It is essentially impossible to think of the East Village without thinking of Mahmoud “Mike” Tarabih, the self-described “grill man” at neighborhood mainstay B&H Dairy. Tarabih has been crafting tuna melts and greasy omelettes while also serving as B&H’s de facto, wildly charming host for the last 14 years, remembering the names and orders of every single person who’s ever visited the kosher diner. If that last part sounds like an exaggeration, I can speak to it personally; every time I visited B&H, Tarabih would greet me with a rousing, “Rachel! Hi, sweetie!” then promptly recall highly specific details about my last order, even if months had passed: “How did you like the Swiss and American cheese on each side of the tuna melt last time?” In other words, Tarabih turned B&H into something more than a local diner, something akin to a close friend’s well-stocked kitchen; his kindness and warmth were more of a draw than the massive piles of buttered challah.
But last week, Tarabih was unceremoniously let go from B&H, his firing only briefly mentioned in a longer Instagram post from owners Ola and Fawzy Abdelwahed, even after the restaurant had raised $ 60,000 via GoFundMe during the pandemic. One of his longtime customers and friends, Morrigan Burke-Martin, helped the shellshocked Tarabih set up his own GoFundMe to offset the costs of raising two children and supporting his extended family back home in Egypt. In a matter of days, it’s raised $ 22,000, with customers pouring in to praise Tarabih’s “endless joy,” “mean omelettes,” and to tell Tarabih that “the food isn’t the same without you.”
A couple of days after Tarabih was let go, I met up with him in Tompkins Square Park to hear how he was doing, learn more about why he was let go, and hear about the complicated and increasingly common struggle of trying to find food-service work during a pandemic.
I was so sad to hear you had been let go.
I was surprised.
It was out of the blue? Did they say why?
I don’t know. I don’t know what I am gonna do now. Who’s going to take care of the kids? I worked out a schedule with their principal [that matched] my schedule. If I start a new job, who will take care of them?
Talk to me about how you first got the job.
We know each other from back home, from Egypt. [Fawzy] is my friend from back home, same city. When I came to New York, he invited me to see the place. I liked the place, and when I started, I loved the place 100 percent. It was not like customers, it was like family. Everyone asks each other what’s going on in their lives. Nobody was like, “I’m the boss,” you know? That’s why I loved my place. I did my best. I worked from my heart. When I cook, I cook from my soul.
You were there for 14 years. What was the biggest draw of the job for you?
Everything, for me. I love everything. It’s like my show. I’m not working. I enjoy what I’m doing. If I didn’t enjoy it, I’d get another job. We were closed for five months after the fire [in 2015]. I didn’t go anywhere. I supported my place. I could have gotten a job on day two, but I didn’t go anywhere. Because I love my people. I love my friends. I got people coming in just to say hello. To enjoy the food with me. Coming all the way from Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Jersey, Connecticut. For breakfast. You can get eggs anywhere. It’s not magic eggs. I love my people, and my people love me.
I was always so impressed that you remembered everyone’s name, everyone’s order. What’s your secret? How did you do that?
When you love what you’re doing, it’s like a child. I have two children at home, this [job] is my third child. I love it. I just love it. Every part. I come in the morning, I smell the food fresh, and I finish my day, I say, “Thank God, everybody went home happy. Everybody is happy.”
So it’s easy for you to remember people because you genuinely cared.
Absolutely. People remember my name and I always remember theirs. Sometimes people would ask, “What’s your name?” And I’d say, “Mike.” And they’d say, “No, your real name, the one your mom gave to you? Tell me what’s the name!” It’s my family. It’s not just work.
Why do you call yourself Mike?
It’s the easy way. Because my name has “ha” in it. It’s heavy for American people. Germans can say the “ha,” like “Maaahmoud.” It’s hard for some people. That’s why I got this easy name, for everybody.
When did you start going by that name?
Since I moved to New York, in 2006. But I’ve been in America for 20 years.
Did you study cooking at all, or learn it on the job?
No, no. Before the U.S., I worked on a cruise for three years. I started as a dishwasher. I cleaned for 1,200 people every day. And that’s where I learned to cook.
Your wife is a teacher. Between those two salaries, you were able to support your family. Is that possible now, with just her salary?
When I worked, yes. We were good. But now, what are we gonna do? Especially if I hire a babysitter, how can I pay her? Who is going to take care of my kids? At B&H, I worked five days, and I took off Thursday and Friday to take care of them. But now, if I’m looking for a job or starting a new job, it will be hard to choose my schedule.
What are you most worried about?
My kids. I’m okay, my wife is okay, my kids are healthy. But I don’t want to see them stressed. I don’t want them to see me like this.
In the days since you’ve lost your job, have you had any leads on a new one?
I’m looking. I talk to my friends. But nothing is happening. I’ll take any job. I don’t care. I’ve already called a lot of people, but a lot of places are still closed. We’ll see. Thank God, I have a lot of friends to help me. I’m happy. The only problem is I lost my job during a bad time. I have two families to support.
Are you the sole supporter for your family in Egypt?
I have another brother, but it’s a big family. We are seven kids. I have to take care of them. I have to make sure everybody is okay.
What’s your dream job?
I want to open my own store. That’s my dream. I worked here for 15 years. I used my [youth]. I’m 45 years old now.
What was it like for you, working during a pandemic? Were you afraid?
When I worked? I don’t think so, no. I have to see my people. Our friends care about us. And the same thing with us. If I feel sick, I’m not gonna come to work. If anybody felt sick, they wouldn’t come in. There’s love between each other. We trust each other.
Were you surprised by the support you got on your GoFundMe?
Oh my God. My eyes were teary yesterday. I can’t even believe it. I thought it wasn’t going to work. [Morrigan] told me, “Don’t worry about it.” I got off the phone with my wife a few minutes ago. I told her, “This is my love. After 14 years, I got it back. I did this job from my heart, and now everybody is giving it back to me.” I don’t know how many friends I have on Instagram right now. How many people texted me yesterday? I’m not good with texts.
I saw a lot of comments from people saying they’d follow you wherever you go. How did that make you feel?
This is my dream. I love my friends. How can you live without your friends? Who’s gonna support you? Family or friends. And besides my family here and my family back home, I don’t have anybody. You guys here are my family. Right now one of my friends just called me, “Mike, if you need anything, I’m here.”
And you made most of these friends through B&H?
All from here. I’ve been here since I moved. I’ve known kids since they were [small] and now they’re in college. People say, “Mike, the kids love you!” And I say, “I know the kids before they came into life.”