The 47-year-old learned to cook in prison – now his California restaurant grosses over $1 million a year

Fatima’s Grill, which opened in 2016, serves a mix of Mediterranean and Mexican-American cuisine — think a “Shawarma Crunch Wrap” with meat, cheese and a layer of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The food pays homage to Elreda’s Lebanese-American heritage and the predominantly Latino community in which he grew up in nearby Bell, California.

The bright colors and flavor combinations of the menu items made Fatima’s Grill a viral hit on social media, where the restaurant has a total of 1.4 million followers between TikTok and Instagram. It became so popular that it became a franchise in 2021: six new locations opened in Southern California, New York and Texas.

According to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It, the original location brought in $1.1 million in total sales last year. The company fell just short of breaking even, but has been able to pull ahead in recent years — and is on track to generate up to $1.8 million in 2023, Elreda says.

Much of Elreda’s revenue comes from franchise royalties and fees anyway, he adds. He declined to give specific numbers, citing contractual obligations – but noted he’s not slowing down and plans to join Atlanta and Cleveland next year. He says he has his eye on Canada further down the road.

“The opportunity to come in and open the doors somewhere out of state is just a dream come true,” Elreda said.

While incarcerated, Elreda took cooking classes and signed up to work in the prison kitchen. Since childhood, he loved being around food, and as a child he would follow his mother around the kitchen as she “put my hand in the pot,” he says.

But while living in a court-ordered halfway house in 2011, he had difficulty finding a job in a professional kitchen. A cousin who owned a stand at a meat market in Bell offered him a job as a cook at a small grill — a throwback to Elreda’s prison kitchen.

Eventually, the cousin moved abroad and struck a deal with Elreda: $80,000 for ownership of the stand. When he was in charge, Elreda experimented with mixing the cuisines of his youth and making Mediterranean dishes and tacos on the small grill.

Ali Elreda opened Fatima’s Grill in 2016 in Downey, California.

Source: CNBC Make It

The food grew in popularity, so Elreda sold the stand – for $125,000 – and put the money into opening a real restaurant in a former Chinese takeout restaurant. Under the banner of Fatima’s Grill, Elreda’s inventive dishes – like his signature hot sauce “Lebamex”, short for Lebanese and Mexican – have been a hit on social media.

“People were driving from Las Vegas… Chino Hills, from San Fernando [Valley]. These are people who take 45 [minute] up to an hour’s drive, simply stunning,” says Elreda.

The attention is proof that food can “bring people from different cultures together,” he adds: “I think food is the best way because it doesn’t have color lines. It’s just there, it tastes good. It tastes better.” .”

When wait times at Fatima’s Grill exceeded “two or three hours” and people lined up around the block, Elreda decided to expand the business again. This time, instead of finding a larger location, he worked with Miami-based consulting firm Franchise Creator to guide him through the franchising process.

The expansion over the last two years has not been without problems. A location in Detroit recently closed due to “franchise violations,” but another location will open in the Detroit suburbs in 2024, says Elreda’s sister Susanne, who serves as his franchise operations manager.

Elreda stands at the front door of the original Fatima’s Grill.

Source: CNBC Make It

Overall, however, Elreda considers the franchising process a success, especially considering the fact that he derives much of his income from the newer locations. And while the original Fatima’s Grill posted a loss of about $150,000 last year, it has been profitable over its lifespan so far, he says.

He would know: Even amid business growth, Elreda still tries to stick to his daily routine — including working at the grill in Downey.

“I still take care of myself and put in my own work time from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” he says, adding, “I love what I do. So as long as I’m healthy and able to stand on my feet, I want to be active for as long as possible.

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