Life After Layoffs

When Rodwan Saleh and Yousef Syed were laid off from Compaq Computer Corporation last July, they never dreamed they would find their futures in the Royal Deli & Grill. Saleh was a computer scientist, Syed an electrical engineer. They knew a lot about some complicated subjects, but they didn't know anything about opening a restaurant.

After their positions became redundant thanks to Compaq's acquisition of another company, the two co-workers started looking for new jobs. Saleh had thought about teaching computer classes, but he says that if Compaq had called him, he would have gone back to work there the very same day. Then, Saleh started thinking bigger. One evening he visited his friend Syed and announced that he wanted to start a business.

"'Are you sure?' he asked me," remembers Saleh. "I said yes, and again he asked me, 'Are you sure?' and again I said yes."

Syed had some big ideas of his own. He took Saleh to see the Royal Deli & Grill, a vacant restaurant that Syed drove by every day on his way home. The Royal was about a mile from the Compaq campus and right across the street from where the Champions Forest Mosque was being built. Syed and Saleh figured it was a good location, with two built-in audiences. They bought the property.

Of course, the decision wasn't as easy as it sounds. "The only restaurant experience I had was working for McDonald's in high school and college," says Saleh. Syed had minimal restaurant experience as well, though he had taken some MBA courses while working for Compaq. Still they forged ahead, and most of their know-how came from trial and error.

"We called up the Harris County health department and asked them what we needed to do in order to open a restaurant," says Saleh. Over the next three months, the two men took classes, fixed up the store and developed their menu. They tested all of their recipes on their friends. Popular items made it to the menu, and the ones that got a thumbs-down were modified.

"Two of our friends didn't like the fries we first decided to serve," says Saleh. "Based on that, we decided to change the entire line of fries, including the oil we fry it in." Their most popular item is the seven-ounce burger. Other well-liked Royal dishes include gyros, hoagies and buffalo wings.

Saleh and Syed also picked up tricks of the trade from other restaurants. They got the idea to put their burger condiment bar on the side from Fuddruckers, and they stole the frequent-diner punch card idea from Subway. They were even able to learn something from Compaq.

"While we were still working at Compaq, their cafeteria did a survey to see what people considered most when picking a place to buy lunch," says Syed. "The results, which they e-mailed to employees, overwhelmingly turned out to be cost. We took that into consideration, and we kept our lunch special under $5."

Pricing gets tricky, though. To cater to their Muslim clientele across the street, they buy their meat from a Muslim butcher who is more expensive than a regular vendor. Even though other restaurants in Houston charge more money for the special meat, the Royal Grill wants to keep its prices low.

"We want to keep it affordable for the families that come here," Saleh says. "We don't want to charge $10 a burger."

Saleh and Syed say they're hoping to make up the costs through volume, and eventually want to open more restaurants all over the city. But while many Compaq employees stop by for lunch, the restaurant still isn't as busy as its owners would like it to be.

"We're planning on doing a lot more advertising," says Syed. "Right now, it's mostly by word of mouth. We're making flyers for the nearby neighborhoods. We also plan on giving 10 percent off to the Compaq/future HP employees."

Saleh admits, though, that he does feel a little awkward when his former co-workers and friends from Compaq drop in for lunch.

"One day my friend Glenn Dagil from work came in," Saleh says. "He reached over the counter and said, 'I've never seen you work so hard.' That's true, I'm married to my work now. In this business you have to be."

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Nushin Huq