Sami and Sonia Bejjani spent more than two decades behind the counter at Sami’s Lebanese & Middle Eastern Cuisine in Riccarton’s Windmill Centre until retiring at Christmas.
The couple started the business soon after emigrating to Christchurch with three children in 1989, having been unable to find work in their professions and not wanting handouts from their adopted homeland.
Sonia Bejjani said it was her husband’s heart scare this year that convinced them to retire.
He had three stents inserted into his chest to open blockages in four arteries.
“He was very lucky he didn’t have a heart attack. Two days [after surgery] he was back on his feet, but we thought it was a sign we had to stop,” she said.
“We are both at retirement age, Sami and I, so it’s time to just slow down.”
The news was a blow to their customers, some of whom had been regulars since the takeaway opened.
“We didn’t know we were so appreciated to that extent until the last two weeks when we put up the notice that we were finishing on the 23rd [of December]. It was overwhelming.”
On the final night, orders stopped about 7.30pm when food ran out, despite more than three times the usual preparation.
They started the takeaway at time when international cuisine was not the staple it is now.
Sonia Bejjani had worked as an executive secretary in the banking industry and Sami Bejjani in information technology sales, but neither could find work in Christchurch despite both speaking three languages.
They turned to what Sonia Bejjani knew best – cooking.
“It took off with word of mouth and we just started growing our loyal customers from there,” she said.
“You can’t believe the love they have for our food and us. It’s very sad.”
The couple will continue to sell their food products online through the Sami’s Kitchen website, which started three years ago. Sonia Bejjani also plans to write a cookbook.