In Soufian Mamlouk’s world, things are falling into place. The owner of Little Burgundy’s five-month-old Lulu Épicerie, a grab-and-go spot on Notre-Dame Street West for traditionally — and deliciously — made shawarma, shish taouk, and manakeesh, says his attempt at a pandemic-proof takeout operation is breeding a host of new ideas — all grounded in a deepening connection to his native Lebanon. “It’s all kind of aligned to give me a far better vision of my goals in hospitality. I know now that I absolutely want to continue down the Lebanese train,” he says.
Beyond Lulu, Mamlouk runs EAT Agency, a marketing firm servicing local restaurants, and Barley, a breakfast place trying to buck its reputation as just a cereal spot. With the latter, also on Notre-Dame, Mamlouk says he’s cautiously dabbled in Lebanese flavours — a “Lebanese breakfast” with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, foul medames (fava bean stew), and pita features on the menu, for example. “Barley has always had some heavy influence,” Mamlouk says, “but it wasn’t until we opened Lulu that I really started reconnecting with my culture. With Lulu, I’ve doubled down on who I am, and instead of continuing to feel like the immigrant who’s never going to be part of the party, I’m like, you know what, ‘I’m bringing something fresh.’”
A marketer who knows his food but isn’t a seasoned cook, Mamlouk was able to wrangle a group of experts for the project, one for each shawarma, grill, and bread. He describes Mohamad Alkhaddam, Abu Leith, and Houda Mousawi Irak, respectively, as “malem,” a term he clarifies is used to describe a master or teacher esteemed for their indisputable expertise in a particular domain. Combined, the three have about 65 years of experience. “In a Lebanese restaurant, you’d normally be lucky to have one malem,” Mamlouk says, with a grin etched wide on his face.
As Lulu’s full name suggests (“épicerie” means “grocery store” in French), the goal is to assemble a robust retail component featuring artisanal products from Lebanon. But, since opening in April, Mamlouk acknowledges the shelves have looked “a little barren.” He explains that disruptions in the supply chain, ongoing political turmoil, and a massive economic collapse (one of the most disastrous in modern history) make importing from Lebanon exceedingly tricky. Nevertheless, he hopes to receive all the bottles of olive oil, wine, jam, and spices he ordered within a couple of months.
For now, the restaurant mainly stocks the catalogue of Ya Habibi, a collective of MENA artists and their accompanying online shop created to support various community-based charities. Buy one of the sea salt-scented candles at Lulu, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to Beit El Baraka, an NGO in Lebanon. Meanwhile, every battery power pack dressed in the guise of a vintage mixtape sold goes to the Al Hassan Foundation, which provides mobility aid to those who need it in Egypt.
Right now, Mamlouk and his team are in Lebanon for grape harvest season, meeting with several small-scale wine producers, which he reveals will fall under the umbrella of a new private import agency called Sienna. “We initially planned to just sell some Lebanese wines at Lulu,” he says. “It was simple. But we went to Lebanon and started meeting the producers, and we quickly realized this was way bigger than just Lulu.” He’s partnered with Noah Abecassis and Omar Boubess for the project.
These wines will “blow people’s socks off,” Mamlouk says, listing Vignoble Joura, Château Qanafar, Batroun Mountains, and Reserve Ammiq as vineyards he’s working with. Though not quite (yet) widely regarded as a heavyweight in the wine world, Lebanon — particularly the Bekaa Valley and the north Batroun region — enjoys a warm climate, mountainous topography, and limestone-rich soil favourable to low-intervention productions. It is also one of the oldest winemaking regions on Earth.
Mamlouk hopes that channelling these products to the Montreal market — where there is a significant Lebanese diaspora and an overall insatiable appetite for good wine — will help independent winemakers, some of whom are scrambling to remain open. “A big thing for me in all this has always been, ‘How do we support Lebanon?’” Mamlouk says.
But Sienna is also a springboard to Mamlouk’s dream project: a loungey destination that pays tribute to Lebanon’s pre-Civil War effervescent disco scene. With marketing know-how from Eat Agency, service experience at Barley, a team of Lebanese food wizzes in place at Lulu, and a sharpened understanding of the beverage side of things with Sienna, Mamlouk says the next step is all but preordained: “We need to open up a night spot.”
But that (the project’s name is still under wraps) won’t be for at least another year. Until then, Montrealers can whet their appetites with upcoming pop-ups with local restaurants like Lebanese café Chez Teta, the launch of a weekend marketplace at Lulu come summer, and the return of the vinyl-only DJs of the Beiroots Groove Ensemble, who took over Lulu in July with what Mamlouk describes as “a bit of their own disco genre.”
Thinking back to Lulu’s very first days, Mamlouk recalls being filled with an overwhelming sense of pride when a Lebanese client would walk through the front door into Lulu’s neutral-toned space, and they’d exchange words in Arabic for a moment. “Even just being able to put up a sign outside that is actually in Arabic, when a big name like Joe Beef’s Liverpool House is my next-door neighbour? I’m pretty proud of that, too,” Mamlouk says.
As for that next project, the nighttime spot, the next piece of the puzzle? Mamlouk says keeping it within Little Burgundy seems right. “It now feels that there’s a logic to everything I’m doing,” he says. “It’s much easier to work that way.”
Lulu Épicerie is open daily at 2507 Notre-Dame Street West.