Syrian business brings Middle Eastern flair to Knoxville
In the brief time that it has been open, Yassin’s Falafel House quickly has emerged as a downtown food staple, with patrons enjoying unique food in an inclusive atmosphere. After moving to Knoxville as a Syrian refugee in 2011, Yassin Terou struggled to find his place in society. Having a zeal for making the food of his homeland, he set up two plastic tables and sold falafel sandwiches outside of the Muslim Community of Knoxville in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. People loved his sandwiches, and he loved making them. After finding success at the mosque, one of its parishioners, Nadeem Siddiqi, invested in helping Terou start Yassin’s Falafel House at 706 Walnut St. in 2014.
Terou understands the necessity of finding a balance between Syrian and American tastes and influences, and he seeks to incorporate both into his business.
“You can say it is almost 80 percent close. I did want to mix both cultures: the Syrian market with the U.S. It’s not quite Americanized. I kept the principle,” Terou remarks. “It’s like me coming here. You can’t give me a real steak; it has to be well done. If you gave me a medium-rare steak, I wouldn’t eat it.”
Terou mentions a couple surprising differences between the food he makes here and the food from Syria.
“They like a lot of vegetables here, so I did add more vegetables than we eat in Syria. I kept the same taste and the same principles but change it to fit in the market. We don’t actually have gyros in Syria. Gyros are ground meat, and in Syria we eat them more like filet. If you give people all the unfamiliar taste of Syrian food, they might not like it, so we have to introduce them to it through flavors they are familiar with.”
While introducing different flavors, Terou embodies a different type of presence than many other business owners locally. Terou’s experiences as an immigrant led him to establishing a business model that deeply favors inclusivity. This stood out to many of his customers and – thanks to internet virality – has drawn fanfare from markets far beyond Knoxville. It even garnered the attention of Jack Dorsey, Square founder and CEO of Twitter, who appeared in a CNN interview with Terou in January in order to promote a short film about the restauranteur that he had spearheaded.
“I was just sitting [around] like everybody else, and I had a call from the Square team, and they asked me to do a film with them. I was really surprised because Square is a big company with big technology, and I said yes. They came here after two or three weeks, and we filmed it in three or four days.”
The final product, which can be found online, highlights Yassin’s Falafel House, as well as the Knoxville community at large.
“They wanted to present our message. It wasn’t a commercial; we are not telling the people to come buy anything. It was just telling our story. We are telling our motto. Square has a lot of diversity in their team and so does Yassin’s Falafel House, and we march together on the same page. We want to provide safe places for everybody.”
Knoxville has proven that it shares these values, too. On a benefit night for Bridge Refugee Services on January 31, the community turned out in droves, forming an hours-long line that stretched for blocks around the shop in order to show its support for Terou and for others affected by displacement. Since then, the city unflinchingly has continued to patronize the refugee-run business. Regardless of whether you are unfamiliar with Syrian people, culture or flavors, Terou encourages any and all persons to visit and figure out what they all are about.
“We like to talk to the people that don’t like us. You have to see a real immigrant. Don’t be scared – be open. Come out and meet us.”