Tied up in red tape

Justin Brake
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Mohamed Ali, a mobile vending truck offering Middle Eastern dishes, is having trouble getting operational due to red tape with the City of St. John’s. — Submitted photo

Like so many Palestinian refugees, Hussein Al Haijaa never returned to his homeland. He never saw his children marry, never held a grandchild in his arms and certainly never imagined his name would appear in a Newfoundland newspaper.

Iraq promised a better life, so it was there he raised three children with his wife, opened a coffee shop and worked hard to support his family until his untimely death in 1998.

Today, his spirit lives on in St. John’s, where one of Al Haijaa’s sons is introducing Middle Eastern cuisine to the city and raising the standard of downtown mobile food vending.

This story begins with a work ethic passed on from a father to his sons, two men born and raised in a foreign country, each with an indomitable drive to make ends meet in the hustle and bustle of sunny Baghdad.

In 2001, three years after their father’s death, Ali and his brother started a “small table” at a busy outdoor market in the Iraqi capital.

“My father taught us to do everything in life,” Al Haijaa explains, “like study in the morning and work in evening time.”

With insufficient capital to start a restaurant, the brothers prepared simple foods like hummus and pastry at their table. Students by day, cooks and businessmen by night, they respectfully embodied their father’s spirit of determination and, after six months, earned enough to expand their enterprise.

Just a short time later, though, along with the seven million others in Baghdad, their lives changed.

In late March 2003, American and coalition military forces began decimating the city with full-scale air strikes, claiming Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Fearing for their safety, just days after Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled to the ground, the brothers abandoned their home and business and moved to a refugee camp outside the city with their mother and sister. Four years later, Al Haijaa was granted refugee status in Canada, his family members in Sweden and the United States.

The 25-year-old arrived in St. John’s, enrolled in English language classes and worked three part-time jobs to support himself, including one in The Telegram’s mailroom pulling papers from the press and sorting flyers.

It was there in 2008 that he met Mohamad El Bakri, a 19-year-old Palestinian refugee from Lebanon.

“He said he was studying at university,” Al Haijaa recalls.

“He told me about his life and his history, and I said we should make a business for ourselves because we worked hard for $10 an hour.”

The two became family and lived together until Al Haijaa married last year, says El Bakri, now 22 and an engineering student at Memorial University.

“For me, regular work wasn’t enough to pay for education and the daily life expenses, and Ali had a baby on the way, so we thought we should invest in something,” he explains.

“Ali had 10 years’ experience as a cook and I have good managerial and accounting skills, so we said we’ll put them together and start a restaurant, especially since we don’t have one Middle Eastern restaurant here in Newfoundland.”

After nearly a year of groundwork the pair brought their business plan to the banks, but were turned down on account of the precarious nature of restaurant startups.

Determined to keep the dream alive, El Bakri and Al Haijaa bought a state-of-the-art food vending trailer in August 2010 with the idea of starting small and growing their business into a restaurant.

After undergoing the necessary inspections, acquiring their certifications, insuring the truck and investing close to $25,000 of personal credit from their banks, the excited entrepreneurs were only one step away from becoming the only downtown mobile food vendor to offer food healthier than the chips, hotdogs and pizza status quo.

When a city inspector visited the truck for the final check, says El Bakri, he was impressed and said the outfit — most of its equipment powered by electricity — is what he would like to see all mobile food vendors in the city transition to.

“We have fridges to maintain temperature for meat and cheese,” El Bakri explains.

“It’s not like the chip trucks ’cause all they sell is fries, which they only need propane for. We have a deep fryer which is propane operated, but the fridges, grills and vent are all electric-powered.”

With everything in order to launch their business, which they called “Mohamad Ali,” and a spot next to Dooly’s on George Street, El Bakri and Al Haijaa say they never imagined acquiring access to an electrical outlet would be so difficult or expensive.

A request to cost-share electricity with their neighbour was turned down, so they called Newfoundland Power and were told to have a service mass installed so they could meter off a pole on the sidewalk.

The city objected, however, maintaining the setup would make it difficult to move the truck for snowclearing in winter.

“We said we can take care of the snowclearing around our trailer so the (plows) don’t have to deal with that,” says El Bakri.

“And we offered to give a written guarantee, whatever they like.”

But the city was firm.

The entrepreneurs then proposed the use of their generator to solve the mobility problem, and in their research discovered that a silencer box would resolve potential noise concerns.

When the inspector told them they would breach a noise bylaw, El Bakri found it odd the loud music emanating from bars through outward-pointed speakers was not an issue. In reviewing the bylaw, he also saw no mention of maximum noise levels or the prohibition of generator use downtown.

Still, they moved on to their next idea: to operate by The Sprout on Duckworth Street. An employee of four years at the popular downtown restaurant, Al Haijaa had the support of his bosses, who offered to share their electricity.

