For nearly 30 years Mona Qaqish and her husband Munir have served up fresh, homemade meals to hungry Albanians at The Cookie Shoppe, which has become an Albany restaurant staple. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)
ALBANY —For nearly 35 years Albany residents looking for a home-cooked, homemade meal have made downtown’s The Cookie Shoppe a favorite destination.
Having been at the helm of the restaurant since 1985, owners Munir and Mona Qaqish have become as much of a staple as the restaurant itself.
Whether it’s grabbing a hot cheese biscuit on a Friday morning, or popping in at lunch for a sandwich and some chili, or just treating yourself to some homemade cookies or baklava in the afternoon, one thing is always guaranteed, you’ll be treated just like the family that owns it.
Herald reporter, and family friend for more than 25 years, Brad McEwen, sat down with Mona to learn a little bit about what it was like to grow up in Albany and ultimately run a business that has withstood the test of time.
Q. What was you first job?
A. I worked at this place called the the Dog House. It was on Slappey. It was owned by George and Karen Carr and it had all kinds of hot dogs. I worked there during the summertime when I was a teenager as a waitress.
Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first paycheck?
A. I really don’t remember. I didn’t drive so I didn’t buy gas with it. I wasn’t a clotheshorse so I know I didn’t spend it on any clothes. Really, I don’t remember. I probably gave it to my mother.
Q. What’s the single most effective technique you’ve found over the past few years for keeping employees motivated?
A. Treat them like family.
Q. Why did you want to operate your own business?
A. I was a hygienist, (Munir) was at Firestone. One day we decided we needed to find a business to buy because there was nothing left in Albany to do that we wanted to do. I just timed it right. It was perfect timing. I walked in and asked (original owner Zoe Hall) if it was for sale and she said ‘yes.’ So it just happened from there. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?
A. Probably my father. He went to work seven days a week and he always dressed up and he was a tailor. He would wear a dress shirt, a tie, dress pants and shoes and he altered men’s clothes. My parents were from the holy land. My father came here and started a business and then he brought my mother. That was in the 40s. He loved Albany. This was his home. He thought there was nothing better than Albany. He loved it. You know times were good back then, downtown was booming.
Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a business leader learned from the recent recession?
A. We haven’t raised our prices in three years. Even though inflation has come, prices have gone up. We just ate up the profit out of our pocket. Every time ground beef prices went up, we didn’t raise chili prices. We just ate the loss. We just ride it out.
Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology—examples e-mail, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc.-what would you most like to see go away.
A. Automated phone systems. I can’t stand those. You have a problem and you have no service, and you have to go through a bunch of menus and it takes forever and then they tell you they can get out to you in three days. This is a business, we can’t wait three days. That’s my pet peeve.
Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?
A. E-mail is good. The computer is great. I just got an iPad last month and I’m learning that. Someone had to show me how to get into it but I’m learning it. I’m not big on technology at all. If I have a problem I have to get someone to help me, but I’m learning.
Q. What is your favorite tradition?
A. There’s not a particular tradition. I like holiday times when family gets together and you have a big dinner and be together. That’s the best time, holiday times.
Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have any things that you read daily or regularly?
A. I don’t read books. I do read a lot of magazines. I read Food Network Magazine, Rachel Ray Magazine, Southern Living, that’s it. I read the newspaper.
Q. Are you a movie or TV watcher?
A. I don’t watch movies much, except every once in a while. I watch HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, “Duck Dynasty” and “Big Bang Theory.” “Big Bang Theory,” I didn’t know what that was when I first looked at it, but I watched it and I really like it. But that “Duck Dynasty,” I love that.
Q. I’m up and going by?
A. By 3:30 a.m. Coffee’s on. Munir comes to work first at 4:30 with Magid and I get in around 5:30-6 because I stay and close up. Magid and I close up. Munir comes early and leaves earlier, so we kind of rotate. People don’t realize what all goes on in the back, how much prep work that has to be done, and you’ve got the orders coming in and you have to put the groceries away, then if something doesn’t come in you have to go to the store and pick it up if you’re out of it. So you never can tell. Then we work on Sundays, come in and prep too.
Q. What are your favorite hobbies or activities outside of work?
A. The only thing I do is walk if I’m not too tired when I get home and it’s not too hot.
Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?
