Sami Saba used to look out the order window of his food businesses and keep an eye on those waiting for shish kebab, a falafel sandwich, or hummus. He knew most customers by name, and by their favorite meal.
“There would be a crazy line,” said his son, Sami of Randolph. “He would scan the line and yell out everybody’s order before they ordered, because we had so many regulars.”
Just as important to Mr. Saba was what he served. Everything was important, from how each item looked on display to how it was made.
More than 30 years ago, when customers paid less attention to what was in their takeout sandwiches, he made his hummus with fresh garlic and real lemon juice.
“It’s a pain in the neck to squeeze the lemon juice, and it’s also very expensive,” he told the Globe in 2004. “But if you take time, and you do it the way it’s supposed to be done, it reflects in the taste. This is why I can say with a very, very clear conscience that customers of 24 years ago are still customers today, and this is how you keep ’em. Because they can tell the difference.”
Mr. Saba, who popularized falafel and Lebanese food in Boston, died of colon cancer Wednesday in Milton Health Care in Milton. He was 58 and lived in Dedham.
“I refuse to serve anything that I don’t eat,” Mr. Saba, whose full name was Ghazi Sami Saba, said in the 2004 interview. He had emigrated from Lebanon more than 40 years ago, arriving in Boston as a teenager with less than $2 to his name.
“When I came over here, I wanted to eat something,” he said, “and I just opened up the refrigerator, and I opened up a container of tabbouleh, and I made a sandwich.”
He turned his taste for his homeland’s food into culinary offerings that expanded the palate of those buying food in the Longwood Medical Area.
His role as an innovator even became fodder for a Wall Street Journal report that examined whether the popularity of wrap sandwiches sprang from Mr. Saba’s creations, a California restaurant chain, or a Stamford, Conn., restaurant owned by former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine.
“Every time I hear them say that [Valentine] made it, I start yelling — we’ve been making wraps in Lebanon forever,” Mr. Saba told the Journal in 2011.
Never in question, however, was the popularity of his offerings.
After turning a Sunbeam bread truck into a rolling sandwich shop in 1979, Mr. Saba worked through the years with his wife, his son, and his two brothers.
He started out near Boston University, but after a couple of weeks took up residence across from Children’s Hospital Boston, “and the rest is history,” he said in 2004.
At one point, he had more than a dozen businesses going in Boston and its suburbs, including restaurants and a convenience store.
His businesses went by a variety of names: Big Sam’s Falafel, Sami’s Falafel, and Sami’s, the Finest in Middle Eastern Food.
“He understood the human psyche,” said his youngest sibling, Shehab of Harrisburg, Pa., who worked with Mr. Saba after emigrating from Lebanon in the early 1980s.
An adage of the restaurant business is that “people eat with their eyes,” said Shehab, now a restaurateur in Harrisburg. “He understood that from the first day.”
The oldest of four children, Mr. Saba grew up in Bishmizzine, a village in northern Lebanon. His father, who died in 2001 and also was named Sami, served in the Army and then sold fish to restaurants and merchants. His mother, the former Najla Youssef, raised the children and was accomplished at baking pita bread. Like the rest of the family, she emigrated and now lives in Roslindale.
Not long after graduating from high school at 16, Mr. Saba emigrated and attended what is now the Wentworth Institute of Technology. To cover expenses, he worked a series of jobs, including driving a taxi.
“While driving a cab, he got the idea of a mobile food business,” his son said. “When you’re a cab driver, you see the city late at night, and he thought, ‘Hey, what can you get to eat?’ ”
In 1977, two years before launching his food business, Mr. Saba married Hyam Moussa, who is known as Amy and was from the same village in Lebanon.
They lived in Roslindale before moving to Dedham about 20 years ago.
“He really wanted to bring joy to people,” his son said. “He wanted to make people happy, and that’s an extension of him being really kind. And the way he knew how to do it really well was through food.”
In addition to his wife, mother, son, and brother, Mr. Saba leaves a daughter, Jihad of Dedham; a sister, Dima Khoury of Roslindale; and another brother, Gus of Roslindale.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday in St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in West Roxbury. Burial will be at Brookdale Cemetery in Dedham.
“There was something about him,” his brother Shehab said. “He always knew what the customer wanted.”
Among the wishes of customers was that food be available all day, every day, and Mr. Saba complied. During his early years, the only time he closed, and briefly at that, was when Hurricane Gloria passed through the area in 1985.
“It took a natural disaster for Sami’s to close for eight hours,” Shehab said.
While the sandwich shop was shuttered, Shehab added, Mr. Saba handed over the keys to emergency responders in the Longwood Medical Area, just in case they were hungry for a falafel sandwich while he was away.Bryan Marquard
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