Atlanta chef says ‘I love you’ and gets plenty of love in return

Another mass shooting in the U.S. Grinding war in the Middle East. A desperate refugee crisis in Europe. The news these days is filled with depressing developments.

Kameel Srouji is serving up an antidote to all of that at his bustling Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Atlanta: love.

At Aviva by Kameel in the Mall at Peachtree Center, Srouji greets his customers — regulars or first-timers, men or women, black or white — with the same warm welcome.

“I love you,” he tells them.

There is no hint of irony in it. He says it sincerely, even forcefully. And he often sprinkles in compliments, while addressing customers at his 3-year-old restaurant as his brothers and sisters.

“Hey, gorgeous,” Srouji, Atlanta’s own I-love-you-man, tells a customer before turning to another and declaring: “I love your face. You have an amazing smile.”

Some newcomers don’t quite know how to respond to Srouji’s in-your-face expressions of love. They pretend not to hear. Or they nervously look away. It’s not often a stranger tells you he loves you.

“There is a little bit of ‘That’s awkward. How do I respond to that?’” Doug Rollins, a Coca-Cola employee from Druid Hills, said.

A regular at Aviva, Rollins said Srouji makes him feel like part of his family. Srouji’s wife, son and sister work at the squeaky clean restaurant with light green walls, serving heaping helpings of hummus, baba ghanoush and kibbe.

“The food is amazing,” Rollins said, “but it’s the people.”

A naturalized U.S. citizen from Israel, Srouji, 60, offers a mix of practical, spiritual and philosophical reasons for his warm approach. First, he said, customer service is the key to his success. Srouji — who learned cooking from his mother — has worked off and on in the restaurant industry for four decades and has operated several other eateries around Atlanta, including Kameel’s Café in Colony Square and Perimeter Mall. Out of gratitude for their patronage, he tells his customers he loves them.

Second, Srouji is a Catholic who grew up in Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus. The Bible, he pointed out, says: "Love one another." Love is needed now, he said, especially amid all the bad news, including the refugee crisis spreading across the Mediterranean and into Europe. Srouji, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was in his 20s, has been in the news recently for hiring several Syrian civil war refugees who have resettled in Atlanta. One of them makes his prized falafel.

“Now we need love more than ever,” said Srouji, who sings to his customers in Arabic about love. “There is nothing more beautiful than love.”

Love seems to be working. His lunch rush — a long line that stretches from his front door to his counter — lasts until nearly 2 p.m. on weekdays. About 450 customers file through Aviva each day, he said, and the restaurant collects $1.8 million in gross revenue a year.

Jeffrey Kess, a tax lawyer from Roswell, is another regular at Aviva’s who often engages Srouji in banter. Kess pointed out that he is Jewish, while Srouji is an Arab. The fact that the two “get along like brothers,” Kess said, must mean something bigger in a world riven by sectarian violence.

Kess has been eating at Srouji’s restaurants for years and knows him well enough now that he can successfully beat him to the draw as soon as their eyes meet.

“I love you,” Kess recently told Srouji before the restaurateur could utter a word.

Not to be outdone, Srouji responded: “I love you more.” Srouji’s steady gaze, his insisting tone and his broad smile made it clear that he meant it.