When people used to ask Danny Dubbaneh to describe the manoushe his Palestinian-American family sold at D.C.-area farmers’ markets, he’d resort to an American analog, telling them it was like a pizza. But manoushe is like pizza in the way that baseball is like cricket — sort of, but not really. The Arab flatbread, puffed and blistered on a convex metal griddle called a saaj and topped with anything from a za’atar spice blend to lamb, is a cultural touchstone, eaten at breakfast and sold on street corners across the Eastern Mediterranean. Today, customers can buy the Dubbanehs’ frozen manoushe at a website with a telling address: itsnotpizza.com.
Dubbaneh says he’s become “resolute” in calling manoushe by its name as the family’s company, Z&Z, has grown. Rather than trying to Americanize a Palestinian food for an audience that may be unfamiliar with its charms, he presents manoushe on its own terms, trusting customers will understand its appeal. And it’s worked.
Over the past five years, Z&Z made deals to move into area Whole Foods and other local grocery stores while supplying spices to some of D.C.’s trendiest restaurants. Anyone who’s had a za’atar bagel from Call Your Mother deli, the roasted cauliflower at Maydan, or the D&D pie at Timber Pizza Co. has tried Z&Z za’atar. Thamee, the nationally acclaimed Burmese restaurant on D.C.’s H Street NE corridor, sells jars of Z&Z za’atar and sumac in its BIPOC Pantry.
Z&Z traces its roots back to Palestine, but also through Rockville, Maryland, where the Dubbaneh family ran a fried chicken joint called the Chicken Basket. Before Danny and his siblings ever dreamed of being spice purveyors, they grew up working in their parents’ restaurant.
Their father, Issa, emigrated from Palestine in his late teens. He was in college, studying to become an engineer, when his father unexpectedly died. To make ends meet, he and his brothers opened the Chicken Basket. Around that time, Muna, Issa’s future wife and the matriarch of Z&Z, was a family friend who’d come to the U.S. from Jordan at 18. She was also reckoning with loss after her brother’s death in a car accident. Issa’s and Muna’s mothers grieved together, visiting each other frequently, but since neither could drive, their children ferried them back and forth between their houses. During those car rides, Issa and Muna got to know each other and fell in love. The couple married in 1986 and had five children — Ronnie, Danny, Ronia, Johnny, and DeAnna — who grew up working in the family business, folding boxes, stocking sodas, and memorizing regulars’ go-to orders.
Issa stuck to American food at the Chicken Basket, assuming the Palestinian dishes he grew up eating wouldn’t sell in 1980s Maryland. “We never had customers come in and ask about Middle Eastern food,” he says. A short-lived addition of hummus and pita to the menu in the ’90s proved him right. The dishes weren’t selling, so he stopped trying.
At home, the Dubbanehs ate traditional Arabic cooking, the type of dishes “that take 12 hours to make and five minutes to eat,” Danny says. Breakfast meant tea and manoushe topped with za’atar, vegetables, and labneh. For dinner, they ate platters of rice alongside chicken, stuffed grape leaves, or squash. On weekend mornings, the children woke up to the smell of manoushe; their grandmother would already have covered the family’s ping-pong table with the homemade flatbreads and breakfast accoutrements. She would cook hundreds in a day, stocking the freezer for later, a small-scale precursor to the manoushe Z&Z now ships to 20 states.
The Chicken Basket allowed Issa and Muna to put food on the table, but the couple didn’t want their children to go into the grueling life of food service. The Dubbanehs wanted their kids to invest in their education and graduate into the white-collar stability that Issa had pursued before his father’s death.
“Like most immigrants and most parents who grew up in restaurants, everything they tried to do was tell us to stay away from food,” Danny says. The children complied at first, graduating from college and getting jobs in accounting or research. Led by Danny and Johnny, they soon felt themselves pulled back to food.
The Dubbaneh kids pondered starting a falafel business, but the chickpea fritters had already entered the mainstream, and they wanted to highlight an Arab food that wasn’t getting its due. Za’atar manoushe was special to them, “iconic” even. Issa mentions that za’atar is believed to enhance memory; he claims he’d eat it and pass tests without studying. Danny remembers his Palestinian relatives packing za’atar in their suitcases when they came to visit, because their parents couldn’t find a version to their liking. Why not make a line of za’atar that lived up to their lofty standards?
Za’atar is both the name of a spice mix and of a plant. The mix Z&Z sells contains the dried za’atar plant along with lemony sumac and sesame seeds, a savory-herbal-tart flavor combination. The Dubbanehs wanted to source their za’atar from Palestine, so they found farmers in Jenin, a city famed for the plant. The herb was bright and flavorful, and, more importantly, passed a taste test by their mom, dad, and grandmother.
