New cafe brings some Syrian flavour to London

A new cafe opening in south London follows a business model that started with the owner's grandfather back in his native Syria.

The shop features pastries, coffee and exotic nuts roasted in house

With his Viola Gourmet cafe, owner Mo Mbhan has imported a business model he learned from his grandfather in Syria. A key component: exotic nuts roasted on site in a metal roaster built by his brother in Dubai. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Step inside Viola Gourmet Cafe and it's the smell that hits you first. 

An overwhelming bouquet of spices from all over the Middle East. A few steps closer in and your nose fills with the smell of strong coffee. Further from the front door you smell what owner Mo Mbhan expects will be the big draw: fresh nuts, including exotic varieties, roasted on site. 

The store sells an array of Middle Eastern favourities, including nuts and spices. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

"I know so many things from this business because when I was young, I saw how my grandfather did it," he said.

His grandfather taught Mbhan the business in a similar cafe years ago in his native Syria. 

Mbhan came to London where his wife's family was living and decided to open the Viola Gourmet Cafe at 312 Commissioners Rd. W. His cafe is located in a shopping plaza about halfway between Wharncliffe Road and Wonderland Road. 

The cafe has only opened with a soft launch, with a possible grand opening planned for later in the week. 

This nut roaster was built by Mo Mbhan's brother and shipped to London from Dubai. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Customers are already coming in for the pastries and coffee. But Mbhan says the real draw is the nuts, which are roasted in a metal roaster the size of a pizza oven built by his brother and shipped to the cafe from Dubai. 

Along with dried fruit, olive oil imported from Syria in 10-litre tins and hookah pipes, Mbhan sells the nuts in bulk. After the raw nuts are roasted, they're seasoned on site in flavours like cheese and barbecue. 

The family continues to operate cafes similar to Viola Gourmet in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. The civil war in Syria forced the family to close the cafe there. 

The display cases are filled with a selection of sweets and treats. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

"Maybe in the future if my family comes back, we can open it again there," he said.

Although the official opening has yet to happen, word of the cafe has clearly spread through London's Syrian community. The entry bell rang steadily on Friday, apparently in response to a post about the cafe on a London Syrian community Facebook page. 

Omar Arwani was one of many customers visiting the cafe for the first time on Friday. A 16-year Canadian resident born in Syria, Arwani said the nuts alone will make him a regular.

A selection of kitchenware, part of the offerings at Viola Gourmet cafe. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

"This is the first time I've seen a store like this here," he said.

Mbhan would like to see the business grow enough to possibly add similar cafes to other Ontario cities. For now, he's focused on getting the London location launched. 

"We're just starting out here, we have to see what happens," he said. 

The Viola Cafe at 312 Commissioners Rd. W. has opened with a soft launch. A grand opening is planned for later this week. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.


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