DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — A downtown Dayton restaurant is closing its doors at the end of the month.
For more than a decade, Carmen’s Deli and Bistro has been at the corner of North Jefferson Street and East Second Street inside what is now known as the STRATACACHE Tower, formerly the Kettering Tower.
“I am exhausted. I’m drained. It’s really tough. I gave it my all. Let me say that. I gave it my heart. I gave it my soul,” says owner Haitham Imam.
He’s the personification of the American dream.
“I was born and raised in Jerusalem. I came here 32 years ago, twenty dollars in my pocket,” says Imam. “I start working places from dishwasher, cleaning bathrooms, and floors. I always have a smile because I want to achieve my dream. I made my dream a reality.”
He started Carmen’s in 2009, and after a few years, moved into the space where he is today.
“I built it from scratch. Everything you see here, I put my livelihood and my soul and my heart in it,” states Imam.
For the last few years, he says it’s been a struggle.
“I cannot survive on this,” states Imam.
“Business is slow,” admits Ell Strieter, who works at Carmen’s. “We had been struggling for a while, so I understood, but it’s still sad to hear.”
Carmen’s is the latest downtown casualty of the pandemic after some businesses moved out, and some didn’t return to the office.
“I mean we are talking about thousands of people who are working from home. That really affected my business.” says Imam.
Known for its variety of flavors, people have been coming back to the deli for years for more than the food.
“Every time you walk in, I feel like I’m walking into Cheers because everybody knows your name,” smiles Michelle Richard, who works in the building and has been one of the restaurant’s regular customers from the beginning. “Very warm and inviting and appreciative. I feel like he’s a friend, not just some place I eat.”
“Carmen’s has a much more personalized atmosphere. I always talk to the owner when I come in,” says Nathan Vanderhorst, who works at a law firm around the corner and eats at Carmen’s most days of the week. “I’m on a first name basis with him. That’s one of the things that makes it different.”
Even with all of his regulars, business for Imam hasn’t been the same since before the pandemic.
“The line used to be way, way out the door, and we used to have four people behind the line, two cash registers, one person in the front in the dining room. But right now, we’re doing it with three people, and this is really hard. It’s hard to keep up with the prices. It’s hard to keep up with the staffing. It’s hard to keep up with customers. This is the new thing. We have to be realistic,” states Imam.
He remains both humble and grateful for all of the relationships he was able to build over the years.
“The thing I got out of this is my relations with my community. I would never–I would never ask for anything else,” says Imam. “I am the one who’s blessed.”
Going out with a full heart but one that’s heavy, he also leaves behind a hole in the heart of downtown Dayton.
“Tears. Tears. I’m very sad for him,” says Richard.
“This is not easy. I’m heartbroken,” says Imam. “This is all love and passion and put my heart in it. The customers, the community have been superb. Really supportive. Without them, I wouldn’t exist.”
Imam says he’s not sure what’s next. He’s still trying to figure all of that out. His last day in business is Friday, April 28.