Issa and Muna weren’t always on board with the project. “No, this is not something you can do,” Muna remembers telling her kids. But after weeks of back-and-forth, the idea started to make sense, and Muna got tired of arguing. Plus, she and Issa figured their children would need their business acumen and culinary knowledge. “The kids didn’t know anything about Middle Eastern cooking,” she says bluntly. For Issa and Muna, Z&Z has become a symbol of their children’s connection to their culture and a source of pride. For the Dubbaneh family, the flavor is a bright reminder of their old and new homes.
Z&Z started out as a Foggy Bottom farmers market stand run by a rotating cast of family members. At first, Muna made every manoushe, ending workdays as a teaching assistant early to catch the Metro to the market. She was insecure at first, because she couldn’t always shape the bread into reliable circles like her mother’s. “You would think it’s easy,” she says, “but unless you do it for a long time, you don’t know how to handle the dough.” Eventually, she got comfortable enough to pass her skills down to Johnny and Danny.
The family sold jars of za’atar and handed out samples of fresh-griddled manoushe topped with the blend so customers could get a taste of the spice they were buying. Issa remembers serving a woman who’d followed the heady scent of warm za’atar and manoushe from the Metro station to the Dubbanehs’ stand; she soon became a regular. The business grew, and in 2018, Johnny and Danny quit their jobs to run the company full-time. As demand increased, the company expanded to a warehouse space in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and hired two part-time employees in addition to the family members pitching in.
Rose Previte, the owner of Maydan and Compass Rose, uses Z&Z za’atar in everything from martinis to shanklish, a fresh homemade cheese. Though her customers don’t always know what za’atar is, she says, “the people who do know it are really obsessed with it.” She met the Dubbanehs at the farmers market before Maydan opened. After tasting their manoushe and za’atar, she was hooked. To her, their za’atar tastes like the spice blend from the bakery she’d visit with her parents when she was growing up in Toledo, Ohio. They’d go each week to pick up fresh bread to eat with olive oil and za’atar. Z&Z reminds her of that childhood ritual. And for Previte, supporting the local business is a no-brainer. “They’re the nicest family in the world,” she says.
Andrew Dana, co-owner of the popular pizza and bagel shops Call Your Mother and Timber Pizza Co., first got to know the Dubbanehs at the farmers market, too. Z&Z was Timber Pizza’s neighbor, and after tasting the family’s za’atar, Dana and chef Daniela Moreira decided to use it on one of their pizzas. The white pie topped with mozzarella, provolone, red and green peppers, jalapenos, scallions, and the Z&Z blend was a hit; it still appears on the Timber Pizza menu years later.
While planning the menu for Call Your Mother, Moreira suggested a za’atar bagel, something the pair hadn’t yet seen in D.C. bakeries. Dana credits Moreira’s inexperience with bagels — she grew up in Argentina — for this stroke of genius. “She was thinking of things that would be delicious on hot, warm bread,” he explains.
Until 2020, Z&Z did more than 70 percent of its business at farmers markets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when some markets shuttered, Z&Z was forced to lean on its fledgling frozen manoushe business and its partnerships with independent D.C. grocers like Odd Provisions and Glen’s Garden Market to carry jars of za’atar and sumac.
Eventually, Whole Foods picked up the company’s za’atar and sumac, and online sales buoyed the company. Selling spices in Whole Foods — the company is currently in 14 stores in the mid-Atlantic — allowed Z&Z to transition from hand-delivering its products to working with a distributor. “The most important part about being in Whole Foods was knowing that we’d be able to get proper representation for actually good, high-quality za’atar in a mainstream grocery,” Danny says. Z&Z is planning to release two new kinds of manoushe later this year, and hopes to grow its retail presence in D.C.-area stores.
Za’atar’s appearance in foods like bagels and pizza signals its regular presence in American food culture, a shift from even five years ago. This increased familiarity with Arabic food is part of what’s allowed Danny to drop the pizza comparison when he’s selling manoushe. But loyalty to tradition hasn’t stopped the company from innovating, either. “People are often held to a standard of doing things that are ‘authentic,’” he says, “but they also want to put their own spin on it.”
The Dubbaneh children naturally developed their own cooking culture that straddles Palestine and the U.S. They put za’atar on manoushe, but also on chicken wings, elote, and grilled cheese. Johnny likes to eat za’atar on vanilla ice cream with caramel syrup. “[We’re] claiming the food we grew up with,” Danny says, “but doing it in a way so we don’t feel tied down to how it’s always been done.”
Z&Z’s Instagram account features pictures of manoushe decorated with all sorts of untraditional toppings: burrata and cherry tomatoes, say, or pepperoni, Syrian white cheese, and scallions. But even under all of that, it’s still Not Pizza.