Special to The Providence Journal

BY SUNISA NARDONE
October 4, 2005

Paul Boutros behind the counter at East Side Pockets in Providence

The team behind the counter at East Side Pockets interacts seamlessly, maintaining a flow of conversation in Arabic. As Paul Boutros, 29, works the front counter, he hands an empty tomato bin to his brother-in-law, Mounir Salo, 43. Boutros steps away from the counter for a minute, and another in-law, Kamil Boghos, 42, appears with a cloth to wipe down the counter and continue assembling the wrap. The eight customers in the restaurant inch forward.

Boutros steps back behind the counter and grabs another wrap. He is practiced at walking his customers through the assembly line that is the wrap section of East Side Pockets. People approach the tile counter from the left side. They peer through the glass at the uniform row of plastic containers holding 12 ingredients. Boutros begins his dialogue:

"Hot sauce hummus?," he asks.

"Lettuce tomatoes?" With each double question the customers nods or shakes their head and slide to their right, moving across the counter in step with Boutros.

"Peppers pickles?"

"Tabouleh?"

"Tahina?" Every yes results in a swift dip into the container, a flick of the wrist as Boutros scoops a sauce and sprinkles it across the open wrap.

"Cucumber sauce?"

"Feta?"

Now the customer has arrived at the right-hand side of the counter. The wrap is waiting for chicken or lamb from the grill. When the meat is ready, Boutros layers it on top, rolls the wrap, grabs a sheet of aluminum foil with his right hand, and asks, "for here to go?"

If the food is for "here" the process is complete. The customer can proceed to the cash register, above the display counters of Middle Eastern desserts.

"To go" means that another piece of aluminum is deftly twisted around the wrap. It is tossed into the air, caught, and slid smoothly into the brown East Side Pockets bag.

The gleaming storefront stands on the north end of bustling Thayer Street, its forest green canopy and red neon falafel sign visible a block away. Its owners are Boutros and his brothers-in-law, Boghos and Salo. All three are heavy-set men who wear polo shirts and jeans to work every day. They form the core of the team that works six days a week in this Middle Eastern restaurant.

Michel Boutros behind the counter at East Side Pockets in Providence

Originally, East Side Pockets was the business of the seven-person Boutros family, but as it grew, ownership was transferred to the two youngest sons, Paul and Michel Boutros, 25. They had put the most time into the store and sacrificed their educations to come to America and begin working. But Michel is rarely seen behind the counter anymore. He sold his share of the restaurant in February 2004, to Boghos and Salo.

The family's plan to come to America began with Paul and Michel's father, Alexander Boutros -- or Iskander, as his name is pronounced in Arabic.

He dreamed of leaving Syria for a better life. The devoutly Catholic father of five believed in America as a land of opportunity, a land of religious tolerance, and in the 1960s, the land that elected John F. Kennedy as president. He named his daughter Caroline, after Kennedy's daughter.

In 1982, his brother Pierre Boutros, a resident of Exeter, applied for permission for Alexander to come to the United States. Pierre had gotten his green card when he was a student at the University of Rhode Island, but it took eight years for Alexander to get one.

He arrived in Rhode Island in 1990, leaving his family behind, because he wanted to investigate the potential for a new life before moving them over.

He spoke no English, but he went to work for his brother Faraj, who ran Little Country Pizza in Exeter, until he was deported last fall after losing a 20-year fight to remain in America. Faraj -- who had used a fake passport to move his family here in 1984 -- is living in Beirut, family members say, and his wife, Vera Boutros, recently applied for a visa that would let him come back to Rhode Island.

From 1990 to 1993, Alexander Boutros traveled between Rhode Island and Syria.

The Boutros family is from Hassake, a town in the northeast of Syria, an hour from the Iraq border. There, they owned a ready-made furniture store and operated their own falafel place. "We were doing good in Syria. Not too rich, not poor. Kind of middle class," says Alexander's son Paul. "Syria's not like what they show on TV. We have history, we have tradition. The hospitality, the social life there is different. Everybody knows each other."

