Abbas Ahmad can’t deny the good fortune he’s had in West Dearborn. In early 2017, the Lebanese immigrant opened his restaurant at 3765 South Telegraph in a former coney island. He doesn’t know why the location grabbed him. It wasn’t proximity to home — his family commutes an hour from Shelby Charter Township each way — nor was it Dearborn’s Muslim majority population, as he estimates 90 percent of his customer base doesn’t follow Islam. It wasn’t his gut telling him either. Instead, it was something a little higher.
“My heart opened up for it,” he told me. At first, Ahmad didn’t know how starting his own business would go. He worked in kitchens from the time he arrived from Lebanon as a teenager, though, and at 44 he had the confidence to strike out on his own.
“I didn’t mind signing a five-year lease with the landlord because I knew I could do it,” he says.
It’s that mentality, coupled with a tireless work ethic and commitment to customers that have helped Ahmad and his family thrive in Dearborn.
Despite the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it driveway and being sandwiched between a Metro PCS store and dentist’s office, Andalus has built a loyal clientele thanks to word of mouth. Of the restaurant’s over 400 reviews online, they’re nearly all extremely positive. Customers praise the location’s cleanliness, the freshness of the food and “boisterously friendly service.”
One of the younger Andalus. Photo by Timothy J. Seppala. Don’t take the last bit the wrong way; Ahmad just loves getting to know his customers. Walk in, and you’ll likely hear him greet you before you actually see him. Even if his wife just left to take their youngest daughter home and five groups come in while he’s running the restaurant alone, Ahmad is never too busy to say hello with a warm smile and even warmer laugh.
His goal is to make people feel relaxed. Kitschy as the murals of waterfalls and vines may be, the scene — and sky blue ceiling — was picked by Ahmad and Fadia, his wife of 20 years, to help people de-stress.
“You come here, you eat, you leave with a smile on your face,” he says. “When my customers leave happy here, it makes me feel good. When they love the food, it makes me cry. Why? Because they tell other people; that’s my advertisement.”
Alicia West agrees. She lives in the Dearborn Hills neighborhood and has been coming to Andalus with her young family for two years, returning often. She loves the food, that it’s a family-run business and that Ahmad remembers hers every time they come in.
“We want them to stay in business because we want to keep coming back here all the time,” she says.
As of this writing, Andalus averages 4.6 stars on Google, 4.5 on Yelp and 4.9 on Facebook, out of five. “It’s not just about taking their money,” Ahmad says. “It’s about having a personality and respect for your customers.”
Like many small businesses, with Andalus it’s nearly impossible to separate the owners from the operation — literally and figuratively. Ahmad’s day starts when the alarm rings at 7 a.m., and doesn’t end until he’s back home usually by 11 p.m. He and his family work the restaurant seven days a week, only closing down for holidays, like Easter.Photo by Timothy J. Seppala
When I arrive for our interview, Ahmad is taking a late lunch break. It’s his downtime between the lunch crowd and prepping the kitchen for dinner. He’s sat at the counter with a plate of raw kibbee, stack of pita and a platter of fresh cut cucumber, onion, and tomato slices. As he layers veggies on pita and smashes it into the ground lamb, his youngest of five alternates between greeting customers, running behind the counter for her backpack and clambering on her barrel-chested dad.
In between bites of lamb, Ahmad beams that his meats are 100 percent Halal (sourced primarily from Dearborn Halal Meat) and that he makes all the seasonings himself. Serving his customers the best food he can make and keeping the quality consistent are points of pride, but it’s a double-edged sword. He’s tried hiring outside help, but they never work out long-term because, well, cooking is an art and everyone has their own ideas of how to do things. For Ahmad, that doesn’t fly, because his customers come back for Arabic food made his way, not his new chef’s.
“They start perfect and then they start changing,” he explained.
So, Ahmad cooks and preps. Fadia waits and busses tables, and runs the cash register. On the weekends, his two teen daughters serve customers and lighten their mother’s workload. Ahmad’s tween-aged boys help out when needed, too. His youngest daughter, Malak is four and has more or less grown up at the restaurant. Already, she’s taken it upon herself to greet customers as they come in, bring them menus after they sit down and wish them well as they leave. Fadia’s mother works for Ahmad too, and there’s a part-time dishwasher.
At this point, Ahmad couldn’t see taking on any outside partners; he just wants to run his business with his wife. “When I leave here, I trust my wife,” he says, and when Fadia leaves, she trusts Ahmad. “At the end of the day, we don’t count the till because we trust each other,” he says.
Photo by Timothy J. SeppalaThe family recently purchased a new location further down Telegraph and is in the process of remodeling the space. The goal is to move within three months and keep Andalus open until his customer-base fully transfers over. He says he’ll still serve Arabic food, but the new restaurant will have a brick oven and feature fresh baked goods as well.
Opening a second business in under three years is impressive, and Ahmad attributes his success to God and his repeat customers. Eventually, he plans to open a few more locations; he’d love to buy the building he’s renting now and potentially turn it into a fresh juice bar, for example. Then, he might be able to relax and take more time off than just holidays. It’ll be the culmination of a dream he had long ago.
“I just want to watch,” he says.
But for now, there are customers to serve.