Outside the restaurant is a small loading zone with a sign prohibiting public parking between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., so the two found it reasonable to believe they might be able to set up in the evenings and move the trailer after each shift. But the city maintained the spot is available to nearby businesses 24 hours a day, and claimed a neighbouring business owner expressed concern about running an extension cord in front of their shop.

El Bakri and Al Haijaa proposed to suspend the cord well above the sidewalk and point out that there are no other businesses situated between The Sprout and the loading zone. Still, nothing.

More than three months of business were lost in unsuccessful negotiations, so the frustrated entrepreneurs met with city officials and it was decided the city would investigate the cost of installing a new pole.

At an estimated cost of $6,500 to $10,000, El Bakri and Al Haijaa suggested the city equip one mobile vending lot with electricity and increase the annual fee to amortize the cost over a period of a few years.

The proposal, the first of their ideas to reach city council, was voted down.

“They said no because it’s not fair for other mobile vendors who don’t need electricity to pay more, but we never asked them to do it for other mobile vendors,” says El Bakri.

“Have one spot that is electric-equipped and charge more. They said, no, if (they) do it for one (they’ve) got to do it for all. Based on what? Show me something that tells you, the city, if it has to be done for something it has to be done for all. Where does this make sense? We’re not robots. We have minds that we can use.”

Nine months had passed without resolution. El Bakri and Al Haijaa were losing money on insurance and interest owed to the banks, and summer, the prime vending season, was looming.

Local media picked up the story and the pair found themselves supported by a strengthening progressive community, 500 of whom signed a petition asking the city to negotiate a solution to facilitate healthier late-night food options among vendors.

“That’s June, and we were interviewed by CBC and Rogers TV, The Scope did (a piece), and we thought maybe that was going to put some pressure on the city, (but) nothing,” says El Bakri.

A meeting was finally called by Coun. Sheilagh O’Leary who — alongside Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff and city inspector Sylvester Crocker — says she is personally supportive of El Bakri and Al Haijaa’s endeavour, but unable to negotiate a resolution that would respect the city’s bylaws.

“The bottom line is that the legislation is not there, even though they have superior truck service and obviously, in my opinion, superior food,” says O’Leary.

With insufficient support from council to equip a vending lot with electricity, or to develop a propane-to-electricity transition program for mobile vending, El Bakri and Al Haijaa’s only hope is now contingent on whether or not they can afford to install their own pole.

To facilitate the pair’s ability to raise money for the pole, city representatives said they would look into acquiring a temporary permit for the trailer to operate with a generator for a few months.

But when El Bakri received a call from O’Leary a few weeks ago, he says he was told that council, concerned with safety issues related to refuelling, was in fact going to amend the noise bylaw to include the prohibition of generator use downtown.

“So what they did is the opposite of helping us,” he says.

“They shut us down when it came to that (option).

“We knew there were going to be startup costs. Nothing said we can’t use a generator until now. We have a generator, we have the operational costs taken care of,” El Bakri continues.

“We had a business plan for a restaurant and the only reason we settled for this is because we can’t handle the cost of starting a restaurant. So we thought, OK, this is a smaller thing (so) it should cost less, not more. You have to be a moron to think you would have to pay $10,000 just to get electricity hooked up when there’s so many other options.”

The crux of the debate is divergent perceptions of who ought to assume responsibility to equip mobile vending lots with electricity. Others might says it boils down to common sense versus municipal bureaucracy.

“It’s the principle of the city up-fronting a capital cost that benefits only one person using public funds,” says Duff.

“We’re not in the business of providing venture capital to private enterprise.”

El Bakri, Al Haijaa and their supporters, on the other hand, maintain that city support for electric-powered mobile vending facilities would open the door for current and future vendors to venture into selling healthier foods and, at the same time, lead to safer working conditions.

It’s been a year since El Bakri and Al Haijaa bought their trailer, and despite their inability to tap into the lucrative George Street market they’ve earned a loyal clientele at the St. John’s Farmer’s Market, where they’ve operated on Saturdays since summer began.

Two weeks ago they also found a temporary home inside The Sprout, where they will operate four evenings a week in an attempt to raise enough money for a pole.

“Every night you bring everything you’re going to need — two car loads’ worth of stuff — to prepare and cook your food,” says El Bakri.

“And you take all that back home several hours later. But we have no other option (because) everything is shut in our faces.”

According to the city, El Bakri and Al Haijaa failed to renew their lease on the mobile vendor lot on George Street last week and, though the city has not yet released it, they say other vendors have expressed interest in the spot.

“Something we are sure about that we came to realize is people are loving the food and we are having regular customers,” says Al Haijaa, who, between part-time jobs, family time and the chip truck woes, often sleeps two or three hours a night.

