Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and uncommon ideas finding success in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to Go Topeka, which seeks economic success for all companies and citizens across Shawnee County through implementation of an aggressive economic development strategy that capitalizes on the unique strengths of the community.
TOPEKA — Tony Mashaal made baklava every night for nearly two years, he recalled, noting he wasn’t going to stop until he perfected the recipe.
“It was good, but something was missing. I kept adding ingredients, taking ingredients away,” said Mashaal, the owner and head chef of Olive Cafe in Downtown Topeka, Kansas. “The honey I use is mountain honey from Turkey. Now, my baklava sells like crazy. I know when people come and eat my food, it is very good — because I love what I am doing.”
Click here to check out the menu at Olive Cafe.
Olive Cafe is a Mediterranean restaurant that incorporates iconic flavors, recipes and ingredients from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Mashaal — who grew up in Egypt — pulls inspiration from his childhood and travels through Turkey, Italy, France, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon. Olive Cafe opened in July 2022.
“I had been wanting to open a restaurant for almost seven years, but I was busy running other businesses,” Mashaal said, noting his previous experience in real estate. “But what I really love is cooking. I fell in love with cooking [when] I was 5 years old. When I got older and other people my age were going on dates, I was looking for the best tomatoes and onions to buy.”
Since opening Olive Cafe in July, Mashaal has served customers across Kansas and Missouri who have come to try his food, he said.
“We get a lot of people from Lawrence and Kansas City; they say there is no restaurant like Olive Cafe,” Mashaal shared. “We’re also going crazy on DoorDash. It’s keeping us very busy.”
Growing downtown Topeka
Mashaal moved to the United States in the early 2000s and made Topeka his new home in 2010. Passionate about growing the local community, Mashaal views his restaurant as a way to drive tourism and more businesses to Downtown Topeka, he said.
“I feel like the downtown is a little bit weak,” Mashaal acknowledged. “Since I opened, more people are talking about downtown and start to come and walk around here. I want to keep it that way to wake up this downtown.”
Investors from Lawrence and Kansas City have approached Mashaal with opportunities to open up another location in their respective cities, Mashaal said, but he turned them down.
“Quality is No. 1,” he said. “I will be sure that this location is running 100 percent right before I ever consider opening a second location. These investors have offered to bring in assistance, but I don’t want to interfere with the work we are doing here. Maybe in the future, but we are busy enough here.”
To keep up with the high demand for orders at Olive Cafe, Mashaal trained under a chef in New York City, he said.
“I’ve cooked nearly all my life, but I’ve never been in the restaurant business before so I needed someone to give me advice,” Mashaal said, noting that the chef wished to be unnamed. “… He is 86 years old and has so much experience. He taught me how to increase my speed through his kitchen tricks and the way he did the tickets. That is extremely helpful now when we are getting over 40 DoorDash over lunch.”
Ingredients from Turkey
Perfecting recipes and operations can only get a chef so far, Mashaal said; the quality of ingredients is what will truly set one apart from their competitors.
Olive Cafe’s food supplier, which provides everything from mountain honey to meats, is based in Turkey — one of Mashaal’s favorite countries to visit for food, he shared.
“I had to travel to Turkey, and they test you as a chef to prove that you know how to use these materials,” Mashaal said, pointing to dolma (stuffed grape leaves). “These grape leaves are the softest grape leaves you will ever taste. You could try and make dolma at home, and it might taste similar, but it will miss that softness and quality of the grape leaves in Turkey.”
In February, Turkey suffered from two powerful earthquakes which killed thousands of people in southern Turkey and northern Syria. The earthquakes have had an impact on Olive Cafe’s food supplier, Mashaal said, noting he would rather close the restaurant for a week than source his ingredients elsewhere.
“There is another restaurant owner in New York who uses the same supplier,” Mashaal said. “He has agreed to help supply me with lamb if I run out, as long as his supply does not get too low. … I do not think we will have to close, but quality comes before everything. We are thinking of the people of Turkey, and it’s important to keep our trust with the supplier.”
When customers visit Olive Cafe, they can be assured that they will have a meal they enjoy, even if they initially order something they don’t like, Mashaal said.
“My policy is zero enemies, zero unsatisfied customers,” Mashaal said, smiling. “I want every single customer to be happy. I’ve had customers try Greek food, gyros, for the first time and really love it or not like it. I am always happy to fix them something else. Everybody loves chicken shawarma, so I will make them that or figure out what they like.”
One of Mashaal’s customers shared with him that she had a severe gluten allergy, so he set out to make gluten-free pita bread.
“Gluten-free bread was a big challenge for me,” Mashaal said. “I wanted to make it very soft like regular bread, so I spent quite a bit of time hand-making different gluten-free breads. I wanted her to be able to eat everything on the menu. The next time came back, she ate three sandwiches!”
Going the extra mile for every person who walks into Olive Cafe is not a difficult task when it is your passion, Mashaal said.
“I cook with love because I love to cook,” he continued. “It’s my favorite thing to do.”
Mashaal’s ultimate goal is for Olive Cafe to be known as “the best of the Mediterranean,” he shared.
“When someone says they want Mediterranean food, I want them to think of Olive Cafe in Topeka,” Mashaal said. “I am planning on adding more items to the menu, but I am doing so slowly and carefully. I have to be 100 percent sure that everything is 100 percent right.”
This series is possible thanks to Go Topeka.
Go Topeka seeks economic success for all companies and citizens across Shawnee County through implementation of an aggressive economic development strategy that capitalizes on the unique strengths of the community.