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Ex-La Shish Owner Hits Streets to Clear Association to Tainted Founder

posted on: Nov 2, 2008

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Nothing could have prepared Sam Saleh, COO of Waterford Township-based Mezzattar L.L.C., for the challenges he would face after buying into the popular Middle Eastern restaurant franchise La Shish.

Saleh spent nearly $340,000 in 2004 to convert his Sheik restaurant, at 4189 Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield Township, into a La Shish franchise.

Then he was forced to spend another $350,000 in an effort to transform the restaurant and distance his business from La Shish after its founder, Talal Chahine, was indicted for tax evasion in May 2006.

Saleh said La Shish’s woes cost him nearly $700,000 in lost sales due to his apparent affiliation with Chahine and the cost of disassociating himself and his business from La Shish.

“We lost 70 percent in sales during a one-month period, but I couldn’t just move away,” Saleh said. “I had to move on, re-brand, re-image and re-paint. I had to take everything La Shish away.”

But even more detrimental to Saleh’s success in heavily Jewish West Bloomfield Township was the U.S. government’s charge that Chahine funded Hezbollah, an anti-Israel group classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.

Longtime friend Bill Braun advised Saleh that he was guilty only by association and encouraged reaching out to the Jewish population.

Braun said this was extremely important because — good or bad — word gets around quickly in the tight-knit community.

“A restaurant doesn’t have too many shots at the Jewish community, so we went to The Jewish News and laid it all out on the table,” Braun said. “They went through it with a fine-tooth comb, which clarified the situation.”

Saleh also decided he needed to hit the streets in an attempt to create a new Mezza Mediterranean Grill out of the wreckage of his old restaurant and regain support of the community.

He visited synagogues, mosques and churches to assure the religious community he was not connected to Chahine, a gutsy move that would yield positive results.

“I said, ‘Hey, I’m not at all like that guy,’ ” Saleh said. “I understand where the religious community was coming from and I respect their opinion, absolutely.”

Braun said Saleh’s efforts were worthwhile, adding that Temple Israel even held a meeting of its congregation at Mezza, showing respect for Sam and his business.

George Goulson, a former franchising consultant with Bloomfield Hills-based George S. Goulson L.L.C., said the Southeast Michigan market is strong enough to support Mediterranean-style restaurants like Mezza because of the large demand for that cuisine.

Goulson said the large Middle Eastern population and the popularity of the food creates a strong demand for it. But, he said, quality is what sells.

“Sam’s got the tenacity as well as the veracity that people pick up really quickly,” Goulson said. “When he tells people he is out to accomplish something, people believe him.”

Saleh said all of his hard work and effort he expended reaching out to the community paid off in the end.

Last year, his 5,000-square-foot, 160-seat West Bloomfield Township location generated about $1.7 million in revenue.

It prompted Saleh to open a second location in May in Novi.

Mezza offers its guests a wide variety of Mediterranean fare, including authentic options such as baba ghanoush, a char-grilled eggplant dip with tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice and garlic as well as such entrées as grilled bone-in lamb chops. Average meal tabs, excluding alcohol, are around $20.

Saleh and his partner, Bryon Stephens, a restaurateur and franchisee from Kentucky, have recruited a group committed to investing $3 million to open four more locations throughout Southeast Michigan, another in Toledo, and one in Henderson, Nev.

The six new restaurants will begin opening next month, each employing about 50 workers. Saleh said he is expecting the new venture to collectively generate revenue of $8 million to $10 million.

Goulson said Saleh has demonstrated an ability to persevere through hardships.

He said Saleh came to this country to work hard and now owns nine Big Boy franchises with a 10th on the way, as well as his expanding Mezza brand.

“I think customers are more forgiving if the food is good,” Goulson said. “And Sam is a veteran, his food is always good.”

By Nathan Skid
Crain’s Detroit

Picture caption:
Samir Saleh