Once upon a time a six year old Wollongong girl named Samara made a wish after sharing a dream with her father.
Several years later Mohamed Nemer granted his daughter’s wish by combining his passion for cooking Lebanese food at home with opening a restaurant using her name.
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Now on the 10th anniversary of the original restaurant in Corrimal St, a new much larger eatery is opening on Wednesday.
But the origins of what Wollongong has come to know as Samara’s goes back to Mr Nemer’s youth growing up in the country in Lebanon. He has just returned from visiting his mum on the very same farm where much of the traditional produce, such as handpicked olives and olive oil, comes to make Samara’s Wollongong and Woonona, run by Ms Nemer’s brother Omar, so authentic.
Many of the ingredients are carefully handpicked by Mr Nemer on trips to his homeland which means the quality of food at Samara’s keeps improving. “It has gone to the next level. That makes a lot of difference in the preparation for me,” he said.
Samara Nemer, 23, said the message of her real life fairytale story is that dreams really do come true. So never be afraid to dream. And the best thing is she gets to live hers with her dad.
“We have always shared the dream together,” he said.
“Cooking was my hobby. I am passionate about it because I learned from my mum. I used to help my mum exactly the same way Samara is helping me”.
Mr Nemer said he was so passionate about his time in the kitchen that opening a restaurant made a lot of sense.
“For 20 years at home I was always cooking. And always doing something special for the kids. Everybody enjoyed it. So when Samara came along and suggested I do it professionally and that she wanted to do it with me I said “if I open a restaurant I am going to call it Samara’s.”
But never in his wildest dreams did he think there would now be two Samara’s restaurants and that one would be as a spacious and professional as what is opening on Wednesday.
“I knew in my heart that it would be good. The minute I open the door every morning it still feels it is like my first day at work. Every day is a new day for me”.
And every day will continue to be special at the new eatery as Mr Nemer works with his his wife Majida Hassein, his daughter Samara, her sister Alyca and her husband Shadi Saab.
Samara said the thing she loved about the restaurant was people got to eat food the way she did growing up when her mother Rehab Nemer would invite people around. “She had all this love to give. She was so hospitable and so caring. I would just love that. And people were so happy just to see her and come over. And then you had my dad who would love cooking and the two things combined together”.
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Samara said it was an incredible feeling to see where that had led.
But she always knew they could do it. And he has reinforced that in words every day since the doors first opened at the original Samara’s site in September 2008 when she was just 13.
“Our dream has always been to take people to the village world (in Lebanon). We always want to create that feeling for our customers. And to give them the hospitality that we feel when we go over to the village which is like our second home. We want them to experience that food as well,” she said.
There is a specially commissioned artwork on a large wall near the kitchen in the new restaurant showing Samara’s grandparents. Along with the food and service it is designed to help take diners back to the village.
Mr Nemer said the opening hours of 10.30 until late were the same as the original Samara’s. But breakfast is being introduced on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
All the bread will now be cooked in-house and Samara’s Wollongong will start doing functions now it has a larger space.
The one thing that has not changed and won’t changed is the quality and consistency of the food which is always the same.
“There is nothing better than a customer coming up and saying “thank you very much I enjoyed my lunch” or “I enjoyed my dinner”, Mr Nemer said.
The other thing that is very special for him is that his four children have worked in the business.
“They love it just as much as I do,” he said.
Former customers who come back to Wollongong after years away keep telling the Nemer family the food is exactly the same and as good as they remember.
Mr Nemer said a larger restaurant with more all-weather seating will mean more jobs.
Last year the wages at the Wollongong restaurant were $650,000 and he expects that to grow another $200,000 if Wollongong embraces the new location the way he anticipates.
Alyca Nemer said it was great to be in a family that created a business together and got to work together.
“We get to share everything with each other. And everyone knows the family. It is just a great experience. We want all our customers to feel like they are part of our family,” she said.
“My mum (Rehab) said to me when we first opened to just pretend everyone is coming to eat at your house. The only difference is they have to pay. So treat them as if they are your family. Unfortunately they do have to pay but everyone feels like they are part of the Samara’s family. All our customers are our best friends. This doesn’t feel like work. This is so exciting.”