe’s diagnosis, he immediately banned smoking at Newport. He also appeared in national television commercials explaining the dangers of second-hand smoke.

Customers too are loyal to the restaurant that has become a neighbourhood institution.

This place really is a second home for people, Atallah says. I thought he was referring to his incredibly loyal staff. But as client after client waltzed by and exchanged a few words (in English, French and Arabic), it dawned on me that he could also be referring to his customers. As former Ottawa Citizen columnist Dave Brown wrote, “Sometimes it’s nice to go where everybody knows your name. The men who man the cash at the front are both walking Rolodexes. They know and greet everybody.”

Some clients come in six or seven times a week, with a few truly dedicated regulars who show up for three meals a day. Atallah never advertises and can count on five to six dozen regular orders every day. People drive in from all over the city and there’s often a lineup at the door. This crowd of regulars is a big part of the atmosphere that makes the restaurant a local landmark, but it’s not the only factor.

When you walk into the Newport Restaurant, you can’t help but notice the place is something of a shrine to Elvis Presley. Movie posters and album covers featuring The King are on display throughout the restaurant, with good reason. Atallah is a founder of The Elvis Sighting Society, an outfit so popular that the lane behind the restaurant is officially known as Elvis Lives Lane.

 The whole idea started off simply enough. Years ago, friends bought Atallah a seat at a local trade show. He was reluctant to put up the name of his own restaurant, so someone put up the name ‘Elvis’ as a joke. The name stuck. Today there’s even a painting of the two of them together on display inside the restaurant, painted after the King reportedly passed away!

The Elvis Sighting Society is really a front for two of Moe’s major annual charity endeavours: the Christmas Day meal and Beanfest. The Christmas Day meal offers hundreds of needy Ottawans free breakfast or lunch, and sends them home with additional food and a present to boot. Beanfest is a tuxedo and jeans event that brings Ottawa’s well-heeled crowd together and asks them to open up their wallets for charity.

Atallah is extremely reticent to talk about his many charitable activities. Suffice it to say, they’ve earned him a reputation for being the ‘man unable to say no.’

His business acumen also has earned him quite the reputation. Atallah has won Restaurateur of the Year and the Ottawa Businessman of the Year honours, among others. When he was awarded the latter, despite stiff competition from the city’s high-tech gurus, he was so surprised that he had not even prepared an acceptance speech. When he received the top restaurateur honour, his first thought was that he had not done enough to underline the importance of his staff to the company’s success.

Food for thought
Although some things have changed in the last 25 years, Newport still uses the same cheese, pepperoni, dough and sauce it did when the restaurant first opened its doors. But when Atallah discovered the advantages of whole wheat he expanded his menu and began offering his customers a whole-wheat dough. Although suppliers encourage him to purchase pre-shredded cheese and other time savers, Atallah doesn’t buy into it.

He has always been proud of his salads, the dressings for which are made with specific Middle-Eastern spices. The original Popeye pizza, made with spinach, is another of the restaurant’s unique, specialty items.

He ventured into gourmet pizzas after discovering the joys of thin crust pizza. This fits in nicely with the new wave of residents in his neighbourhood: up-and-coming urbanites who want healthy, light pizzas. Paninis and fresh salads are now staples. “We provide what people want to eat, not what we want them to eat.”

“We are really proud of what we do,” he explains. “Anybody can make pizza. We have to excel in what we do and make people welcome. We want to somehow make a difference. If there is one complaint, it’s one complaint too many.”