“We know this idea is successful and we have what it takes.”

The business’ success is crucial for El Bakri, too. He hasn’t seen his family in four years and they are refugees living in a volatile political situation in Lebanon.

“I should be helping support the family,” he says.

“I feel lots of responsibility (as) someone who is away and can work, but the work I do here is not enough. I can barely support myself. So I thought maybe if we have a successful business I could hopefully get my parents to come here and sponsor them, and I could take care of them.

“I would lose it, I think, if something would happen to them while I am here and can’t do anything.”

It’s been a year of emotional and financial turmoil for El Bakri and Al Haijaa, but both say they’re not willing to give up their dream of opening a Middle Eastern restaurant in St. John’s.

“It’s so hard, when I have family and Mohamad has university, to make a life,” says Al Haijaa.

“I think we need big, big, big support. We need community, we need people to support us.”

“We can’t go back now, we can’t cancel this,” El Bakri adds.

“And we have customers — we can’t leave them,” says Al Haijaa. “They come every Saturday (to the Farmer’s Market) and come here to The Sprout.”

El Bakri says he has lost hope that the city will take any steps towards implementing a plan to transition to electric-powered mobile vending, or that in the interim it will equip one lot with electricity.

“We definitely want to help the guys, but there’s just no way we’ll ever get support from council,” says O’Leary. “It will never happen — to put public money into what is seen at this stage of the game as a private investment.”

In response, El Bakri says the dilemma of paying for a pole only arose because the city turned down all previous proposals.

“We don’t even need their help … if they only allowed us to use another power source,” he explains.

Organizations: Newfoundland Power, CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Iraq, Lebanon Baghdad George Street Canada Sweden The Telegram Duckworth Street

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Recent comments

  • Gerald
    September 14, 2011 - 20:59

    Dont get me wrong, I love Falafel. However, real Falafel isn't exactly health food: Its DEEP FRIED balls of chick peas, people! Also, why did these guys have to branch into vending meat? What we need is another vegetarian option downtown, not yet another operation slinging miscellaneous shredded animal corpse at the 2am george street crowd. As for regulatory woes, let it be a lesson to others: doing you homework prior to launching a business often prevents a lot of headaches. They learned, the hard way, the importance of not putting your cart before your horse.

  • septicsceptic
    September 14, 2011 - 20:57

    Dont get me wrong, I love Falafel. However, real Falafel isn't exactly health food: Its DEEP FRIED balls of chick peas, people! Also, why did these guys have to branch into vending meat? What we need is another vegetarian option downtown, not yet another operation slinging miscellaneous shredded animal corpse at the 2am george street crowd. As for regulatory woes, let it be a lesson to others: doing you homework prior to launching a business often prevents a lot of headaches. They learned, the hard way, the importance of not putting your cart before your horse.

  • dawn
    September 01, 2011 - 10:20

    This is absolutely outrageous on part of the city and makes me sad to say I live in St. John's. With the obesity rates in Newfoundland, opening a healthier option for people is both in the interest of the residents AND these poor striving entrepreneurs! I am filled with disgust upon reading this and feel the city is letting down these entrepreneurs and its citizens in making this so difficult for them to achieve. Why do I have to settle for fries?! EVERYONE HAS FRIES. =(

  • Falafel Convert
    August 30, 2011 - 19:57

    You have to appreciate the position of the City Council on this one... After all, why would you get your major urban centre involved in the reinvention of the mobile food industry that is sweeping the rest of North America when you can continue to reinforce that beautiful image of NL as backwards and behind the times? At the same time, why encourage your citizens to eat the healthier cuisine of *gasp* foreigners when you can stand idly by while they continue to shovel mounds of good old-fashioned fat, salt, and nitrates into their already suffering bodies? I think, to avoid the hypocrisy "WHAT A LOAD" points out, they should be given prime vending space at cost for the IceCaps' first season.

  • angie
    August 30, 2011 - 14:45

    i think that if they spend 25000 dollar they could of open a restaurant downtown. i dont think that the city is at wrong we all have to follow the rule THAT WHY THEY ARE THERE FOR

    • John
      September 06, 2011 - 22:33

      i think that they should sell fish and brewis bah, THATS HOW THEY WILL MAKE THE MONEY THE CITY SHOULD STAY IN THE DARK AGES AND BE BORING.

  • Tom
    August 30, 2011 - 13:01

    This is sad on the city's account. They make absolutely no sense and it's clear that they're looking for way's and making excuses in order to keep this buisness down. A generator would be nose polloution?! Downtown of all places?! Geesh, give me a break!

  • dan
    August 30, 2011 - 12:28

    Something stinks here and I am sure its not their food. Look closer and see who is really trying to stop this. I applaud these gentlemen for their perseverance! Make no wonder sin jawns is known as a city unfriendly to business...oh wait only some business! Don't let that permit lapse. Come on people of the city press for REAL change at city hall and open your city to new and wondrous things.

