This Restaurant Takes Its Nicest Place in America Honor Seriously

Yassin Terou with his wife and his employees hold the company's motto at one of his Knoxville restaurants. Yassin's Falafal House

High on the magenta-colored wall of a restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, is a sign that reads: "Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people, safe here at Yassin's Falafel House."

Owned by Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee, this popular gathering spot had its moment in the spotlight when it was named the winner of the Reader's Digest Nicest Places in America contest in 2018. The nominees included cities, businesses and even streets across the country that are just plain nice.

Terou found out about the award live on "Good Morning America" from host Robin Roberts, who was also a judge for the contest. When she told him the news, Terou said, "America is the winner. Knoxville is the winner. Tennessee is the winner. It's not me."

He told MNN what he felt when he heard the news. "The first feeling I got is that we are welcome and that love always will win," he said. "No matter where you come from, you always can do the right thing and people will keep supporting you regardless of who you are. This is what makes our country the best country in the world."

Putting their mantra to do good on the road

aftermath of tornado, Cookeville, Tennessee, March 2020
In the aftermath of a tornado that passed through Cookeville, Tennessee, and surrounding counties, help was needed. Volunteers and employees of Yassin's Falafel House didn't hesitate to heed the call. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

That unfailingly positive approach hasn't stopped, even two years after winning the "Nicest Places" honor. In the aftermath of the tornadoes that left Nashville and Middle Tennessee in shambles, Terou and his team did what's in their DNA: They helped. They have built a relief kitchen to feed residents, first responders and anyone displaced by the storms, and they plan to continue.

They've launched a GoFundMe page that is quickly closing in on the modest goal of raising $10,000 to maintain the relief kitchen and help more people.

"We are not heroes we are good learners, we learn from each one of you how to be a better people," reads a post on the restaurant's Facebook page in a response to a story on kindness in the face of tragedy, which aired — not surprisingly — on "Good Morning America."

'Not here just to make falafel'

Terou arrived in Knoxville from Syria in 2011 and soon became a fixture in the area, known for opening his door as a safe place to everyone. He often is the first refugee, immigrant or Muslim that some people meet.

"I always invite anyone who hates us to the store. I want them to know us more. When you break bread, you break hate," Terou told Reader's Digest.

Terou supports local causes and often hires people who are struggling: other refugees, people battling addiction, ex-convicts and women fleeing difficult situations.

"From someone who is coming from my background who has been welcome in Knoxville and is very proud of being Knoxvillian, it is important for me to go and welcome everybody else and pay it forward and to keep the American dream going and this is a very important thing right now," Terou told MNN.

'We are pro-love'

Terou started out selling sandwiches outside a mosque after services. He sold out so quickly that his now business partner, Nadeem Siddiqi, gave him a spot in an empty building downtown to see how sales would go. Terou now has two very popular locations with plans to open two more.

"A lot of immigrants try so hard to blend in," Siddiqi told Reader's Digest. "Yassin is very much proud of his heritage. He's grateful and he understands something that's really important. With a generous spirit and with a generous heart, nobody has a negative feeling toward that."

Another Facebook post for the restaurant sums it up perfectly: "We are pro-love, pro-equality and for sure pro-falafel."