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Local Parents Enrich Family Life with a Family Restaurant
Natalie Schwartz can’t imagine a better job than working as the hostess at Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon in Richmond’s West End. “She loves being a hostess,” says her mom, Dr. Anne-Marie Irani. “She loves interacting with people.”
Irani and her husband, Dr. Larry Schwartz, both allergists/immunologists at VCU Health, opened the restaurant in December 2016 to help make their 26-year-old daughter’s desire for steady work a reality.
Natalie was born with Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that causes her to have difficulty with certain tasks. Most often, people with the condition are outgoing with engaging personalities and an interest in other people. “Natalie has a loving personality,” Irani says, adding that Natalie’s brothers Paul, Marc and Danny adore their sister.
Irani started thinking about opening the Lebanese restaurant several years after Natalie graduated from high school and the family discovered there was insufficient support and resources for adults with special needs.
After school Natalie completed training with Positive Vibe Café, and had internships with the YMCA and in the office of Senator Tim Kaine. She worked at a few restaurants and was serving as a hostess in a Lebanese restaurant until it closed. Irani could see how much the hostess job meant to her daughter and how it saddened her when the restaurant closed.
That’s when the idea of opening a restaurant popped into Irani’s head. “We have been going to Lebanon every summer and Christmas with Natalie,” she says. “She loves the culture, the food, the people and the music.”
She realized opening a restaurant was a “crazy idea” but she also knew it could be a good venture – there wasn’t another full-service Lebanese restaurant in the area at the time. “It took a while to find a place,” she says. “There was the question of going into a big mall or a place where you can find easy parking.”
The family decided on a space in The Shops at Twin Oaks on Cox Road in Henrico. Irani decided to decorate the restaurant like she would decorate her home – think light and bright, with creamy white and Mediterranean blue accents.
She traveled to Beirut to find just the right art. “I went to the antique market,” she says. “These old pieces of art came from homes. I wanted to bring in a little bit of Lebanon.”
All of the cooks in the kitchen are from the Middle East. Several are from Lebanon, but Irani has hired three Iraqi cooks as well. “We have another whole Lebanese family – mom, dad and daughter – working here,” she says.
The menu reminds Irani of home. Her mother’s dessert, Martha’s namoura, was one of Irani’s favorite desserts growing up. “I found the recipe in her handwriting. It’s very special to me. It really is home cooking,” says Irani. “When I go to the restaurant, I feel transported back home. Some of the items you see on the menu is what we eat every day growing up in Lebanon.”
Since opening, Irani has hired Daniel Ingold, previously with Positive Vibe Café, as a manager. She has also been able to recruit a few employees with special needs.
While it was a risky venture – most restaurants are – she has been pleased and impressed at what Natalie is doing in her job. “She’s not just taking people to the table. She also takes orders, answers phones and asks all the right questions. She will go around and talk to people who are sitting down to make sure they are doing well,” Irani says, adding that lunch regulars know Natalie and always start up a conversation. “She loves doing this.”
She acknowledges the restaurant is a lot of work but “it’s incredibly rewarding,” she says. “Natalie is so happy. You can’t have more of a reward than to have your daughter tell you how happy she is and how much she loves the restaurant.”