I met Manna in 2017, the very first week I moved to Clarkston, Georgia. I had driven by her Mediterranean grill, Merhaba Shawarma many times as it’s located in our small town’s growing center, and every time I passed it, I knew I needed to stop in and give it a try. So I did, and wasn’t disappointed.
Manna is one of those people you can just tell, right off the bat, is a good person.
Every patron that passes through her restaurant doors is greeted warmly and genuinely, making them feel instantly at home.
Since my first visit, Merhaba Shawarma has become a lunch staple for me and I’ve enjoyed introducing several CDI World coworkers to Manna’s delicious food. During this time, I’ve also gotten to know her personally.
Besides her warm, caring, no-nonsense attitude, I’ve witnessed close-up just how hard she works, single-handedly, to make it all happen. Running a restaurant is far from easy; neither is being a parent to two teenage girls. She is truly a one-person force of nature.
Her workday begins at 7am as she prepares the shawarma and gyro meat for lunch. As the seasoned and marinated goodness hits the rotisseries and begins to slow roast, she heads out for fresh bread and produce. Once doors open at noon, the daily rush begins: a non-stop line of customers until she closes at 8pm. Then, it’s meat marinating and cleaning till 10. Lights out, lock up, start again in the morning.
Manna has an incredible life story. In 1983, she immigrated to the US from Eritrea, seeking asylum from what would eventually become a three-decade long war for her county’s independence. From her native culture she had learned self-reliance and determination, eventually winning a job with a major bank as a check processor. But digital technology made her job redundant and she was let go.
Nurturing a dream of bringing great Middle Eastern cuisine to Georgia and eager to make a fresh start, she used her savings to purchase a humble Clarkston restaurant from a woman who was growing tired of the work. Ever since, Manna’s Merhaba Shawarma has become a vibrant center within our community. A place where we gather, eat with friends and meet the diverse neighbors that inhabit our unique small town.
Now when, like me, you’ve spent a good deal of your life as a Cabinet Maker, you’re always checking out cabinets, in homes, banks, hotels, and restaurants, it’s in your blood. And looking at Manna’s front counter units day after day, I knew she deserved better to help her work more easily in her tiny kitchen and also to elevate the appearance to something that reflected her personality.
It took a global pandemic for me to get a chance to finally realize my aspiration for her. That and a very enthusiastic team of CDI World designers, carpenters, and installers.
We were able to pull together materials and hardware left over from past projects for use on Manna’s renovation. She had few requests, only asking that we made the front of the cabinets grey to match the back wall and maybe to make the side she faces colorful.
In the end, we chose to paint each of the doors a different color of the Eritrean flag: red, green, blue and yellow, in honor of the nation where Manna gained the self-reliance and work ethic she demonstrates each and every day.
Over the years with CDI World, I’ve had the opportunity to help create, build and install all kinds of structures – from massive, intensively engineered trade show booths with high-end finishes to sophisticated corporate interiors where every detail had to be exactly as specified. I’ve even built a few parade floats.
But this project, Manna’s personalized micro-restaurant renovation with its mismatched laminate and one door pull that’s not the same as the others, has meant the most to me – especially in these very difficult times.
The makeover has definitely improved the Merhaba Shawarma environment. Manna, though, remains delightfully unchanged. People have told her to charge more for her wonderful food, but she wants to make sure everyone can afford it and they have a full stomach when they leave. She says she will never become rich, but simply wants to make sure her two teenage daughters have a better life than she has had.
Drew Bainbridge, Production Manager
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