SAN DIEGO — It’s been a whirlwind few years for Bryan Zeto, owner of the hugely popular South Park food truck Shawarma Guys, and a huge new landmark is fast approaching with the opening of his first brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Zeto opened the truck in the parking lot of a friend’s liquor store in 2019, enjoying rave reviews from the start and quickly garnering a following. But the truck’s popularity really exploded when it was named the best restaurant in the US for 2020 by Yelp.
“Literally the next day we had crazy lines,” Zeto told FOX 5 in a phone interview on Friday. “It was fantastic.”
Overnight, according to Zeto, the truck went from maybe 100 orders in one day to 3 or 400. Queues around the block in front of The Bottle House on Grape Street, where the truck serves plates and sandwiches Monday through Saturday.
Not long after the huge surge in popularity, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, challenging Zeto in much the same way as small businesses everywhere. The truck packed up the outdoor tables and chairs but stayed open to serve San Diego’s delicious shawarma, falafel and other comfort foods at a time when many residents’ social lives were focused on takeout.
The truck survived the pandemic, although staffing has been – and remains – difficult. Zeto said the team got used to handling the big crowds and things had calmed down a bit and the truck settled into a comfortable rhythm.
As for the owner, he stays there “open and close” most days. 12- and 13-hour days are the norm. He said he’s been taking it easy lately – maybe he only works 10 or 11.
Now he has a new challenge on his plate: opening his first two restaurants that don’t sit on four wheels. Shawarma Guys’ first brick and mortar location is planned for 5525 Jackson Drive in La Mesa, where Zeto took the place of an old Greek restaurant and gutted the place to rebuild it from the ground up.
If all goes well, the restaurant will open in September or October, Zeto said. Details are yet to be announced, but guests order at a counter and have a comfortable seating area to enjoy their meal.
The menu will feature an expanded range of food, with favorites from the truck but also new items including more Wagyu beef dishes that have proven a bit unwieldy in the mobile kitchen.
The owner expects to open a second Shawarma Guys location in Mira Mesa sometime after the first spot.
While the new storefronts are exciting, Zeto assured South Park residents that he also has no plans to give up his place in their neighborhood, making it three Shawarma Guys locations in the near future.
For the uninitiated, shawarma meat is piled onto a skewer and slowly cooked as it rotates, finally sliced thinly and usually served on pita. It’s a popular fast-casual and street food, and a staple of Mediterranean cuisine.
Zeto is Chaldean and said his shawarma is the closest thing to Iraqi style, but he draws on a variety of influences for the many dishes on the menu. His garlic paste, for example, is more Lebanese. And Zeto created his own falafel recipe by experimenting, chopping up the veggies and testing different combinations until the fried dish tasted just right.
Zeto said many of his nine employees have been with the company from the start. “They’re family to us,” he told FOX 5. “We treat them all like family.”
And that family needs to grow as Zeto recruits staff for the new locations. He asked anyone looking for work to get in touch.
Visit the Shawarma Guys website to see the full menu and learn more.
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