Owning and operating a small business is a time-consuming labour of love.
The hours are long, the risks are high, the margins are generally low and continued survival relies almost entirely on the efforts of the proprietor.
For some people, eventually, the stress outweighs the passion.
Such is the case for Ali Al Haijaa, owner of the popular Mohamed Ali Middle Eastern Cuisine in downtown St. John’s.
“I have two businesses. Even in my sleep I’m still thinking,” he says.
“Who’s working? Who’s not working? What do I have to do the next morning? This was giving me stress.”
So, a little less than a year after opening a second location at 302 Water St., following on the overwhelming success of the original location at 177 Duckworth St., Haijaa has put both restaurants up for sale and is planning to relocate outside the province.
“I’m still working, but I feel tired. I feel cold,” says Haijaa, a Palestinian refugee who was assigned to St. John’s after arriving in Canada 12 years ago after spending four years in a refugee camp between Iraq and Jordan. “I’m 36 years old, but I feel like I’m 80.
“I need to have that time now to enjoy life with my son,” he says of 7-year-old Hussain, who was born here and sports an authentic Newfoundland accent. “My son is my business now.”
As for the current business, Haijaa wants his loyal and regular customers to know that until such time that the businesses sell, they will continue to operate.
The asking price for each location is $100,000, and while he’d prefer to sell them as a package deal, he’ll consider moving them individually.
The new owner doesn’t necessarily have to be of Middle Eastern descent, Haijaa just wants someone who wants to keep the brand alive, or at the very least, continue serving the same food that has endeared the operation to customers.
“I don’t like to leave the city without Mohamed Ali’s falafel, you know what I mean? That’s a big name now, everybody knows it,” he says.
“I need somebody who first of all understands what’s going on. They have to be smart and flexible, because winter is different than summer and they have to deal with that. That means they have to make a special list, how to get people always coming back, and deal with people. If somebody’s sad you have to make them happy. This is the kind of person I am looking for.”
What he doesn’t want is someone to invest only to shutter the operation a few months in. To reduce the chances of that happening, Haijaa is prepared to work with the new owners to create a seamless transition.
“I’m going to advise them, I will teach them how I did it, what kind of spice I used, what kind of flavour, what I know about people. Everything.”
Haijaa isn’t sure where he and his family will end up once the sale goes through — but it will be somewhere warmer — nor is he sure what line of work he’ll pursue, but he’s sure it won’t be in the restaurant industry, something he’s been part of since an early age when he worked in his father’s coffee shop in Baghdad.
What he is sure of is that Newfoundland will always hold a special place in his heart thanks to the welcome he felt since arriving, the support he received along the way and how people helped make Mohamed Ali a success.
Even if the weather leaves something to be desired.
“I’ll never forget Newfoundland,” he says. “This will always be my home.”