  • Diana
    August 30, 2011 - 11:12

    Bring it to MUN!!! I bet if this had been any other local vendor that city wouldn't have any problems at all. The city, in my view, is being an ass and are not even trying to find a way for this to work. If there are no bylaws for this then our elected and paid representatives need to get off their lazy asses and make bylaws so that a healthy option like this can be available to all those who eat downtown. I'm so insulted and disgusted to be living in a city that acts like this.

  • Janet
    August 30, 2011 - 10:57

    I must say I am surprised at the ammount of time these gentlemen spent trying to get a good enterprise going....if it had been a canadian he would have either been allowed to continue or if he or she had been denied anything they would have given up......a long time ago.....these men deserve an A++++++for all the effort and for never giving up and I hope they are still there when I come over again and I will definately enjoy their hospitality.....maybe they could come to sarnia and open a restaraunt here ...we did have one but it closed for some reason and I miss it very much......if you ask me some of those people on the city council are very predudice.....and should not be even asked about this issue....good luck guys...I do hope you succeed.....

    • mah
      August 30, 2011 - 22:56

      VERY TRUE !!

  • steveo
    August 30, 2011 - 09:24

    I have to agree that if this was your typical townie family business, or if they were wanting to sell typical chip truck crap, this would be no issue.

    • Janet
      August 30, 2011 - 10:17

      I agree with you 100%

  • Bill
    August 30, 2011 - 09:23

    Once again the City shows that it is a slave to regulatory red tape that is strangling many new and creative business ideas. Just imagine it not wanting to support a good business proposal in one of the year round tourist centres of the City. A former commenter is correct, if this was a request by some of the local businesses, it would have been done months ago. Time for the ancients that sit around that Council table to get off of the fish and chips and start trying some upscale cuisine.

  • David W
    August 30, 2011 - 09:19

    I agree with Momma D. As well, some inspectors have a chip on their shoulder and will nitpick on the smallest things. Unfortunately, this leads to many people doing projects without permits, where they can get away it. If inspectors were reasonable people would be more inclined to deal with the City.

  • Dee
    August 30, 2011 - 09:17

    I agree with the city,If some wants to start a business it should not be on the backs of city tax payers.A generator in the downtown area,try living in the downtown area,we already have the noise and the abuse from downtown,not to mention the garbage and beer bottles they throw around on their way up the hills.and yes I have been living here longer then most of these Businesses been downtown.So if these men want to run a business use their own money(which I,m sure they have) not mind.As for city staff look at fixing the roads before supporting food wagons.

    • esron
      August 30, 2011 - 11:35

      If the city would lighten up, they would be open, and there wouldn't be "on the tax payers backs". And who cares about "how hard it is to live downtown" - That's how downtown is meant to be, bustling and full of activity If you want piece and quiet, go live in the suburbs. Or even better, live in another city's downtown, we don't need people like you here, holding everyone back because you don't like it.

  • Richard May
    August 30, 2011 - 08:40

    Amazing how idiotic one administration can be, is this just case of stupidity or racial discrimination, would the city try harder for a born and breed NLer

    • Janet
      August 30, 2011 - 11:00

      HOW RIGHT YOU ARE SIR....I WOULD SAY THEY ARE SENDING A VERY NEGATIVE MESSAGE TO ANYONE OUTSIDE OF NEWFOUNDLAND THAT EVEN CARES ABOUT IT'S PEOPLE ENOUGH TO TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT THEY DESSERT AND A+++++++FOR ALL THEIR EFFORT

  • Frank
    August 30, 2011 - 08:38

    The city's consistent lack of support for this venture is embarrassing.

  • Susan Vaughan
    August 30, 2011 - 08:30

    Have they considered vending on the university campus, perhaps in the basketball square behind Gushue Hall? In addition to the regular flow of students and staff, there are also a lot of construction workers on site.....

  • Momma D
    August 30, 2011 - 08:24

    Sounds to me like if it were a Penney, Hickman, Williams, or Breen family this would have been a done deal long ago!

  • Chris
    August 30, 2011 - 08:12

    C'mon City of St. John's.........Don't be such Arseholes!

  • Nomore Duff
    August 30, 2011 - 07:51

    Another nice story from the progressive city of St john's

  • What a load
    August 30, 2011 - 07:42

    'to put public money into what is seen at this stage of the game as a private investment.' Strange how the city had no problem with asking the province to subsidize Danny's dream team. Imagine this, the Citizen Responsible for Common Sense rushes into Council chambers and smacks each councilor up the side of their head and says 'Get er done'. Any government can get anything done if they want to but they can pull out an endless supply of excuses to not do something. It takes work to achieve something and to little to do nothing.