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Owner of Sterling Heights Restaurant to Revive La Shish

posted on: Jan 15, 2011

The name of a Michigan restaurant chain famous for spreading Middle Eastern cuisine — but infamous for its founder’s legal troubles — is making its return.

Restaurateur Carmel Halloun said Friday that he’s acquired the rights to use the La Shish name and plans to open a restaurant in March in the former chain’s first location in Dearborn. The Wayne County city is the capital of the Detroit area’s Arab-American community, one of the largest in the United States.

Halloun, 40, said he employs people from the former chain at his Taboon restaurants in Sterling Heights and Flint Township and uses La Shish recipes. He said he’s not connected to former owner Talal Chahine, who fled the country in 2005 and was charged with multiple counts of tax evasion and citizenship fraud. Federal investigators, who allege Chahine skimmed $20 million in cash from his business, believe he’s in Lebanon.

Despite the criminal cloud, Halloun said he knows people loved the food and is willing to take a chance. He said he wouldn’t reopen at La Shish’s first location without the restaurant’s original name.

“I want people to come back,” he said.

The city of Dearborn says it welcomes the return of La Shish.

“From our point of view, everything is in good order for the new owner to complete his renovation,” said Mary Laundroche, city spokeswoman. “We’re always pleased when a vacant building can be returned to its best use. We’re excited. Another restaurant that should attract attention to our east downtown is a good thing.”

The proper permits have been filed and the city doesn’t have any issues with the project moving forward, she said.

Promoting ties to the La Shish chain, which closed in 2008 after nearly 20 years, is common for Middle Eastern restaurants in Metro Detroit.

A chain called the Palm Palace acquired the business assets of several former La Shish restaurants and its Dearborn headquarters, and hired an executive chef credited with originating La Shish recipes.

Others have done their best to replicate menus or come as close as they can to the name. One restaurant is simply called Sheesh, another La Feast. Halloun’s landlord, Bilal Haidar, filed articles of incorporation for La Shish Inc. last July, after the corporation registered to Chahine dissolved, according to the Michigan Department of Labor, Energy and Economic Growth.

“Other restaurants that have opened up claiming some type of connection are still open and are doing really well,” said Fay Beydoun, executive director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce. “Enough time has passed. I’m hoping it will be fine.”

Halloun, who came to the United States in 1989 from Haifa, Israel, and owns two American-fare restaurants in the Flint area, said he’s talking about opening additional La Shish restaurants and has an eye on another Metro Detroit location once “things settle down.”

Meanwhile, federal authorities are still looking for Chahine, whom they consider a fugitive. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit said in a statement Friday to the Associated Press that it has repeatedly urged Chahine to surrender to answer three active warrants arising from three indictments. The United States has no extradition treaty with Lebanon.

Federal indictments claim that between 2000 and 2004, Chahine skimmed more than $20 million from his business, using a double set of computerized books, records and balance reports.

The government claims the cash was converted into cashier’s checks and sent to Lebanon. Some of the money was also believed to be skimmed by paying employees in cash, the government said.

Other associates or relatives of Chahine also have faced prosecution, including his wife, Elfat El Aouar. She was sentenced in 2007 to 18 months in prison for tax evasion and sentenced to 90 days in prison and stripped of her citizenship in 2008 for citizenship fraud.

The Detroit News