Tied up in red tape

Published on August 30, 2011
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.