Ahmad Samhan, a Brooklyn restaurateur, and father, died of a heart attack last Friday at the age of 51. Samhan was a man of faith. He was a man who loved music and singing. A man who shut down his restaurant for his manager’s wedding, and would never miss his son’s baseball games. Samhan owned several restaurants, including Zaytoons on Vanderbilt and Villa Pancho on Myrtle Avenue.
Throughout his years in the neighborhood, he touched many lives. Chad Purkey, the Executive Director of the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership, which has its offices directly above one of Samhan’s restaurants, remembers him as a dear friend.
“He was so many things. In reflecting on him for the past week and hearing from others I think the thing that stands out is that he is just incredibly generous. He’s a generous person in every sense of the word— generous with his time, his talent, his food that he makes,” Purkey said. He remembers that while he was walking home after work, Samhan would frequently pull over and offer him rides.
“I definitely wasn’t the only person he did that [for],” Purkey laughed.
“They became my family. He allowed me into his personal life, I would be invited to parties, and he closed the store for my wedding. If you go to Zaytoons or if you go to the Taqueria all of us have been there for so long. Even though it’s not like a career job that people would think you would want to stay in, everybody felt like they were home. It was okay to have your moments and talk about when you were sad with him,” Villalobos said. “He was just a natural father figure to everyone around him.”
Samhan is survived by a son and three daughters, some of whom spent summers working behind the counter at his restaurants. Even though he practiced the Muslim faith, he held Secret Santa gift exchanges and celebrated all holidays with his staff, encouraging his children to take part as it was “their second family”, Villalobos remembered.
“[The restaurant is] kind of quiet. It’s very nostalgic right now for us. You just wait for him to come in singing, because he used to love to sing and dance around. In terms of whether we’ll keep being that close-knit, I think we feel like we owe it to him,” Villalobos said.
Samhan had an uncanny ability to touch those around him, evidenced by the numerous stories shared about his kindness. When the man who delivers Zaytoons degreaser and soap heard of his passing, he sobbed in the street. In a Facebook post from the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership, neighbors shared memories.
“I remember when he opened Zaytoons. Really good food and he was just the friendliest guy. We had so many good dinners, take outs and parties in the back room. He always talked to customers and remembered the names,” Marta Grochowska wrote.
“Ahmad Samhan was one of a kind and will be missed by many around the world,” wrote Arms Atlanta.
According to Villalobos, there were about 500 people present at his funeral, as well as around 80 at each of the vigils held.
“He would speak with everybody, and I think what was really interesting in seeing everyone who gathered on Friday [at the vigil] was just the pure diversity of who he interacted with. There was not a single person he would write off as somebody he didn’t want to get to know or wouldn’t support,” Purkey said. What it all really boils down to for me is that he is Brooklyn. He really personifies what’s best about this place.”