By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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Only a year ago, Karim El-Raheb was relishing his achievements. He felt he had made a successful transition from the hotel industry to the riskier business of restaurants, as general manager of the upscale Pesce eatery.
El-Raheb had overhauled his restaurant staff and instituted changes to boost revenues. Those had dipped in the days after the 9/11 terrorism, but the entire industry was suffering from a downturn, for that matter. On the personal side, this native of Egypt was relieved that he'd felt no backlash of anti-Arab sentiment.
Or so he thought.
Two or three nights a week, Pesce co-owner Damian Mandola would visit to check up on his investment. El-Raheb says that after the terrorist attacks, his boss told him to change his name to "something Hispanic."
"Change your name so you don't scare customers," he quotes Mandola as saying. "Change your name on your business card."
The general manager says he tried to ignore the comments as best he could, but that the co-owner would repeat the remarks in front of staff and customers: "You need to change your name because of your looks, you could pass for Latin."
In fact, El-Raheb says, Mandola took greater delight when there was an audience for his jabs directed at this articulate man who had developed the manners to match his earlier work in fine hotels. In a restaurant where the tabs averaged $60 per diner, El-Raheb says, the apparent good-ol'-boy humor seemed grossly out of place.
He recalls the night when two regulars called him to their table after overhearing the asides. Had he actually scared patrons? Were they giving him grief?
Well, no, he thought, it was just his boss -- but he couldn't say that. El-Raheb recalls being privately embarrassed and humiliated, but says his training enabled him to keep it to himself. No, he assured them, everything was fine.
And he hoped it would be. El-Raheb says he knew the banter from Mandola, the man who recruited him for the position, was in poor taste. But he never thought his job was on the line.
He learned otherwise about seven weeks after 9/11, he says. Mandola decided to fire an employee: the general manager who still went by the name El-Raheb.
In the 21 years since his father, an engineer for Brown & Root, relocated his family to the Tanglewilde section of Houston, El-Raheb says he never had to deal with racism. He had a normal upbringing. In fact, he did so well at Cy-Fair High School that he was allowed to skip the 11th grade and graduate when he was 16.
While pursuing his liberal arts degree at the University of Houston, El-Raheb took a part-time job at the Hyatt Regency and says he fell in love with the hotel industry. Shortly after gaining his citizenship at age 20, he landed a front-desk position at the Ritz-Carlton. Over 13 years, worked his way up to director of guest services. El-Raheb's skills at handling the most demanding of customers helped him survive ownership changes as the hotel became the Remington and then the St. Regis.
He became acquainted with Mandola by directing guests to the Mandola family's restaurants. About three years ago, Mandola invited him to go over plans being prepared to open a trendy restaurant, then offered him the manager's job. El-Raheb declined, but changed his mind a year later. He thought the work would be exciting.
After joining Pesce, El-Raheb says, he was initially taken aback by Mandola's coarse ways with the staff and the personal differences between Mandola and John Carrabba, the co-owner and Mandola's nephew. He tells of confronting some workers about allegations of drug use and dealing, as well as thefts. He replaced many employees, tightened overtime and insisted on strict inventories for liquor and wine, Pesce's biggest moneymakers. Coupled with incentives such as prizes for top food and drink sellers among the waitstaff, he says, he had increased weekly profits from about $70,000 to close to the $100,000 mark set by Mandola.
"He told me that he was pleased with my performance," El-Raheb says of his three-month review. "He seemed happy with what I was doing."
As his six-month mark neared, Mandola returned from a trip to Italy and found problems: The fallout from 9/11 and a faltering economy had rocked the restaurant industry. El-Raheb says Pesce's revenue plummeted by about 50 percent, and would have been worse without his successes in organizing special private banquets.
On November 2, Mandola asked him to meet for coffee at Brasil in Montrose, near El-Raheb's home. "I bought him an espresso, which is kind of ironic," El-Raheb says. "And his first words to me were 'Things are not working out.' "
El-Raheb says there was no further explanation offered about his firing. He talks about trying to rationalize the repeated Mandola barbs about being Arabic: "I don't think he quite understood that what he said was discriminatory." But the general manager could think of no other reason why he'd been ousted -- except for that heritage.
The former general manager's allegations of discrimination may have to be finally decided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or even a civil court jury. El-Raheb, saying he had been so embarrassed about the remarks that he was too ashamed to even tell his family, filed an EEOC complaint last November.