But the problem with Syria, Paul says, is that "banks, schools, hospitals are owned by the government. If you build a new house, you will need a permit. To get it you need a connection. To get a good job, you need a connection."

Religious freedom also was a factor for the family, which is Christian. Michel calls America "the best country in the world," because, he says, "freedom is the most important thing."

Paul finished high school in Syria in 1993. He graduated with enough points to study engineering in college, but in 1994, he chose to forgo higher education in Syria and come to America with his father.

"I had this dream also," he says. "America has a big image, that it's the best country in the world. You watch the movies, it looks so clean, the streets. The grass is very green."

By 1997, Michel and his mother, Angel Boutros, had joined Paul and Alexander in Rhode Island. The brothers worked at a Lebanese-owned pizza parlor, KNS Pizza, in Charlestown, where they picked up English by interacting with the American workers and customers. Michel finished his last two years of school at Chariho High.

The same year, Alexander went back to Syria one last time -- to get his three other children, who were still working there. Paul persuaded his father to sell one of the family's homes there so the Boutros family could open its own business in Rhode Island and stop working for others.

His father brought back $50,000 after selling the house, and the Boutroses decided to open a falafel place. In June 1997, the Boutros family bought the store that is now East Side Pockets. They borrowed money from friends to complete minor renovations, tile the floor and buy a new fryer.

At first, Paul's parents -- Alexander, now 63, and Angel, now 60 -- worked in the kitchen with his two sisters, Caroline, 38, and Rita, 36. The oldest son, Elie, 37, had been a medical doctor in Syria. He delayed taking the exam that would allow him to convert his medical degree to one recognized in America so that he could help out at East Side Pockets, too.

In the kitchen, the family members chopped 60 heads of parsley a day to make tabouleh. They sliced tomatoes, fried falafel, and worked behind the scenes because they didn't speak English. "My mom did a job that 30-year-old guys can't do," Paul recalls. "She lifted tahina buckets; they're like 40 pounds each."

Paul and Michel worked up front dealing with customers because they had the best English. Michel was still commuting from Providence to attend high school in Richmond on weekdays, so his work hours were limited to 3 to 10 p.m. He made friends with the Brown students who were regular customers. They would help Michel with his English, and in return, he would invite them to his parents' house for a traditional Syrian meal.

At the restaurant, the hours were long. Alexander, Angel, Caroline and Rita arrived at East Side Pockets at 9 in the morning. They prepared food until 10 at night, seven days a week.

Paul and Michel typically arrived at 10:30 a.m. every day to prepare for the lunch rush. They were on their feet until 2 in the morning on weekdays, 3 or 4 a.m. on weekends. "From 1:30 at night to 3 o'clock, we did 20-30 percent of business. We lock the door at 3:30 in the morning. By the time we have to clean the tables, mop up, it's 5 in the morning. Sun's up. We're the first people to get in, last to sleep," Paul recalls.

On the day of Brown's Campus Dance in 1999, Paul and Michel worked a 19-hour day, from 10 a.m. to 6 a.m. At 4:30 in the morning, Paul says, the line still stretched to the back of the restaurant.

As the business continued to grow, "the family was starting to burn out," Paul says. By 2000, the long hours and hard work were taking their toll, making everybody edgy and stressed. There were fights between customers in the store late at night. At the end of a 16- or 18-hour day, the family was hard-pressed to keep smiling.

In July 2000, they decided -- for a period that would last 1 1/2 years -- to close the restaurant on Sundays, so the family could gather for a weekly lunch at Alexander and Angel Boutros' house in Lincoln.

The immigrants' entrepreneurial spirit continues, in new ways.

(The following was true at the time this piece was published, but may no longer be the case.)

Michel Boutros has recently opened -- with an outside partner -- a second restaurant on Thayer Street. It's called Shanghai, and serves Chinese food.