Fadi Dimassi started his first restaurant the way many independent owners do: by working, saving money and getting loans from friends. The first Fadi’s Mediterranean Grill was started with $60,000 pulled from various sources. That’s a shoestring budget by restaurant standards.
Today, there are seven Fadi’s Mediterranean Grills. Four are in Houston and three are in Dallas. The Dallas locations are franchised by one of the friends who loaned Dimassi money for that very first Fadi’s location, but Dimassi is not interested in any more franchise locations right now. Instead, he’s focusing on expanding in Houston. A new Katy location is coming, as is one near Memorial City Mall.
To control quality, Dimassi has also obtained a restaurant building with a huge kitchen. The dining room part has been turned into a large, elegant banquet facility for plated theme dinners.
Yesterday we talked a lot about family history and connections. In this second part of our Chef Chat with him, we’ll find out some of the other challenges he faced in getting started and the problems he sees with franchising. Finally, we’ll get his recommendations on what to order when visiting a Fadi’s Mediterranean Kitchen.
EOW: Other than needing to get loans to open, what were some of your challenges in opening that very first Fadi's?
FD: I saw the success of the first Fadis. I felt like I had a customer base, and this is very important. Because as I said, the six months is make it or break it. If somebody doesn't have cash — this was the only chance I saw, and I was a little worried about not being able to pay off the loans. There are a couple of people [who helped]. One of them owns a franchise in Dallas now, by the way.
EOW: I saw that you had expanded to Dallas.
FD: Yes, and this guy loaned me $7,500.
EOW: That's still not very much to get a restaurant started.
FD: No, of course not. I was lucky. The first location used to be a bagel place. This person opened for his niece, and they closed it down. At that time, I didn't have the credit to go and get a lease. I had good credit but not a history of leasing. So, it was tough. He subleased it for me, the first Fadi’s, plus I bought it for $60,000. It had chairs, tables, vent hood, everything. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to open. It costs more than that.
EOW: Sure. To build out a brand-new space — it’s very expensive.
FD: Very expensive. So I had my brother-in-law, Robbie, from Dallas, and another friend. They gave me cash and I had saved money from Yildizlar — $25,000. So this is how I was able to take over that space. I paid them back in one year.
EOW: That’s very good. What was the progression like, because you have how many different Fadi's now?
FD: We have four in Houston and we have three in Dallas. The three in Dallas belong to the same family, our friends from the first one. I did franchise the other one for them. There's a lot of potential for franchising, but I'm not into it anymore because I feel it's like you’re going to babysit people. I'm so focused on the way I'm growing here [in Houston] that I don't want to shift my thinking and deal with investors. I need an operator. To me, to do it with my employees, it makes more sense to me than somebody coming with the money who just wants to open a Fadi’s.
EOW: And you get to maintain control. We did an interview with Tony Russo of Russo's New York Pizzeria, and they have very tight processes and controls to keep the consistency [in their franchise locations]. I think that's got to be the hardest part.
FD: And then the issues start rising with the franchisees. I told myself there's so many things I can now do in Houston. Like we're doing the Katy [location], we're doing an I-10 location. Let me focus on what I'm doing. I don't want to get disturbed because even with the percentage I'll be collecting, it’s not worth it. I have other priorities to build my brand rather than dealing with franchises for now.
EOW: Sure, it makes sense. So you start out with the one on Westheimer and Dunvale, and then was the one on 610 next?
FD: Second one, yes. 610 at Beechnut.
EOW: What came after that?
FD: Dallas, the franchisee. I opened it, by the way, for two years and then I refinanced it for them. We did the franchise after they paid me off. We had a license agreement. This was five years ago. And then now it's a franchise deal.
EOW: Now you’ve got two more in Houston. So what was the order?
FD: We opened the Westheimer and Dairy Ashford location in Houston. That was the first property I owned. My dream shifted, from opening a restaurant to owning my own property. I can give you an example: At the Dunvale location, I’m paying almost $18,000 a month rent. At the Dairy Ashford location, the tax is about $20,000 but it's my own building and property. So I started looking into real estate, too. I was a little bit concerned because [the Dairy Ashford location] was seven miles away from the Dunville location.
EOW: You were afraid of maybe cannibalizing your own clientele.
FD: Yes. It didn't affect it. It was very good. Then we opened in Sugar Land three years ago. I own that property and this one now. Of course, having a good reputation and credit helped me to get approval for an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan to do all these locations — a government loan. For this last one, we signed a lease agreement on I-10 next to Memorial City Mall.
EOW: Oh, so there's another one coming?
FD: Yes. Hopefully we'll start the construction at the end of the year.
EOW: Do you think you'll be open by December?
FD: No. Next year, 2016. It's going to take a year from now.
EOW: Okay. So maybe next summer or spring in 2016?
FD: Yeah, we're excited about it. It's a good location.
EOW: For sure. That area is booming in restaurants.
