SAN DIEGO — It’s been a whirlwind few years for Bryan Zeto, owner of the wildly popular Shawarma Guys food truck in South Park, and a huge new landmark approaches with the opening of his first brick and mortar restaurants.
Zeto opened the truck in the parking lot of a friend’s liquor store back in 2019, enjoying rave reviews from the start and quickly building a fan base. But the truck truly exploded in popularity when it was named Yelp’s best place to eat in the U.S. for 2020.
“Literally the next day we had crazy lines,” Zeto told FOX 5 in a phone interview Friday. “It was awesome.”
Overnight, Zeto said the truck went from having maybe 100 orders in a day to 3 or 400. Lines wrapped around the block outside The Bottle House on Grape Street, where the truck serves up plates and sandwiches Monday through Saturday.
Not long after the huge surge in popularity, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, challenging Zeto the same way it did small businesses everywhere. The truck packed up the outdoor tables and chairs but remained open to serve San Diegans delicious shawarma, falafel and other comfort foods at a time when many residents’ social lives came to center on takeout.
The truck survived the pandemic, though staffing was — and remains — difficult. Zeto said the team became accustomed to handling the big crowds and things calmed down a bit, with the truck settling into a comfortable rhythm.
As for the owner, he remains there for “open and close” most days. Twelve and 13 hour days are the norm. He said he’s been taking it a little easier lately, though — perhaps only working 10 or 11.
Now he has a new challenge on his plate: opening his first two restaurants that don’t sit on four wheels. The first Shawarma Guys brick and mortar location is slated for 5525 Jackson Drive in La Mesa, where Zeto took the space of an old Greek restaurant and gutted the place, planning to rebuild from scratch.
If all goes well, the restaurant will open in September or October, Zeto said. Details are still pending, but diners will order at a counter and have a comfortable seating area to enjoy their meal.
The menu will offer an expanded set of food choices, with favorites from the truck but also new items, including more wagyu beef dishes that proved a little unwieldy to make in the mobile kitchen.
The owner expects to open a second Shawarma Guys location in Mira Mesa some time after the first spot.
While the new storefronts are exciting, Zeto assured South Park residents that he has no plans to abandon his spot in their neighborhood either, making it three Shawarma Guys locations in the near future.
For the uninitiated, shawarma meat is stacked onto a spit and slowly cooked as it rotates, eventually cut into thin slices and typically served on pita. It’s a beloved fast-casual and street food and a staple of Mediterranean cuisine.
Zeto is Chaldean and said his shawarma is closest to Iraqi-style, but he draws on a variety of influences for the menu’s many dishes. His garlic paste, for example, is more Lebanese. And Zeto came up with his own falafel recipe through experimentation, grinding up the veggies and testing different combos until the fried dish tasted just right.
Zeto said many of his nine employees have been with the venture from the beginning. “They’re family to us,” he told FOX 5. “We treat them all like family.”
And that family will need to grow, as Zeto staffs up for the new locations. He asked anyone looking for work to reach out.
You can check out the full menu and learn more on the Shawarma Guys website.