When the Dubbaneh siblings sell their manoushe to prospective customers, they often find themselves talking more about what it’s not than what it actually is.
“It kind of came about at farmer’s markets,” recalls Johnny Dubbaneh, one of five siblings behind the business that got its start as a stand at Foggy Bottom in 2016. “People would be like, ‘Oh, that’s pizza!’ And we were shaking our heads being all like, ‘It’s not pizza.’”
According to Dubbaneh, they took the confusion in stride, “cheekily” buying ItsNotPizza.com and setting up a redirect to Z&Z, the brand under which the siblings produce and peddle not pizza but manoushe, the flatbread of their father’s native Palestine. Enjoyed most frequently with zayt (olive oil) and za’atar, this stalwart staple of the Dubbaneh family’s breakfast table remains relatively unknown in the U.S. That’s something the Dubbanehs want to change.
First off, however, they had to persuade people it was a worthwhile project, a challenge that started with their parents, the former owners of local fried chicken joint Chicken Basket.
“Our parents told us why they never sold Middle Eastern food,” recalls Dubbaneh. “This was in like the ’80s and ’90s, and they said nobody would want that food. And back then, that was probably true.”
But while the Maryland-born younger generation believed things had changed enough since their parents’ era, the elder Dubbanehs needed more convincing. After all, they weren’t just skeptical of their children’s plans to sell Middle Eastern food — they didn’t want them working in food at all.
And for a while, it looked like they’d get their wish. All five siblings first forged careers in other domains before, slowly but surely, they felt themselves drawn back to food.
“After we all finished college, a couple of us were kind of bored in our corporate jobs, and we wanted to do something on the side for fun,” recalls Dubbaneh. “What we knew best was food, so we were like, ‘What if we just start doing manoushe for fun at a farmer’s market?’”
Since that first lark, Z&Z has become a well-known name, with the company expanding past manoushe to market spices like sumac, Aleppo pepper, and the za’atar that forms the core seasoning of the flatbread. A staple in the Middle East, za’atar begins with a core blend that often varies from region to region..
“Each country’s is going to taste a little different,” says Dubbaneh. “In say Lebanon or Palestine or Syria or Jordan, they might have their own tweak.”
Z&Z za’atar is made with a simple, delicious blend of sumac, sesame, and, of course, the za’atar plant that gives it its name. After trying 50 or 60 producers, Z&Z opted to source from co-ops in Palestine, where, Dubbaneh says, the quality is unparalleled.
“If we’re going to do something, we need to do it very well,” he says. “Otherwise what’s the point in doing it?”
And that attention to detail has paid off. The blend is now available at grocery stores including Whole Foods, and it has also appeared on multiple D.C. menus: everywhere from the bagels at Call Your Mother to the khachapuri at Compass Rose to the roasted cauliflower at Michelin-starred Maydan. Even Bon Appétit’s Brad Leone has jumped on the bandwagon, dubbing it his “secret weapon” ingredient – the seasoning he just can’t live without.
“It’s cool that that kind of happened,” says Dubbaneh. “It’s good to get that recognition, and I think a lot of what it comes down to is quality of the product. Because that’s what keeps them coming back and gives the customer trust in you.”
These days, manoushe fans can order the frozen flatbreads online, but they can also sample them fresh out of the oven at the family bakery in Rockville, MD. Here, manoushe are available not just with the classic combo of Palestinian za’atar and Tunisian olive oil but also in iterations like the Lebanese Bride with homemade labneh and vegetables, or Toum Raider with house-made garlic-scented toum.
According to Dubbaneh, each new menu addition first has to pass muster with Mom and Dad.
“They’re veterans of quality control,” he says. “They kind of know what’s truly… I don’t like to use the word ‘authentic’, but what’s truly authentic.”
But just because it’s not “authentic” doesn’t mean the siblings won’t give it a try. The Hot Halaby Honey manoushe is a bestseller that takes some inspiration from the hot honey trend taking the, uh, pizza (sorry) world by storm, with a three-cheese blend topped with slices of locally made beef sujuk sausage and a unique spiced honey.
“We chose to use Aleppo pepper, so we source that from Syria,” says Dubbaneh, “and then a local honey. So it’s just kind of a melting pot.”
They’re currently working on a new menu addition – chicken shawarma – that he notes taste testers are saying “might be our best one yet.”
At home, meanwhile, Dubbaneh isn’t afraid to come up with even more outrageous pairings. His guilty pleasure? Vanilla ice cream drizzle with honey or caramel and sprinkled with za’atar.
“It might sound crazy,” he says, “but the combination of savory and sweet kind of kills it.”
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