When 13-year-old Nicholas Khouri greets guests at Nicholas Restaurant, a lot of people mistakenly think the family restaurant is named for him. The personable teen already has a knack for making people feel welcome and he loves cooking traditional Lebanese food.
“He has a special love for this restaurant,” says his mom, Hilda Dibe.
The restaurant is actually named for his late grandfather, Nicholas Dibe, whose love for family and Lebanese cooking paved the way to a better life for three generations of the Dibe family. Nicholas and his family escaped from Beirut, Lebanon in 1982 as refugees, fleeing a war that would claim the lives of his mother, a sister and a brother. His wife, Linda, had a sister in Portland who sponsored them.
When they arrived in Oregon, they had to start all over. Nicholas, who was in his late-40s, had a pension from working for Air France, and Linda was an excellent cook. So they used their savings to start Nicholas Restaurant in 1987.
At that time, the political climate wasn’t welcoming of people from the Middle East. But Linda’s fresh-baked bread and traditional home cooking attracted a loyal following, and soon the family’s struggle turned to success.
Hilda, the youngest of four sisters, was the same age that her oldest son, Nicholas, is now when she started helping at the restaurant. By age 16, she rode the Max from their home in Gresham after school each day to wash dishes. When she was 22, her parents were ready to retire.
A niece, Nathalie Zerka, the daughter of Hilda’s oldest sister, is in charge of all administrative functions, including bookkeeping, payroll, HR and catering sales.
In 2003, Nicholas Restaurant opened a new concept on Broadway, and in 2010, added a Gresham location. Hilda also runs a catering business.
Every-other Sunday, the whole family gathers to share a meal. With sisters who also own restaurants, there’s a lot they have in common: labor laws, restaurant reviews, balancing work and life.
“It keeps us working together in great harmony,” she says.