Cecilia Saleh, nicknamed “Sassool” by her father when she was a little girl, was born and raised in a small Mediterranean village in Lebanon called “Mazraat al Tufah”- the Garden of Apples. Like most girls in her village, she learned to cook traditional Lebanese food from her mother and grandmother. Cecilia developed a talent for combining ingredients. Every dish was a masterpiece in the hands of this brilliant young cook. She developed a reputation as one of the best cooks in the village.
Cecilia eventually married and started a family. She prepared all of the family’s dishes using fresh ingredients from their large garden. Mounir, Cecilia’s third son, followed in mama’s footsteps learning the recipes, flavor, and special touches of her cooking. He passionately believes and lives by his mother’s principle, “If you wouldn’t serve the food to yourself and your family, then don’t serve it to others.”
Because of Civil War, in 1976 the family packed their bags and fled to America with the help of Cecilia’s brother, Moussa Domit. When the Saleh family arrived, they acclimated to life in the US. One thing that they could not get used to was traditional sliced bread. The closest thing to Lebanese pita bread, was the tortilla. The Saleh brothers longed for the fresh pita bread that was such a wonderful part of growing up in Lebanon.
With encouragement from their Uncle Moussa and his wife, and armed with mother Cecilia’s recipes, the Saleh family opened a bakery in 1977. With the growing popularity of their pita pocket bread and other artisan breads, they expanded into the restaurant business in 1989. Then, in 2011, after working for 34 years with his brothers, Mounir decided to venture out and open his own restaurant in north Raleigh. This location later rebranded on Mother’s Day in 2014 to Sassool to honor mom, Cecilia, for her authentic recipes that were used to build the restaurant’s menu. A year later, Mounir opened a second location of Sassool in Cary, NC.
“Many years have gone by since those early days, but one thing has not changed, the quality ingredients and flavor combinations of Sassool’s recipes. I have been thinking about this for quite some time. My brothers and I would not have the success we enjoy without the guidance and love of our mom, Cecilia. Sassool Mediterranean Cafe is my tribute to her…a tribute to the love and special care she has for cooking.”
Through Mounir’s guidance, the Sassool kitchen is run today by mother Cecilia’s standards of freshness, high quality, balanced flavors, and wasting as little as possible. Mounir is the essence of Lebanese hospitality; he thanks every customer for coming to eat at the restaurant, and always checks to see if they need anything else.
“Although I graduated from Campbell with a business degree, I learned hospitality when I was growing up in Lebanon, long before I ever entered college. My mother could serve heaven on a plate, but was determined to always welcome others into our home and be the best host possible. It was an art, welcoming, feeding our guests, and creating an inviting atmosphere.”
The evolution has gone full circle from learning from his mother, to growing a successful restaurant with his brothers, and now in his own restaurant teaching his two oldest daughters what he knows about the industry and true customer service. Three generations have worked culinary and hospitality magic to create Sassool.
Mounir also works side by side with his wife, Lisa. “She is my rock,” he says with a smile. Lisa takes care of all business and accounting matters from the office, as well as being the resident social media guru.
If you ask Mounir how he likes working everyday with his wife and kids, he response is the same. “I am a very lucky man.” The girls agree.
In Noelle’s words, “There is no one that cares as much as my dad does about the customers, about the food, and about the restaurant. He shows us the importance of setting a very high standard and not accepting anything less.”
Mounir would love for his business to grow, but the most important thing for him is that his customers are served well, fed with delicious food, and leave with smiling faces.
Noelle and Simone, Mounir’s oldest daughters, help manage the two Sassool restaurants, along with loyal assistant managers. The two sisters both share the passion for their roots and “Sassool’s standard,” ensuring that the tradition will continue.
This sibling dynamic duo could not be more opposite, but the girls will tell you that they have learned a lot working together and have found a synergy. Nothing and no one is left unattended, just like their “Taita” Cecilia would insist. Both girls know the restaurant inside and out, having started working since the age of 15 with their father when he was at Neomonde.
Noelle graduated from NC State with a degree in inter-disciplinary studies and family business while working full time. Her firm but kind personality has made her a master of delegation. She is not afraid to tell employees to clean better, be more thorough, or restock the grocery shelves.
Simone graduated from NC State with a degree in business management and entrepreneurship, while working full time as well. Simone is a work horse like her father; and she is the person who executes special projects.
Between helping customers, training employees, testing new items, upholding standards, and placing orders; these girls are learning more and more to become dynamic business people just like their father. Noelle and Simone are proud to be a part of Sassool, to have learned so much about preparing Taita Cecilia’s recipes, great customer service, and to be a part of something bigger than just serving people food.
They feel inspired from seeing regular customers come back each day and love serving new customers who walk in not knowing what to expect. “It makes me excited to be able to talk to new customers, I am proud to tell them about the food and the restaurant, because it is food I believe in, and a history with tradition that will live on,” says Simone.
All together, you could not ask for a more talented and loving team. With Cecilia’s love and original recipes, the high level of customer service which Mounir examples every day, and the energy and enthusiasm from the girls, we cannot wait to greet and serve your next meal. Welcome to Sassool. Welcome to our home.