The restaurant is the brainchild of Ahmad Ashkar, an investment banker turned social entrepreneur, who grew up as a barbecue-loving son of Palestinian immigrants in the Midwest. He always thought a falafel shop would be in his future — just maybe not this way.
The not-for-profit he founded, the Hult Prize, is challenging students to help refugees this year. Ashkar decided he would try to crack the problem, too — with a food popular in the Middle East.
The recipe, like much of the food at Falafel Inc., comes from his mom. The chickpea-based falafel includes onions and a special spice blend Ashkar declined to reveal. The mix, which can be scaled up to eventually satisfy Ashkar's goal of opening 100 shops, is ground before the balls are fried to order.
Ashkar said he wants to pay homage to the traditional dish without being beholden to it. “We've added to the base and substituted some of the ingredients out,” he said. On the sandwich, you'll find a pretty typical salad — tomato, cucumber, mint, olive oil, lemon juice, tahini — folded into the homemade pita, which is baked on an oven imported from Lebanon. Less expected is a cabbage salad, which Ashkar said is lightly pickled and inspired by kimchi.
Throw in Falafel Inc.'s jalapeño-lit, garlicky relish known as tatbili and a spicy red sauce, and you've got yourself a filling — very filling, actually — meal that benefits from a variety of textures and flavors. But really, the star is the tender, airy and well-fried falafel.
Ashkar says he can get away with a $3 falafel sandwich (bowls with a bed of greens and za'atar chips are $4) because the average ticket clocks in at just less than $10 when customers add a drink and side to their order. That threshold is also important because every $10 in purchases represents a donation to the World Food Programme's Share the Meal program to feed one refugee for one day. (Right now donations come from about 5 percent of gross sales, with 50 cents feeding one person per day.)
“I tried to make it $2,” Ashkar said of the sandwich's price, especially because in camps where falafel is a food of necessity it costs only a fraction of a dollar. But he agreed with his partners that it would be hard to break even at $2 a pop.
Ashkar said he can keep prices low by running an efficient operation with fewer hours. Plus, he's relying on economies of scale to get the most bang for his and his customers' buck. Falafel Inc. routinely makes about 3,000 falafel balls daily (six on a sandwich, eight in a bowl), though that can increase by several thousand on busy days.
Don't be surprised to see a line of people waiting to get in before the shop's doors even open.
Falafel Inc., 1210 Potomac St. NW. Open noon to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and noon to midnight Friday and Saturday.