Two years ago, along with a group of friends, we came up with a tradition. Since not one of us is really into Valentine’s Day and the buzz around it, we decided to have dinner together on the 14th of February. Our first dinner was Armenian and delicious and the habit took off from there. It’s been two Valentine Armenian dinners. The very last one was at Onno. The initial plan was to head to the original one in Bourj Hammoud. But we then heard a new branch had opened its doors in Badaro so we booked our 20 (s)eaters’ table for the 14th of February. We now swear by this great and homey Armenian Bistrot.
When I approached the managing team over at Onno to chat with them and Karnigue Nigolian (the original person behind it), they happily accepted. So today, I bring you their story and a small glimpse of the atmosphere and the characters behind this cozy and welcoming place.
I first sat with Saadi Hamady and was later joined by Karnigue (both owners of ONNO).
Saadi first told me about his relationship with food. How he started in the food and beverage industry in the States in 1988, dealing with various domains such as dry food, groceries, delis, coffee shops, restaurants, and even airline catering. Then, like any Lebanese at heart, Saadi came back to Lebanon after spending 29 years in the States and opened up the very first fusion-cosmopolitan food places in Beirut called Cello. He quickly expanded his restaurant openings and other businesses related to the tourism industry.
His new baby is ONNO. The story is actually one of those coincidences (if they do exist) we love to hear about. Saadi’s plan for an evening out was to go fine-dine with friends somewhere upscale. But he wasn’t convinced that was the atmosphere he wanted and begged them to take him somewhere more relaxed with a proper glass of Arak. His friends, without hesitation, decided to take him to ONNO, this cozy little homey place in Bourj Hammoud where a nice glass of Arak was guaranteed. Right then and there, Saadi fell in love with the food and Karnigue’s personality, who made you eat as he pleases. He then absolutely wanted to take ONNO in his hands and expand it like it should be. Karnigue had been approached by many and had humbly refused. But Saadi managed to convince him. “I didn’t come as an investor who wanted to take. I came and told him we would work together hand in hand. We think alike a lot. Sometimes I think about something and then he comes and says it to me!” Saadi.
So a joint-venture was established and ONNO is now quickly expanding. They are open in Badaro and will be open in Hamra in June.
The Badaro branch was a great success for the ONNO team. They saw a great feedback from people who loved the food and the place.
Onno succeeded to attract the mass clientele, which was the biggest challenge. You can see people in their 60s and 70s but also in their 20s. This was basically the idea of opening up a bistro. It serves only one purpose: good food. “In our bistro, they only come to eat, not for the drinks or music, just the food.”
For Saadi, it’s simple. It’s all due to their Bistro’s atmosphere, philosophy and values behind their work.
The values they follow are quite natural. According to Saadi, in all businesses and in anything we do, if there is no honesty about what you do, what you serve and give your clients, there is no success. To him, ethics are the most important thing in business. “We pick our ingredients, we have no shortcuts. The cost doesn’t matter because in the long-term, you are the winner”. “My value is my honesty.”
“I believe you are what u eat and food to me is very dear to my heart, I’ve been doing this for a long time so have good customer service, good products and value for money and then the people will come to you. It’s that simple.”
One very important thing Saadi mentioned was the importance of the authenticity in the dishes one serves at his place.
“When I started working in Lebanon, I saw that if, let’s say we go out to eat penne arrabiatta, we notice the same taste in all of Lebanon even though it’s not a real arrabiatta. So people start thinking it is the real taste because not everyone knows the real taste. They all taste the same because it’s all the same ingredients. So this is where we said: let’s give them the real taste, the authentic taste and then let them decide if they like it or not. Give it as it is and let them decide. Every time you give something authentic, it will be liked.”
Karnigue came to sit with us at this point. His first sentence was: “It was a dream. It was a dream to open a restaurant one day and make food for everyone.”
He went on saying he hadn’t learnt cooking in any school or institution, that his school was his home when he was younger, his mom and his grandma. But the most essential school of all is experience and love for food. Everything he learnt was from testing with his clients in his small homey restaurant in Bourj Hammoud.
“He sometimes surprises you with a dish you didn’t even order!” Saadi
When asked why he chose ONNO, Saadi had a clear answer: “Because it’s one of the tastiest restaurants I’ve ever visited in my life and I’ve tasted a lot, everywhere. I remember the first bite I had there. This is why I chose ONNO, but also because you see something good, you want people to try it. It’s too bad if they don’t. ONNO has to be known. And I now have a belly donut.”
For Karnigue, the most important thing is to see the customer happy. “They’re happy, I’m happy. There was a couple outside just now, I said hello and gave them the menu. He asked if I was Onno, I asked how he knew, he said I speak differently. Always talk to the people.”
Onno is indeed a story. It is a story of partnership, chance and good authentic food that is just waiting to be shared with the world.
The menu is a work of 20-25 years of experience, trial and error. If you haven’t tried it yet, you must!
Click here to watch a short video about Onno and to get an idea of the warm atmosphere and the people behind it. 🙂
Have you been to Onno? We’d love to know your thoughts!