A. Probably not taking vacations in the summer when my children were young. Family is important. I missed that. I should’ve done that. I was worried about working and living and paying for the business, but family time means more than work. That’s the one mistake I made, I didn’t take off more when the children were little.
Q. What is the best thing about your job?
A. Being your own boss is better than anything. It’s the best thing ever. You can open the door when you want to, close the door when you want to, shut down if you want to. You don’t have to answer. I mean franchises are good and they make money, but they have their rules. If 2:30 comes and nobody’s here and we’re finished, we just close up. That’s the best thing. I don’t ever regret buying this business. That’s the best decision Munir and I ever made, buying this shop.
Q. What is the worst thing about your job?
A. I really love doing this. It’s the best thing we’ve ever done, so I don’t know that there is a worst thing. Maybe the long hours, that can be hard. Mostly though, I really like what I do.
Q. What was the most beneficial course you took in school?
A. I took dental hygiene. We didn’t have anything in dental hygiene that applies to business. There was nothing in dental hygiene that would have benefitted this business. We learned how to clean teeth and take x-rays. On the job experience is what I have learned from being a business owner. You learn from your mistakes, you gain from your mistakes.
Q. What do you think you would like to have done if you didn’t do what you are currently doing?
A. I probably would’ve been a school teacher, with summers off and no weekends or nights. I value my nights and weekends.
Q. Where do you see yourself on the first anniversary of your retirement?
A. In Destin, Fla. taking care of my grandchildren with Munir. At least hopefully, there’s no grandchildren yet.
Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?
A. That’s a hard one. There’s many things a great business leaders needs. Things like honesty, integrity, those are critical. I also think a business leader needs to be able to overcome obstacles and have determination.
Q. What kind of music might I find on your iPod?
A.I like the Beach Boys, the Beatles. I like Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill, some of the softer country stuff is good with me. I don’t really like rap or heavy metal. I listen to music, the radio a lot. I listen to 97.3. Chris (son-in-law) has to load up music on my iPod so I can listen to stuff while I walk. He put a some Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and some other ones. But now I need to go up another 10 years on my iPod, those songs are getting old.
Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?
A. I’m not really sure, but Albany has got to get some new businesses in here. I wish they could attract more manufacturers that would bring jobs. Even if the local government had to offer incentives, like tax breaks or utility discounts to get them here, we just need the jobs. I also worry about the minimum wage going up. That will have a big ripple effect. If the minimum wage goes up you’ll see it everywhere with prices going up. Like our tuna sandwich special. If minimum wage goes up to $10 an hour, that would have to go up like two dollars because everything we purchase would go up. It’s not about paying our employees, it’s all the other stuff. Like a can of tuna. I’ve never seen the price tuna so high.
Q. What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken? Why?
A. You know when you own it, you don’t get paid if you go on vacation. You don’t get paid, you shut down. The first 15 years we had this shop we didn’t shut down except for Christmastime. Then we started shutting down in the summer for a few days. But we do travel, we go to visit Melissa (daughter) at the beach and to see family. The best vacation was New York City Memorial Weekend, me and Munir. I’d never been there before. It was great. We got on the Today Show, at at Bobby Flay’s restaurant, saw Times Square. The weather was great too, we couldn’t have asked for better weather. And no kids, it was just the two of us.
Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?
A. Places are having to put more focus on customer service and on offering specials. Some of the restaurants, I don’t think, would get as much business if not for specials. People just can’t afford to pay a lot for things.
Q. What do you think has been the secret to the Cookie Shoppe’s success over the years?
A. Customer service. And good food, all the time. Quality is so important. If you get a tuna sandwich it tastes the same today as it did yesterday and the day before that. We make sure it’s good and it stays good. You know everything we make is homemade, from scratch. We really take pride in making sure everything is fresh and that it’s consistent. The quality of the food and food service is most important.
Q. What prompted the recent remodel of the restaurant?
A. It was just time for a new look. I think it had gotten dark and it had gotten dated. It needed brightening up. The wallpaper was dated, it was just time. Jennifer Gordon, who did the work, just did a great job. She can do everything, painting, carpentry, electrical, whatever. She did some painting at our house and did a great job, so when we decided to remodel the shop, we got her to do it and it’s been great. We’re very pleased.