Alum Brothers’ Bakery Puts a DMV Spin on Middle Eastern Staple
Manoushe and farmers market photos courtesy of Dubbaneh brothers; portrait by Stephanie S. Cordle
A soft homemade crust, a layer of savory sauce and a selection of irresistible toppings like tomatoes, onions and cheese—sounds a lot like a pizza, right? These descriptors actually belong to the manoushe, a popular Middle Eastern flatbread that’s anything but another take on the Italian pie.
University of Maryland alums and brothers Johnny ‘14, Danny ‘10 and Ronnie ‘09 Dubbaneh are founders of Zayt & Za’atar (Z&Z) Manoushe Bakery in Rockville, Md., bringing the heart of the Middle East to the DMV by serving up made-from-scratch manoushes topped with their signature spices. To drive home the point even more, the siblings have snagged the url “itsnotpizza.com,” which redirects internet searches to Z&Z.
“A lot of people try to make these cultural foods fit into the established categories that they know, which is an easy way to understand,” said Danny. “But for us, this is something that is culturally iconic in the Middle East. So we want people to come and love it for what it is.”
A staple for many Middle Eastern cultures like a crusty loaf in Paris or loaf of Wonder Bread in the United States, the manoushe is a doughy thin crust. The bakery currently offers eight variations, from the “Classic Plus,” topped with tomatoes, cucumber and mint, to the “Hot Halaby Honey,” a three-cheese blend topped with sujuk, honey and Aleppo pepper.
In addition to the manoushes, Z&Z sells its own homemade spices, za’atar and sumac. A traditional Middle Eastern spice, the za’atar contains ingredients harvested from farmers in Palestine, and makes up one of the Z’s in the business’ name and the other Zayt, meaning olive oil in Arabic.
Z&Z’s signature za’atar spice has been featured in Bon Appetit Chef Brad Leone’s kitchen, as he tested out Z&Z’s version on pickled onions. Buzzfeed’s 25 recommended kitchen products to “make food taste better” placed the spice at the top of the list, with a reviewer calling it the “best quality za’atar I have found.”
The Dubbaneh brothers said their favorite way to eat za’atar is by dipping pita bread in olive oil and then in the spice blend. Sumac has a citrus flavor and can be sprinkled on salads, meats and any food desiring an added berry burst.
After muddling through potential business ideas together, in 2016 the brothers created Z&Z, an idea which traces back to 1983 when their grandfather opened the fried chicken restaurant Chicken Delight (later Chicken Tonight) in Rockville. Forty years later, the brothers now run Z&Z out of the same storefront their father once owned.
For their first three years in the industry, the brothers ran the bakery out of a cramped tent in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom farmers market, where unpredictable weather and increasing crowds could cause a normal day in the tent to turn laughable.
“Sometimes the wind would be so bad the dough would gradually fly off the oven,” said Danny. “It would be like playing defense, to try and grab it before the dough narrowly hits someone.”
Now, the bakery sits in between an Italian ice shop and a nail salon in Rockville, Md. Greeted by orange wallpaper and sage green painted walls, customers can admire tributes to the Dubbaneh’s heritage on the walls as they wait to taste a manoushe.
While the Z&Z storefront is currently open Tuesday through Sunday, with daytime hours only on the weekends. The brothers are looking forward to adding more hours to the storefront this spring, due to increased business.
“Truth be told, the business just grew and grew, and we had a ton of loyalty from our farmer’s market scene,” said Johnny. “The storefront is a different market so we had to build a new following, but we do see tons of people driving out from Virginia on weekends, to come to us and bring back goods to their neighbors.”
Johnny and Danny manage Z&Z’s storefront, while Ronnie assists the business from his home in N.J. Sisters Ronia ‘12, offers copywriting assistance through her experience as a lawyer, and Deanna ‘20 helps at the shop markets and with design.
Z&Z spices are now sold at Whole Foods, in addition to purchasing products from Z&Z’s website. As their business continues to grow recognition, the Dubbaneh brothers hope to bring a reminder of home to the Mid-Atlantic region.
“For us, it’s really about making (our products) available for people,” said Danny. “Because we’ve seen how powerful it is when people haven’t had this in so long. It reminds them of home.”
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