Natalie Schwartz’s dark-green eyes focused intently on her subjects as the conversation moved from her love of dancing and singing to the Special Olympics bowling team she recently joined. An upcoming trip to Lebanon to visit family also was on her mind, and she grinned widely at the thought of her worldly travels and the loved ones, the music and foods she’s missed since her last visit.
Always happy to chat, Natalie soon returned to her post as hostess at Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon, where patrons — many of them familiar to her — arrived to the full Natalie treatment: She seated them and spent a few minutes lingering at the table, eager to talk, share and learn, and to take the occasional family picture when asked.
She enthusiastically recommended the tender spiced chicken shawarma, or meaty grilled kebobs. Upon leaving, the regulars — her friends, she calls them — get a hug.
“I always thank them for coming because it means a lot to us that they come back again,” Natalie said later.
It might be the freshly made zaatar pita bread slathered generously with extra-smoky baba ghannouj, and the cool, sophisticated Mediterranean vibes that get feet in the door of this restaurant, which opened in December 2016 at 3601 Cox Road in Henrico County.
But its heart and soul — and the reason for its existence — is Natalie.
At 26, Natalie has Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that occurs from birth and can manifest in a range of physical health issues as well as learning disabilities and developmental delays. She has trouble with balance, fine motor skills and sudden loud noises. Names sometimes escape her, and multitasking can be a challenge. She’s warm, friendly and cheerful, common traits of those with Williams syndrome, yet brutally honest and frank. For people and causes near to her heart, she’s fiercely loyal. Although some experience serious cardiovascular issues, Natalie is blessedly healthy.
She’s a Washington Redskins fan through and through.
But when Natalie’s job prospects as a young adult were becoming bleak, her parents — Anne-Marie Irani and her husband, Larry Schwartz — took a blind leap of faith into completely uncharted territory with nothing but their daughter’s best interests in mind. With zero restaurant management experience between them — Irani and Schwartz are both doctors with full-time careers — they opened Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon for their fourth child and only daughter, ultimately giving her and others a place to work and thrive.
With a smile, Irani acknowledges that the restaurant was her idea.
Though Natalie needed accommodations throughout her school-age years, she graduated from Douglas Freeman High School with a standard diploma. She worked through J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College’s Program for Adults in Vocational Education, or PAVE, which offers two-year trade skills programs for those with emotional, physical and intellectual disabilities. Natalie chose the clerical track, and during that time, she held a three-month internship in former Gov. Tim Kaine’s office.
After community college, she trained at Max’s Positive Vibe Cafe and worked part time in other restaurants across Richmond, though her hours were often limited. When she wasn’t working, she was home, usually on social media.
Irani said that like many young adults with special needs, her daughter didn’t have a lot of friends.
But “she thrives in inclusive environments,” Irani said. Although Natalie had clerical training and could have looked for a job using those skills, “with her personality, I knew what would make her really happy and blossom would be to be in a place where she could engage people and meet people.”
Natalie found a job in another Lebanese restaurant, though within a year, it closed.
Irani said that’s when an idea came to her: They could open a Lebanese restaurant, not only giving Natalie a place to work, but also a place to work where she could share her love of her Lebanese heritage. Her husband was skeptical about taking on such a venture, but “we compromised,” Schwartz said jokingly — clearly meaning he was overruled in the matter.
After more than a year of planning, Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon opened with its namesake at the front door greeting guests.
Schwartz recalls that about a week after the restaurant opened, his daughter shared on Facebook: “Now I have a full-time job just like everybody else.”
Small candles flickered on tables inside the restaurant last month on a Thursday evening. Glass Lebanese water jars — from which beverages are meant to be poured directly into one’s mouth from a small spout — sweated with condensation next to plates of freshly prepared hummus; handmade spinach and cheese pies; and moussakah — eggplant and chickpeas cooked with garlic and onions in a rich tomato sauce.
Natalie worked the floor. She works days Tuesdays through Fridays and the occasional evenings and special events. In addition to the main dining area of the restaurant, a separate events space for large parties is right next door.
