“It’s actually lunchtime right now. Would you be able to call back later”?
Faycal Belakhdar is one of the busiest men on the University of Wisconsin campus. And it’s not because he’s a dean, a professor or even a graduate student.
Belakhdar is the owner of Mediterranean Caf? at 625 State Street. Trying to get a hold of him at lunchtime is a simply laughable task unless you stop by and pay him a visit in person. A restaurant open Monday through Saturday (only for lunch), Belakhdar spends most of his waking hours keeping “Med Caf?” – as it is called by his loyal regular customers — running smoothly.
He arrives at the caf? every morning before his staff clocks in and leaves only after they have gone home for the day. Belakhdar acknowledges that his desire and need to be physically present in the restaurant is a product of his Algerian background.
“If you want the quality of food, you have to be here,” Belakhdar says. “It’s a cultural thing. I’m like the head of the family.”
This concept of family – and the idea of home, as well – is a driving force behind the restaurant and has helped to develop one of the most popular caf?s on campus for cheap, fast and scrumptious Mediterranean food. The cuisine served at Med Caf? is Middle Eastern, complete with a spinning vertical spit in the front window for roasting gyro meat.
“The food I serve is about nostalgia,” says Belakhdar. “You see a lot of foreigners here, you know? Even though they’re from different countries and not always from Algeria, the flavor of my food reminds them of their home.”
A man with a complicated history himself, Belakhdar knows a thing or two about the importance of finding a home away from home – something that students at the university can certainly relate to.
After moving to the United States from Algeria in 1980, Belakhdar worked at several restaurants in Madison before finally opening Mediterranean Caf? in 1996. With no formal culinary training or experience, he set his mind on picking up cooking skills and recipes along the way and created a true Madison institution, in which he invests much passion and pride.
“I never worked in a restaurant until I moved to the U.S.,” says Belakhdar. “I was at Amy’s Caf? for 12 years. That’s where I learned how to cook and manage a restaurant – not that it’s a science!”
However, Belakhdar seems to have discovered the formula for running this successful caf?, now celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of its opening. What’s most important to this restaurateur is the pleasing of his customers; he values that over everything else.
“The mistake of a lot of ethnic restaurants,” Belakhdar says, “is they just serve what they like to eat. You have to serve what the people like, you know? …I’m Algerian, so I should have couscous everyday. But that’s not for everyone.”
Belakhdar speaks about his restaurant with such fondness that makes it impossible to ignore his obvious commitment to the work he does. As many small business owners do, Belakhdar simply radiates this enthusiastic attitude, and it’s contagious.
“It’s important to exchange with people face to face,” says Belakhdar, with regard to having his restaurant located on a college campus. “I like to adopt some students. Every year or so, I set my heart on a certain group. They’re like my kids…That’s what makes me happy.”
With his ever-evolving clientele, it’s not hard for a personable man like Belakhdar to find friends in each new round of customers. Fluent in four languages, he is able to converse with almost anyone who walks in the door of Mediterranean Caf?, and the postcards lining the walls around the cash register are a testament to his cosmopolitan customers. Belakhdar is an adaptable man, taking delight in serving daily the unique clientele for which he feels so much affection.
“It’s very important for me, for people to see more than just the food,” said Belakhdar. “That’s what keeps me going…knowing that I satisfy a lot of people.”