Economic Cheer

A couple takes on Oak Park’s prohibition.
Zeana and Saad Attisha
Toast Time: Zeana and Saad Attisha, owners of Sahara Restaurant at I-696 and Coolidge in Oak Park, will soon offer beer and wine by the glass. // Photograph by Josh Scott

Despite formidable odds — Oak Park has been a dry city since its incorporation in 1945 — Saad and Zeana Attisha were determined to serve, at the very least, beer and wine by the glass at their Sahara Restaurant and Grill at I-696 and Coolidge Road.

Over the years, residents passed on three separate attempts to overturn the law, but a string of commercial vacancies in recent years has stemmed the tide, quite literally. As the couple researched the issue, they learned the city of 30,000 residents could offer tavern licenses (beer and wine by the glass), with an array of restrictions, via a majority vote by the city council. Last July, the council approved the measure, and in December, members voted 5-0 to allow Sahara to apply for a tavern license with the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. The license will likely be approved by Memorial Day.

The Attishas didn’t stop there. To allow for Class C licenses (all types of served alcohol), the couple will pursue a fourth initiative and have it placed on the ballot in November, either by majority approval of the council or through the collection of 3,500 valid signatures.

“We were moving to bring the ballot forward (last November), but when we found out a tavern license could be approved, we switched gears very quickly,” says Zeana, president and co-owner with her husband of other Sahara restaurants in Farmington Hills and Sterling Heights, as well as Sahara International Market and Bakery locations in Warren and Sterling Heights. “We could do 20 percent more in business if we could serve alcohol (in Oak Park).”

While it appears the council will approve the ballot initiative, the Attishas are preparing to re-form their outreach organization, Citizens for a Strong Oak Park. “We feel that liquor sales will draw more restaurants to Oak Park and improve the overall economic activity,” she says. “We have been loyal to Oak Park for 30 years now. We could have left.”

When Saad arrived from the Middle East in 1980, he opened the Eastern Restaurant in Ferndale. In 1984 he moved the eatery, since renamed Sahara Restaurant, to Oak Park, where he expanded it four times before a fire in a neighboring building necessitated another move in 2010.

“We looked at moving to Southfield or Birmingham, but we wanted to remain loyal to Oak Park,” Zeana says. The couple today operates a 200-seat restaurant that includes an open kitchen, a juice bar, and adaptable space. “We do very little corporate event business because we can’t serve liquor,” Zeana says. “We’re looking forward to serving beer and wine, and so are other restaurants. It’s like we’re stepping into the future.”