Zeko's Mediterranean Grill expanding to Bradenton

twhitt@bradenton.comApril 11, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Khaled El Jamal is nervous that his restaurant is getting a little too much attention as he prepares to open Zeko's Mediterranean Grill here in the next four to six weeks.

This is his third full-service restaurant and he typically likes to keep a low profile when he first opens to give his staff plenty of time to work out all of the kinks inevitably associated with a brand-new restaurant.

But El Jamal, who said he has wanted to bring his 5-year-old concept here for years, discovered it's tough to keep a secret when your location is right off U.S. 301 near downtown.

People have stopped at the building he is renovating at the intersection of U.S. 301 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to ask what's coming.

He tells them about the restaurant but is hoping it won't be too crowded when it opens.

"I don't want 100 people coming in all at once and 10 people are not happy," El Jamal said. "I want to please them all, 100 percent."

To ensure good service he is bringing in staff from his restaurants in St. Petersburg and Tampa to help introduce the new restaurant and train new employees.

Whatever the detail-oriented El Jamal has been doing, it seems to be working. Zeko's has grown from a single location to three full-service casual dining spots and three express locations. Along with the expansion he has also garnered great reviews from customers. (Check out urbanspoon.com or yelp.com to see what diners have to say.)

His restaurant designs tend to look more upscale than the casual dining prices offered inside. He also is selective about ingredients.

"Food is a passion for me," said El Jamal who began working in restaurants early in his career.

He left the business to go to University of South Florida to earn a degree in electrical engineering.

It didn't take long to figure out he wanted to own his own restaurant and be his own boss. He developed a menu unique to this area, which includes a variety of flavors for diverse tastes and preferences as well as a vegetarian and vegan section.

"This was my first passion, so I started a Mediterranean restaurant," said the Lebanon-born businessman.

He said his shawarma is the best around. He makes jasmine saffron rice and his hummus is not made with canned chickpeas.

"People don't know what hummus is until they taste ours," El Jamal said.

El Jamal said he is not boasting he is simply "proud of what I have."

"I don't want people to spend a lot of money but I want them to get a good meal."

El Jamal said he also will offer hamburgers and Philly cheese steaks for those with less adventurous palates.

Opening in Bradenton was part of his plan to grow his small restaurant chain. He lives just across the Skyway Bridge and has been looking for the right place to open.

El Jamal said he will start hiring additional staff in about three weeks, but this is no job for someone who just wants to flip burgers. Employees are part of the Zeko's family, he said. Some employees have been with him since before he opened his first restaurant and he has made a couple of managers partners in the business.

"I want the people who work here to feel like this is theirs," he said.

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