Twelve years ago this month Roger Gergi and his wife Yasmin opened the doors to North Bay’s only Lebanese restaurant.
Originally from Lebanon, Canada has been home to Gergi for over 35 years.
The couple took a gamble that the Cedar Tree Lebanese Restaurant would catch on.
“One of the big reasons we came here was because that was one of the things that were missing here in North Bay. There really wasn’t that much difference in food. We had Thai, we had Chinese and then we had your regular shops here. This being my culture from where I’m from. I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life, so I figured we were going to give it a go and keep our fingers crossed,”Gergi explained.
“To be honest, I didn’t know it was going to be a hit. We were hoping for it. Lebanese food is very simple. People know it, people love it. We used to live in Ottawa, in Calgary, in Toronto and there are Lebanese shawarma shops everywhere.”
The ingredients aren’t exotic, in fact, they are likely to be found in the average home pantry.
“We use a lot of herbs nothing spicy, nothing hot, but a lot of different spices so oregano, thyme, basil, zaatar. We use a lot of that in our culture. They are ingredients that you have all seen and have had before; chicken and lettuce and tomatoes and garlic. It is just the way we put it together it is a little bit different,” Gergi explained.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t authentic Lebanese cuisine that first got some of the customers through the doors.
“My biggest challenge when we first opened 12 years ago was that people didn’t know much about Lebanese food or even what shawarma is. So they’d come in and we were selling poutine at the time so I could get people to come in because who doesn’t love poutine, right? And as they would come in and order poutine, I would say ‘While you are waiting for your poutine, try this or try that’ and we would give them little samples of the donair, the falafel, and the shawarma just to introduce people to the food.”
The Donair dish features shaved marinated beef and lamb wrapped in a pita with lettuce, tomato, and onion, topped with the choice of donair sauce or garlic sauce.
Falafel is a combination of chickpeas and fava bean patties mixed with parsley, onion, garlic, and spices deep-fried and wrapped in a pita with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickled turnip and topped with tahini.
At the end of the day, the big seller is the chicken shawarma.
Chicken shawarma is shaved marinated rotisserie chicken wrapped in a pita with lettuce, tomato, pickles, pickled turnip, and onion, topped with a choice of garlic sauce or hummus.
“For the shawarma we use chicken breasts and chicken breasts only we don’t use dark meat. You take chicken and you marinate it with a bunch of different spices and garlic of course. And you put it on a spit and you cook it vertically so it cooks from the outside-in then we put that on a wrap with your choice of garlic sauce or hummus,” said Gergi about the crowd-pleaser.
“I think one of the biggest reasons is the chicken. People know chicken. So it is the easiest thing to go to because you know it. Chicken shawarma is the big seller but we do have a lot of vegetarians, a lot of vegans here in North Bay. So falafel’s, vegetarian shawarma, tofu shawarmas are big sellers as well.”
The menu has expanded over the years to include appetizers, bowls, and salads.
“We do wraps, we do platters, we do family meals, and we do catering, so we do a little bit of everything. We try to keep it as authentic as we possibly can. Obviously, there is some stuff that you just can’t, so our menu is pretty small,” said Gergi.
“We try to keep just the staple Lebanese things that people know; your shawarma’s, your falafel, your kafta, your donair’s, tabbouli and hummus. We try to keep it simple by keeping it minimal, but it is as authentic as we can keep it.”
“We’re open Monday to Friday 11 to 8. Before COVID our lunch was the big money maker. We got a lot of the business people from around here and what have you. But since COVID we lost a lot of people who were working from home and they’re not down here as often. We saw that our lunches dropped a bit but our dinner has made up the difference,” Gergi shared.
“Knock on wood we’ve been steady the whole time. So COVID from a sales perspective hasn’t affected us too much. We’ve obviously lost a lot of catering because people aren’t getting together but restaurant sales haven’t seen too much of a hit.”
The poutine which once drew people into the restaurant when the Cedar Tree first opened, remains on the menu today.
Choices vary from traditional poutine to deluxe shawarma poutine; fresh-cut fries topped with Shawarma chicken, cheese curds, and spicy garlic gravy and donair poutine.
”I plan many more years here, knock on wood. We’re still going strong, still loving it and we hope to be here for quite a while,” declared Gergi.
“I feel very grateful with 12 years here, through COVID, through fires, we’ve had so many things happen and the community always stepped up. It is because of everybody here that we’re still around and I can make a living doing what I love to do and support my family.”