Everybody loves the story of a scrappy individual who achieves greatness and wealth thanks to their guile, diligence and courage in the face of immense risk. But what about the person who’s professionally successful and financially secure, only to bet the farm on a new venture they have no experience in outside of ties to their heritage? That’s a new twist on the rags-to-riches narrative — one that’s been realized by Fava Pot’s owner Dina Daniel and her pursuit of fulfillment rather than fortune.
In the not-so-distant past, Daniel was living comfortably. She had emigrated to the U.S. from her native Egypt in 2004 and by 2007 was working as the director of donor relations for the nonprofit Coptic Orphans. The job paid handsomely, but the amount of zeros in her salary couldn’t put her mind at ease when she thought about doing more for the children her organization supported (Daniel is a Coptic Christian herself). So, in 2012 Daniel left her desk job and went on a mission trip to Kenya. She returned from the trip with the idea for Fava Pot in tow, hoping to fill a gap in the area’s bustling Mediterranean food market and give her homeland some overdue recognition.
“There is no Egyptian food in the area whatsoever. I was really surprised because our cuisine is good — how come there is all kinds of Middle Eastern food except Egyptian?” Daniel said. “At the same time, I’m very proud of my heritage and I wanted to show it off in a nice way. My philosophy is not to come and eat and go; my philosophy is you are taking a trip to Egypt.”
Egypt’s influence, and Daniel’s pride in it, is inescapable from the first step into her establishment.
A mural behind the service counter is dedicated to European professional soccer player and Egyptian national Mohamed “Mo” Saleh. Decorative wallpaper lines two adjoining walls where prominent Egyptians are noted for their accomplishments to both their country and the world. But the true goldmine of Egyptian knowledge may be found in the restroom. There, short blurbs and illustrations spotlight some of the inventions and innovations Egyptians helped pioneer, from tumbler locks and irrigation to fractions and scissors.
That’s not to say Fava Pot’s interior is cut from Cairo and pasted into Falls Church. A sleek modern aesthetic stands out, with furnished wood tables and chairs complimenting the soft incandescent lighting that hangs from natural rope. The restaurant appears to be straight out of a catalogue before Daniel’s individual touches were added, with the finished product contributing to her goal of creating a welcoming aura.
“Ever since Jesus went to Egypt as a refugee, we are known to have an open heart,” Daniel continued. “Coming to America, I realized people will go, they will eat and then they will leave. There’s no meeting or interacting with other people. I wanted to show our hospitality. Whenever people come I want them to feel that it’s not just to eat — that there’s something different about this place.”
Fava Pot’s current day form is all the more amazing considering its humble beginnings as a food truck just five years earlier.
Back then, Daniel wagered nearly $120,000 on herself – someone who was an international foodie and a hit manning the grill at backyard barbecues, but never worked in a kitchen professionally – that her idea could be turned into a profitable enterprise. She was calculated in how she tackled the challenge, spending a large chunk of her investment on branding and developing a website to broaden Fava Pot’s reach. But she also had to acclimate to the 17-hour days on the clock and working with her hands for the first time in her life at 45 years of age.
As time wore on, Daniel adjusted.
She hired help with her longest-tenured employee, Elmer Ramos, joining the fray. And she started to see the good vibes she seared into her dishes be returned to her as her business continued its positive ascent. It got to the point that Daniel was able to contemplate the move to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. She had found an ideal landing spot and even paid a security deposit on the property, however, Fairfax County determined the site’s lot was under-parked. Daniel lost her business permit and her security deposit to the landlord, who she later sued.
“What I lost to this guy was everything in my life. I was just about to quit and go back to working my corporate job,” Daniel added, who experienced this fallout in January of 2017. Fava Pot would open up its doors in September of that same year after she reached out to another landlord on a whim, who believed in her vision and even wired Daniel $50,000 to complete the current restaurant’s build out.
Now, Daniel is bringing the full Egyptian experience to Falls Church, which includes the menu. She’s upgraded from the portable koshary bowls and kofta platters of the food truck to the squab (similar to quail, but as the menu says is “larger and tastier”) stuffed with cracked wheat and Molokheya. She even makes her own ghee, a clarified butter popular in the Middle East. And yes, she also makes her unique falafels from fava beans that are combined with onions, garlic and parsley; a stark difference from the chickpea-based falafels many casual eaters may encounter. Locals will get a chance to try out Daniel’s chicken, kofta, koshary and falafel, along with Egyptian-style rice, at Saturday’s Taste of Falls Church event as a part of the Fall Festival.
Daniel also remains committed to the cause she originally split from in 2012 in the Coptic Orphans. She’s even teamed up with the organization to sponsor her own project – Coptic Girls Rising – which offers financial assistance to gifted female high school graduates who show promise, but lack the means to acquire a college education. At this time, the project delivers yearly scholarships to five students, with plans to grow as Fava Pot grows in popularity as well.
The commitment to Fava Pot has enriched Daniel in more ways than one — though to her, there was never an alternative to the satisfaction she has now.
“If you do something, it is not to fail; it is to succeed and be blessed,” Daniel said. “My faith believes that if you’re doing things right, and trusting in God and staying away from cheating and gray areas, you will do very well. It’s the life pattern.”