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Family business adds calzones to Thayer’s international menu

Features Editor
Wednesday, September 12, 2012

When Thayer Street patrons first enter Mike’s Calzones, they are greeted by a familiar face – one that has been recognized by members of the Brown community for his culinary contributions to College Hill for almost a decade.

Michel “Mike” Boutros, founder, manager and chef at the recently opened restaurant next to Bagel Gourmet Ole on the northeast end of campus, has worked for years in restaurants offering food inspired by cuisine from all over the world.

But his journey has never taken him farther than Thayer Street, where he has served in the restaurant business for nearly ten years. His work at East Side Pockets and Shanghai – both restaurants founded by members of Boutros’ family – provided him with an opportunity to build a rapport with the community, Boutros said.

“A lot of the Brown students and a lot of the local people know my name and … recognize my face,” Boutros said. “I’m just ‘Mike.'”

So when he decided to open a new restaurant on Thayer this spring, he named the establishment Mike’s Calzones.


A family affair

Boutros, 33, said he cannot remember a time in his life when he wasn’t working with food.

“Since I was young, I was helping my father and my mother in the restaurant business,” he said. His first job was as the designated “wrap-maker” in his family’s falafel eatery in their home country of Syria, he added.

Boutros, along with his parents, two brothers and two sisters, emigrated from Syria to the United States in the early to mid-1990s

Shortly after the entire family arrived, they opened their first restaurant in 1997. That year, East Side Pockets began serving Middle Eastern-style falafel, gyros and beef kafka on Thayer. 

It is one of the few businesses on the street that has survived this long, said Paul Boutros, 37, Mike’s brother and current manager of East Side Pockets.

East Side Pockets served as a launching point for Boutros to expand the family business – eventually leading Mike to open Shanghai, a Chinese restaurant, and now, the calzone establishment.


On the street

Each new restaurant opened by the Boutros family addresses a specific type of food missing from Thayer, Mike said.

“Every time I try to bring something to Thayer Street, I look at what Thayer Street is missing,” Mike said. “Like when I opened the Chinese restaurant – Shanghai – there was no Chinese.”

Shanghai, which opened in 2005, remains open today, though Boutros said he sold his share of its ownership in 2007. Afterward, he noticed that there were a variety of pizza options, but no calzones, which led to the idea of Mike’s.

Paul Boutros said successful businesses occupy a special niche, noting that new ventures that try to copy existing Thayer business models often fail.

“When you come to the street, you’ve got to do something unique,” Paul Boutros said. “You’ve got to do something different.”

While the calzone restaurant is still young, Mike Boutros said, he hopes to someday own a part of either East Side Pockets or Mike’s Calzones as a franchise. But though he grew up in the restaurant business, he would not necessarily want that life for his future children, he said. “It’s a lot of work.”


The choice calzone

As diners enter Mike’s Calzones, they are welcomed by warm greetings from Boutros and his wife, Nancy Mersho, who is also a full-time employee of the restaurant. Behind the counter rests a chicken shawarma, a machine similar to a rotisserie that cooks meat in a traditional Arab preparation – by roasting it slowly.

The shawarma was added about a month ago, Boutros said. It is not officially on the menu yet.

The menu features a variety of preset options, including calzones, wraps and salads. There is also the option to make one’s own calzone by selecting meat and toppings. All calzones are made to order.

Customer favorites are the buffalo chicken, chicken parmesan and chicken bacon ranch. 

But Boutros often recommends certain combinations, he said. His all-time favorite is a grilled chicken, spinach, tomatoes, olives, pesto and feta cheese calzone – a combination that customers always come back to try again, he said.

Anne Sholar ’14 tried Mike’s Calzones shortly after it opened in the spring.

Initially “puzzled” by Mike’s suggestions of what toppings to put on her calzone, the combination of toppings he suggested “worked out well,” she said. “He knew what he was doing.” The restaurant seems to have gotten positive reviews – it has a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5 on Yelp, a website that allows users to review and rate local businesses.


The falafel guys

Both Paul and Mike Boutros said restaurants have always been an important part of their lives.

“We grew up in it,” Paul said. “We worked almost ever
y day,” sometimes even working 20-hour days in the first years after East Side Pockets opened, he said.

Whether traveling in the United States or internationally, Brown and RISD students and alums have recognized both Boutros and his brother Paul for their service, Paul said.

They say, “Hey, you’re the falafel guy!” he said.

Mike was once recognized by two RISD students in a German airport, Paul said.

While Mike said he has enjoyed his time at the calzone restaurant so far, he has not forgotten his time at East Side Pockets.

Working at East Side Pockets was “a lot of fun back in the day,” he said, recalling after-parties that were held at the restaurant before Providence began requiring all businesses to close by 2 a.m. Restaurant workers would play a drum during parties, he added.

“I try to experience new adventures,” Mike said.

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