Sitting at a comfortable booth facing a piece of art bought from an art professor in Beirut specifically for the restaurant, Irani said the trait that makes Williams syndrome unique is that those who have it are mostly happy and positive.
“Go to a Williams syndrome convention, and you’ll be hugged 100 times,” she said. It’s not without its challenges, though. Those affected can experience anxiety or depression. Many have physical health issues that continue their whole lives. As a baby, Natalie underwent successful brain surgery at just 20 months to relieve pressure on her cerebellum, the back section of the brain that affects fine motor skills. Her mother recalls that until the surgery, Natalie cried a lot. What soothed her was music — her father sang to her often, Irani said. That love of music and singing remains with Natalie, who’s been involved with SPARC, or the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, since she was a child.
But starting a restaurant from the ground up isn’t easy, even for the most experienced restaurant owners.
Their daughter’s happiness aside, it’s been a sharp learning curve for Irani and Schwartz. Irani said she tries to stop by as often as she can to check on things, but after more than a year, she’s come to trust her staff, led by manager Daniel Ingold. Her kitchen staff includes people from Lebanon and Iraq, and since opening, they’ve hired other employees with special needs.
Although doing so can present challenges in a busy restaurant, Irani said they’re determined to make Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon a welcoming place for everyone.
“It’s not easy because you have to have somebody helping them,” Irani said about those who may have disabilities. Still, “we are totally committed.”
That commitment hasn’t gone unnoticed.
A family friend, Nancy Belleman, said her daughter, Claire, met Natalie in middle school. Claire, also 26, has Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition where, among other symptoms, one feels hungry all the time because there’s no signal from the brain to indicate the sense of being full or satiated after eating.
Belleman said the issue of employment for young adults with special needs is “a very large and very vexing problem.”
“Everybody in the special-needs community talks about the lack of opportunities for jobs for our high-functioning kids,” she said, noting that the frustration often stems from the lack of understanding about what these people need to successfully hold a job. Often, she said, even employers who may be willing to hire someone with special needs aren’t fully aware of the extent of the accommodations needed to help them.
“Usually the accommodations are small,” she said, adding that the moment the support goes away — a new manager takes over, for example — that’s when things fall apart.
She said Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon “is so reflective of Anne-Marie,” from its warmth and aesthetic style to its greater mission, to not only be a place for Natalie but also for others.
“She and Natalie are so wonderful,” she said.
When life is chaotic, Irani and Schwartz have only to look at Natalie for inspiration.
It’s her positive attitude that lifts them at the end of long workdays, Irani said, and Natalie continues to teach her parents by example.
For instance, Irani shared that Natalie’s patriotic streak for both the United States and Lebanon runs deep. She’s learned that when traveling anywhere with Natalie, if there’s a connection between flights, she has to account for extra time. Natalie, upon seeing anyone in a military uniform, will make a point to stop them, shake their hands and thank them for their service — every single person.
“Now I do that, too,” Irani said. “She taught me that.”
And, her mother said, it was Natalie who initiated the idea of military discounts at the restaurant.
Irani paused and watched as her daughter greeted guests and showed them to a table. She beams with pride at the woman Natalie has become.
“Natalie is an incredibly loving, amazing young individual,” Irani said, and to see her happy “is the reason why we’re so committed.”
As if sensing her mother’s gaze, moments later during a lull in service, Natalie joined Irani at the table. Referencing the now-closed Lebanese restaurant where she used to work, Natalie said she was happy to be working in a Lebanese restaurant again.
“I like the staff that I work with, I like the food and I like the people I talk to,” she said, diving into a story about one of her former elementary school teachers who came into the restaurant and recognized her. Then there was the family from Brazil she met the day before and the man from Lebanon whom she met just that day. Natalie talks openly about Williams syndrome. The questions she can’t answer she defers to her mother.
“I have disabilities, but I’m doing well despite that,” she said. When asked how she felt about her parents’ decision to open Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon, Natalie emphasized that she wasn’t just grateful, but “grateful and thankful.”