FD: We’re also opening in Katy, I don't know if you know. We bought a property on Katy [Freeway], just before Mason Road. It's right next to CarMax. There's a tract of land and we bought it. We'll have Fadi’s there hopefully within a year and a half.
EOW: So you're doing a lot of expansion right now.
FD: That's why I wanted to focus, and here [the central kitchen and banquet hall location] is what's going to make the other locations [high] quality. Now, I'm going with more aggressiveness. I used to open one every two or three years. Now, since I opened this central kitchen, I feel like if I have control of my food, all I have to do is spend more time and training for customer service. At least I'm controlling the flavor here. So I'm expanding a little bit faster than before.
EOW: You're using this as a commissary. You're supplying all your restaurants in Houston from this kitchen?
EOW: Are you making just the cold dishes, or is it all the items?
FD: Basically, all the cold dishes like hummus, dips, eggplant — it's happening here. Marination of the meat, shawarma, the kebab, everything happens here. Trimming and marination, and then we ship it. I don't want to take away cooking process from each location.
EOW: Okay. So they're doing the cooking but you're controlling the flavors so that customers are guaranteed consistency from one Fadi’s to the next.
FD: Exactly. If you go now and eat hummus at the Dunville location, it has the same taste as Sugar Land. I used to hear from customers a lot [flavors were different between locations]. It's still going to happen, to be honest, because the people who are serving it make a difference.
EOW: Like, the olive oil and seasoning that goes on the hummus could change it a little bit?
FD: No. With food, it makes a difference who's serving you the plate. Sometimes you have to feel comfortable.
EOW: So it's perceptual.
FD: Especially with Fadi’s. I don't know. For some reason, people feel connected. They want to see me. They want to see my mom. It's a family and they like the story for some reason. My mom sits down and hears them. They say, "They started with 2,000 square feet. Now they have —" We're blessed to hear people excited about our store, to be honest.
EOW: I'm sure you have a lot of customers who have seen you from the beginning, and they probably feel very much a part of the success.
EOW: That's great, and it's great that their hearts are invested in it. So that's super-cool.
FD: That makes me want to improve. That's why I'm still involved. I want to keep it up. It's not like, "Everything is working. I’ll sit down." No, I want to keep up the success. Keeping the success is very important, too, especially in the restaurant business.
EOW: Yeah, it's very competitive. It's probably harder than it sounds to maintain.
FD: Yeah, especially with multiple locations. So I'm trying to recruit the right people, put the right systems in place, and it looks like it's working so far.
EOW: It certainly does look like that. If someone has never visited a Fadi’s before, what do you think they should order?
FD: In my opinion, they should order a kebab. It's always confusing for first-time customers and I’ve tried to do everything [to make it easier to order]. I have a video when you come in showing how [ordering] works. I don't have a display for the kebabs. So I feel like you have to visit Fadi’s more than one time to know that we have the kebabs, which are chicken, beef and lamb. In the new location, we’ve changed the layout. So when you come into the new I-10 and Katy locations, the kebab and the meat display is going to be just there.
EOW: If I remember correctly, in the other locations, you walk in, there are the cold dishes and you have the kebabs, but people can't see them from the line. I think it's on the sign.
FD: There is a sign. So what we did in the new location is we changed the layout where when you come you'll see the kebab and the meat department. You place your order and then you move on to the salads and dips. By the time you pay, your kebab is [closer to being] cooked because it takes 15 to 20 minutes. The pita bread oven is going to be at the end, just before the cash register, so your bread will be hot when you pick it up.
EOW: Everything will be very fresh.
FD: I think it's the right choice now. It's going to make a difference for people to come in, see their kebab, they order, they move on, then they get their bread.
EOW: Okay. What else should people order?
FD: Try Fadi’s hummus. Hummus is very popular now, and Fadi’s has many secret [ingredients] in it, like pomegranate sauce. It’s very popular. People love Fadi’s hummus.
EOW: Yeah, it's good. I've had it.
FD: Kibbeh. Have you had the kibbeh? People have to go there more than one time to know we have kibbeh. It's not displayed. There are certain items we cannot display on the buffet. Like the kebab, we cannot cook it and put it out. It will dry out. So it has to be cooked to order.
EOW: Anything else that you want to recommend?
FD: The juices are very popular, like the mango juice. Have you had the mango juice?
EOW: Yes. Do you make it fresh?
FD: Yes. When it's in season, we bring in fresh [mangos]. When it's not in season, we bring in the frozen ones, but it’s fresh chunks.
EOW: Is there anything else that you would like for Houston Press readers to know about you or your restaurants?
FD: I told you everything, I guess.
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EOW: All right then. Thank you very much.
FD: I do want to thank you, by the way, for doing this interview.
EOW: We actually have a comments section with our articles, and twice within the past two months, we have had somebody ask about Fadi’s and asked why we haven't written something lately. I agree with them. We were way overdue. So, thank you.
FD: Thank you.