(Photo: The East Loop’s best falafel shop returns to Wabash Avenue–but not to the Jewelers Mall.)
(Updated, Sept. 27, 2006: Thank you to the hundreds and hundreds of people who have read this entry in the past few days. I knew we all loved Oasis, but I am overjoyed to see just how much. What a thrill to be able to help get the word out that the East Loop’s favorite falafel is back in business a block away from their old digs.)
Suleiman Ahmed is the proud owner of downtown’s popular Oasis Cafe (tel. no. 312-443-9534), the middle-eastern falafel shop that until June was tucked oddly into the back of Wabash Avenue’s Jewelers Mall for 17 years. Depsite what the little yellow sign may say outside, it’s not coming back, at least not to that location. As Ahmed tells it, he spent his summer dodging bombs in his native Nazareth only to return to Chicago to do battle with the mall’s new owners over the terms of his lease. However, representatives of the mall refute Ahmed’s claims.
Now as any faithful falafel-head in the East Loop knows, Oasis closed up shop when the Jewelers Mall (at 21 N. Wabash) began an extensive renovation over the summer. According to Ahmed, the head honchos at the mall told him he’d get two weeks notice of the closure, he’d only be closed a week, and he could walk back into his month-to-month lease.
Apparently things ran a little differently. If you think Oasis’ closing was sudden in June, you may be right. Ahmed says he received one day’s notice of the closure–at which point he was told the cafe would have to stay closed for four weeks, not the one week originally expected. However, in August, with the end of the renovation work nowhere in sight, Ahmed was again told to expect to be closed for another four weeks.
Worse, as the cafe’s hiatus doubled, so too did its rent–from $4,680 a month with utilities included, to a whopping $7,000 with pay-your-own gas and electric (adding about another $1,000 to the monthly total). According to Ahmed, he was informed by the mall honchos if he didn’t like it, they’d be happy to house another middle-eastern restaurant in Oasis’ vacated space.
“That’s no way to do business,” says Ahmed, who commutes 20 miles early every morning from his suburban Oak Lawn home. “Oasis was there for 17 years. I bought it four years ago. All the previous owners always had a good relationship with the mall. Always.”
As the closure entered its third month in August, Ahmed went home to Lebanon to attend to family affairs. As he tells it, “I went home and they were dropping bombs, and then I come back to Chicago to this battle.”
By August 31, with still no end to the renovation in sight, Ahmed had to decide if his business was ever really coming back. He decided it was. But not to the Jewelers Mall. On that day he informed the mall’s owners he would not be renewing his monthly lease, and hours later found and signed a multi-year lease on a new, larger cafe space in a shared food court a block to the south.
Last week, Oasis Cafe reopened for business in its new digs at 17 S. Wabash in the Iwan Ries building, exactly one block away from its original location. The cafe–and its spectacular new neon signage–shares an enormous (if somewhat shabby) dining room with three other fast-food shops, and boasts a full-sized counter, a larger kitchen, and best of all for downtown workers and residents, longer open hours (including all day Saturday).
Even better for Ahmed, the rent at the new space is significantly lower than his original rent at the Jewelers Mall. This may come in handy, because, unfortunately, many old customers don’t yet know that the cafe’s back–and Ahmed wonders whether the Jewelers Mall wants to keep it that way.
When Oasis quit the Jewelers Mall, instead of taking down the small yellow “closed” sign that had marked the cafe’s temporary hiatus, someone scrawled the word “original” in black magic marker above the cafe’s name. According to Ahmed, when he asked why this was done, he was told by mall representatives that they intended to open a new middle-eastern eatery in Oasis’ old space, possibly under the Oasis name.
However, sources at the Jewelers Mall, including mall manager George Pappageorge, tell CARLESS that within a couple of weeks a new falafel shop will open in Oasis’ old digs at the back of the mall, and that no one at the Jewelers Mall knows who wrote the word “original” on the sign. Once a name is chosen for the new eatery, the old sign will be taken down. Mall source also contend that Ahmed knew full well how long the renovation would take, had agreed in advance to the proposed new rent, and that Ahmed’s leaving stiffed the Jewelers Mall with thousands of dollars in kitchen renovation costs but no restaurant to show for it, forcing the mall owners to scramble to find a new tenant.
As for whether the new restaurant will be called Oasis, sources say the legality of that was considered, but it’s more likely a different name will be chosen for the eatery.
Still, Ahmed fears for the Oasis name, which he believes is rightfully is. If that name is used by the new Jewelers Mall eatery, says Ahmed, “It’s stealing. Just because you’re the landlord means you can do whatever you want? It’s not right.”
Ahmed also wonders whether the plan was to oust Oasis and install a new, Jewelers Mall-owned business all along. But as any regular Oasis customer can tell you, the cafe brought in the lion’s share of activity to the Jewelers Mall. “Making us go”, says Ahmed, “is a big mistake for their business.”
Hopefully the move won’t turn out to be a mistake for Oasis as well. The best falafel in downtown can’t survive if no one knows it’s there. Ahmed has already hired a few people to hand out menus pointing his old customers to the new location. One place you can be guaranteed to find these flyers: right in front of the offending yellow sign at the Jewelers Mall.
In a few weeks time, you, dear reader, can sample the pita at the as-yet unnamed new eatery in the back of the Jewelers Mall, and decide for yourself whether the new eatery is a worthy replacement for the old. In a neighborhood with a dearth of good ethnic restaurants, two falafel shops on one stretch of street can’t be bad thing.
As for potentially having two restaurants called Oasis within a block of each other on Wabash Avenue? Should that come to pass, says Ahmed with a glint in his eye, “We’re gonna take them to court.”
This neighborhood resident’s tummy would be happier, though, if both eateries just battled it out in the kitchen.