Soraya Sus and her two daughters have been customers at Falafel King since 2009. Treating them as more than just customers, the restaurant’s owner and founder, Ghassan Chehab, would always personally greet them and give the girls free desserts.
He interacted with them beyond the food transaction, providing a human connection beyond just service.
“When I went alone, [he] always asked me about them by their names and sometimes even [sent] the sweets with me,” Sus said.
Chehab died Dec. 10 at 74.
After running a restaurant with his brother in Daytona, Chehab decided to move in 1984 to Gainesville — back then, a developing town perfect for raising his four children, now all adult-aged.
Taha Chehab, Ghassan Chehab’s son, remembers him as a humble and patient man. Above all, he was also generous and always willing to help the homeless and feed the needy.
In 1984, he opened the authentic Lebanese restaurant Falafel King, now located at 3252 SW 35th Blvd. Placed on what was then a soccer field, Falafel King became a food staple in the city. For Chehab, it was more than just a restaurant — it was his second home.
“He loved that store,” Taha Chehab said. “He passed doing what he loved doing.”
Being a personable and hands-on owner allowed him to build connections between himself and his customers. His energy radiated his warmth and good-natured character.
His passing affected not only friends and family, but also the tight-knit local Muslim community.
For Yasmine Choudar, a 26-year-old senior sales and marketing associate in real estate at The Bozzuto Group, Chehab was her first boss and mentor, offering her the opportunity to work and make her own income at the age of 15.
The three years she spent there drastically changed her life trajectory and allowed her to pave the right path for her career and academic goals.
“It impacted my ability to financially self-determine,” Choudar said. “The job gave me a sense of responsibility. I learned how to manage my money and how to save.”
Working at Falafel King was Choudar’s first step toward independence, she said, saving enough money for her first big purchase: a MacBook computer she intended to use for university.
“My time at Falafel King is a reminder of how essential it is to thank the people who gave you the very opportunities that would lead to the next,” Choudar said.
As an Arab Muslim American woman, Choudar remembers how Falafel King fostered an affirming space for her.
Working around other Muslims further connected Choudar to her roots and helped her learn more about Lebanese culture.
Chehab’s legacy transformed the food industry and the Middle Eastern community. His love for his home country, Lebanon, transpired into his work. Sharing his culture and showing pride in his roots made his business feel like a relative's kitchen, Choudar said, not a restaurant.
Chehab amassed immense success as customers gravitated toward the traditional Middle Eastern cuisine and healthy food options that few other businesses had.
Choudar believed running his business was what Chehab did best — treating those he encountered as neighbors and friends while simultaneously opening doors for others in need.
“My favorite thing about Ghassan has to be the overall character and energy that radiates off of him,” Choudar said. “His warmth, good-intentioned nature, kind eyes and stoic disposition.”
Under Chehab’s management, Falafel King regularly catered for the Islamic Community Center of Gainesville, a mosque where the Muslim community goes to seek support. His extensive contribution to local events made him a prominent and beloved figure in the community.
"His story is a quintessential reminder of what the United States signifies for so many — a place that offers opportunity, freedom to self-determination and a place to actualize your dreams," Choudar said.
As for the Falafel King restaurant, the family plans to continue running it as is to maintain Chehab’s legacy.
Contact Xenia firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @xeniateju
Xenia Teju is a third-year journalism major and a staff writer for The Avenue. When she isn't writing for The Alligator, you can find her keeping up with her fashion and lifestyle blog known as ICÔNE COLUMN. She also enjoys listening to music, traveling, hanging out with friends and playing tennis.