Muncie may soon lose its culinary taste of the Mediterranean as Two Cats Café and Damask Café are set to close at the end of next week.
The news came after the owner, Basam Helwani, accepted a role with Pocket Points, a mobile app that gives students rewards for not using their phones during class.
Helwani first heard of Pocket Points when the company called him asking if his restaurant would participate in the app. After hearing more about the company, Helwani pitched ideas on how to improve the app, which landed him a job.
With a background in information technology, Helwani said the opportunity was the perfect one to allow him to move on to the next stage of his life, though he said he would take some lessons from his restaurant business with him.
"I often get asked what cooking and IT have in common,” Helwani said. “It's very detail-oriented. With cooking, you add one more spice, some extra salt and the whole thing is ruined. It's the same thing with IT, you put the wrong code and nothing will work."
His new role requires him to move to California, which means he couldn’t keep a detailed-eye on his restaurants, so he made the decision to close.
Helwani is currently meeting with others to either sell the building or the assets — the name and recipes. If that were to happen, there could still be Mediterranean food in Muncie, though Helwani said it wouldn’t be “his Two Cats Café or Damask Café,” because it would be under different ownership.
It was in 2013 that Helwani first brought a diverse taste to Muncie when he opened Damask Café after his daughter noticed a void in cuisine options.
“When I first moved here a lot of people had no idea what falafel is or what hummus is, so now it’s really a global trend of healthy eating, rich in olive oils and garlic,” Helwani said in a previous Daily News article.
The owner named the café after his hometown of Damascus, Syria. But that wasn’t the only thing he got from the country — the menu was comprised of Syrian-inspired dishes that ranged from baklava to kufta.
Since its opening, Damask won Taste of Muncie twice. The restaurant also offered an outdoor hookah lounge and catering, something manager Sydney Matic said she has been proud to bring to the Muncie community for the past four years.
“It’s interesting because not a lot of people know what Mediterranean food is,” Matic said. “So we got a lot of people who come in who have no idea what hummus is, what falafel is, so it’s kind of interesting to have to tell people what it is exactly that we’re serving.”
After seeing success with Damask, Helwani was told by multiple people that he should bring the Mediterranean flare to The Village, and that’s exactly what he did.
Two Cats Café opened in The Village in January 2016, exposing students to cuisine like Sumac chicken, falafel and kombucha tea. In addition to the food, customers could smoke hookah in the outdoor lounge.
The café was named after the two kittens Helwani received from his son — Frankie and Francie. For the past few years, the café has served as a place for Ball State students to hang out, perform and enjoy healthy eating.
The restaurant was staffed entirely by students in order to allow those interested in the hospitality business to get real-life experience, an initiative Helwani started before his doors even opened.
The cafes feature work by Ball State students, and Matic said she was glad to have been given the experience.
“We’ve been here for five years so I think it’s definitely done its job and I think everyone is moving on to different things in life,” Matic said. “Something [Helwani] always tells us in meetings is, ‘Use this place as a stepping stone to move on to something better in your life,’ and I think that’s exactly what has happened.”
And while Helwani said he is excited to start his new chapter in California, he will always remember the community he felt in Muncie.
“Since day one I was humbled by the overwhelming support, love, warmth, decency of everybody here. Every time people refer to Damask Café or Two Cats Café they invoke love,” Helwani said. “I feel very blessed by the support I receive from this community.
Two Cats Café will close at 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13. Damask Café will close at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14.
Contact Brynn Mechem with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BrynnMechem.