When DC-area restaurant group mainstay Lebanese Taverna began to shift to take-out and delivery only in mid-March during the COVID-19 spread, the owners’ first priority was finding ways to help those who would be most affected. Gladys Abi-Najm, along with her four siblings who co-own the 13-location restaurant, encouraged hundreds of their employees to take the food home to their families instead, knowing hourly staff members would be impacted by the crisis as some of the locations began to close. Abi-Najm was also actively looking into ways to support local healthcare workers as medical staff started to navigate the testing and treatment of a steady influx of patients.
“The restaurant community does so much, and not just at times like this. It’s all year-round,” Abi-Najm explains. “They’re the go-to people for giving back, and it’s fulfilling to be able to be a part of that.”
The Abi-Najms have always found ways to help those in dire conditions, even when facing an uncertain future.
In the early days of the restaurant when times were tough, Lebanese Taverna made a point of giving back, especially to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Whenever there was a St. Jude gala or a fundraising event in the DC region that needed catering, Lebanese Taverna always stepped in to donate food and encourage their network to support.
Gladys Abi-Najm took the St. Jude mission to heart from an early age, and she still has fond memories of meeting St. Jude and ALSAC (American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities), the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude,founder Danny Thomas when she was just 13. In the DC area, she’s become synonymous with the organization’s fundraising efforts.
“I’ve got a big mouth,” Abi-Najm says with a laugh. “I’ve rallied thousands of people around this cause. You say Gladys, and they associate me with St. Jude.” She was a founding organizer of the St. Jude Gourmet Gala in DC 21 years ago, which brings together DC-area celebrity chefs for a night of friendraising and fundraising for St. Jude, and has been involved with just about every committee and event for St. Jude there is in the DC area: donating food for the St. Jude Open golf tournament and Gourmet Gala, hosting meetings for the teen-led Golden Gala at Lebanese Taverna, and organizing Heart of Fashion.
Abi-Najm and her family’s story is the quintessential American dream, and their success in the DMV community is truly inspiring. In 1976, Abi-Najm, along with her parents and siblings, escaped from Lebanon to Cyprus on a cargo ship during the Lebanese Civil War after her older brothers, at ages 15 and 13, were placed on the frontlines of conflict. After waiting several months in Cyprus for their Green Cards, her family soon made their way to Arlington, VA with just $500 to join her father’s brothers who were already living in the area.
While working long hours to make ends meet for his family of seven, Abi-Najm’s father, Tanios, took the opportunity to buy Athenian Taverna in Arlington and turn it into the now-renowned Lebanese Taverna in 1979, where the five Abi-Najm siblings began working as teenagers. And yes, they purposefully kept ‘Taverna’ in the name to help save on costs of changing the sign. Four decades later, the Abi-Najm family can confidently say their restaurants helped popularize Lebanese food not just in the DC metro, but across the United States.
One of the people who helped put Lebanese Taverna on the map was the Abi-Najms’ immigration lawyer, Richard “Dick” Shadyac, a fellow Lebanese-American. He helped spread the word in Arlington, and remained a close family friend throughout his life. Shadyac also happened to be the chairman of the Board of Directors for ALSAC and later the CEO of ALSAC. His son, Richard Shadyac, Jr., then went on to become today’s President and CEO as well after serving on the board.Because of the Shadyacs and ALSAC’s strong Lebanese ties dating back to its inception, it was a natural fit for Lebanese Taverna to support the lifesaving mission of St. Jude.
St. Jude has remained a vital part of the restaurant’s corporate social responsibility efforts, but now on a much larger scale. One recent employee-customer giving program in particular, which focused on customer donations to St. Jude in exchange for “Lebanese Taverna Cash,” ended up raising more than $10,500 and was their most successful campaign for St. Jude to date. Abi-Najm has also gone the extra mile by donating Lebanese Taverna cooking classes on behalf of St. Jude and offering gifts from the restaurant to various silent auctions.
And as if the strength of her connection to St. Jude wasn’t evident enough, Abi-Najm named her oldest son Jude, after the hospital that holds such a dear place in her heart. Her younger son, Luc, also carries on his mother’s passion for the cause, raising approximately $10,000 through the St. Jude Golden Gala as one of the teenagers on the organizing committee. For her family, giving back isn’t even a question—it’s just what you do.
Lebanese Taverna and St. Jude are undeniably linked. Their work together has benefited each other through awareness and increased profits and donations, respectively. Abi-Najm fully recognizes the power of her influence as a business owner and leader in the DC community who is advocating for those in need. She considers herself a “connector,” and takes pride in being the person who brings her professional network, friends, employees, and customers to the proverbial table to become involved with St. Jude.
“Coming here as refugees, we had so many people reach out, and the community pulled together to help our family,” Abi-Najm says. “Now, we [at Lebanese Taverna] do a lot to help out, because at one point, the community stepped up to help us.”
That spirit of togetherness and support has fueled Abi-Najm’s business mindset for decades, and it will continue to be what guides Lebanese Taverna during these uncharted times and creates an even stronger community.