Oasis still dishing up their famous falafel during restricted hours of operation

Oasis Falafel owners Naftaly Stramer and Ofer Sivan in front of their Northside Iowa City restaurant. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Small, locally owned restaurants are a big part of what makes a community feel like home. They’re the places you stop for a quick lunch. They’re the places you take visitors when they’re in town. They’re the places you dream about returning to when you move away.

For 16 years Oasis has served that role on the Northside of Iowa City. Their fast Mediterranean menu, featuring their beloved falafel and hummus, has a homemade feel that functions not only as a comfort food but also as a quick, healthy lunch spot when you’re on a tight schedule.

Since COVID-19 arrived in Iowa back in March, Oasis has made some major changes to their operations, limiting both their menu and their hours. However, for co-owner Ofer Sivan, it was important to get back to serving the community as safely as possible, even if it meant limiting revenue and access.

Sivan was kind enough to answer some questions via email from Little Village regarding all the changes at Oasis:

What do you consider to be the role of Oasis in the community?

I think of Oasis as a place to get reasonably priced, tasty and healthy food. I have always thought if we keep it simple and focus on quality and flavor then the rest will follow. We also try to give back to the community that supports us so well. For our 15th anniversary in 2019 we raised about $6k instead of throwing a party or anything like that. We feel that wealth is measured in what you give, not what you have.

Oasis Falafel, Iowa City
Oasis Falafel, Iowa City — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In what ways has the pandemic impacted operations at Oasis and that relationship with the community?

The pandemic has been really challenging. We are trying to keep our staff and customers safe and prioritize safety over anything else. We believe the community is on board with this approach, even though it means there’s less hours in the week that we’re open and things aren’t as convenient as they used to be.

What interesting or creative changes have you made to the Oasis business model since the pandemic hit?

We have devised a schedule where we only have one cohort of employees working each week. This reduces the number of people who are in contact with each other thus reducing the chances of infections. We are also wearing masks 100 percent of the time in the restaurant. We take meal breaks one at a time. We are not accepting orders in person, only via phone and internet, and we are no longer letting people inside the shop.

The new restrictions are sensible but it’s hard to be less hospitable than [we] used to be. I miss customers inside. Personally and professionally I think I am a hospitable person, and all these barricades and challenges don’t sit well with me, so it’s been hard. Knowing that doing what we’re doing can save lives sure does help. I miss shooting the breeze with customers, and I miss the, “Hey, how are ya?”

What is the plan for the future of Oasis for the duration of the pandemic and beyond?

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We are trying to stay safe and get as much food out to people as we can without making any compromises in our safety procedures. In the meantime we are still making hummus and stuff for grocery stores. Once it’s safe again, we dream of the day that people can sit inside and enjoy the food.

How can people help and support Oasis?

People should do a quick Google search or check our Facebook page to see when we’re open, what’s new and what our procedures are. Also we need patience, ordering takes longer, we’re asking people to wear masks when they pick up. When we reopened in June we had a limited menu but we’ve been bringing back items week by week. So folks should check the website or Facebook page.