15 Years in Business with Mo Alhakim
Mo Alhakim has been in the restaurant industry for a long time. He's owned Mo'z Café in San Francisco for almost 15 years. This week, we chatted with him about how his business was impacted by COVID, and how he's been able to persevere.
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A Bit of Background
How did you end up in the restaurant industry?
Well actually, I'm in the restaurant business for a long time. I've been in the restaurant business for over 25 years. But I started at that work in the cafes, and my first job here was at the Marriott in San Francisco. I started as a valet and then got myself out. And I kinda like—it didn't work for me.
And then I just start going into the restaurant business. And that's how I started. You know, doing cashier or cleaning all that stuff to being a manager. And then I was a manager in a restaurant in San Francisco for 12 years. And then when the opportunity comes, I opened my first Mo’z cafe.
That was almost 15 years ago.
What drove that decision to start your own cafe?
Well, I love people. I love what I do. Yeah, well this is what I do actually. This is what I do for a living. I used to be a chef and then I guess after this, I guess decided to just manage and move on with the restaurant. And I opened the first one and the second and the third, and then I had to close two of them because of COVID and I kept one. Just love food. I do love people.
Looking back at 15 successful years in the restaurant industry, how does that feel?
It felt great. It’s worth every drop of your sweat—it's really amazing when you, after a while, you see yourself, you did something. You opened the first and then the second and the third, and then you see yourself—you're doing something right. I can't tell you the feeling, but it feels so great.
How long did it take from opening the first to the second location?
So this is how we began. I was working in a restaurant. A guy, a friend of mine, he was my regular customer. “Mo, I have a property for lease.” I said, “Okay, I'll look for someone to help you.” I took the pop, I said, I said “take it.” I took it from the first day. I said, “You know what? I'm interested in this property.”
I put every penny, every dollar I saved, and then from there, I swore for the business. You know slowly picked up three to four, five years, and then from the three years, two to three years, start seeing the dollar. I started seeing feedback. You making something business, start getting better people, you start getting recognized, you build yourself from day one it felt good.
And then you see yourself successful, you make money and then you start to open the second one, which was successful, then the third one. It was great. It was amazing. It was very big, very huge.
Persevering Through COVID
How did you feel when COVID hit?
It was really bad. I can't tell you how I was feeling. It was like losing everything you make from—everything is almost gonna go. I barely made it. Barely. I lost the restaurant, the second one, the first one and the second one I spent almost more than half a million dollars.
And then I have no choice. I mean, like anybody else, it's been “damn it.” It hit everybody and I guess kept my downtown one for two years, was like nobody in there, but I have to keep my door open. I don't want to give up. I don't want to kill my—whatever I built before, it was no business, but I stayed.
Picked up a little by little and then came back and I was like, “Thank God everything is back to normal.”
That requires a lot of resilience. What was the driver of pushing through?
I fight it. Well, I had to fight. I can't fail. I'm a fighter. I have family behind me. I have a mortgage, I have rent. I have a lot of family behind me. I have to fight for a little, and I did. I sweat when I'm asleep. I dreams—you see me laughing, smiling, but I'm really out of the planet.
But it's got to the point when things came back again. Just don't lose hope. You don't lose hope. I don't tell anybody. I never complained to anybody. I kept it for myself. That's it. And then I took my chances. I took my chances, which worked very well.
Creating A Loyal Customer Base
Your cafe is a popular breakfast spot. How did you create that loyal customer base?
Mo’z Cafe has been popular for over 10 years. We—I guess it's a small community. Everybody knows everybody. I've been there forever. I know a lot of people coming in and out of the city. Mostly a lot of my—We have a lot of business people and a lot of tourists, which a lot of business people came into the city very much more often, which really you’d think they live next door from you.
That's how I build it. Relationship with the customer. And good food. We have very, very, very excellent food. You can't beat it. We have a menu—everything, whatever you mean. From crepes, from breakfast, from salad, from sandwiches, you name it. We have everything except pizza. We have burgers. We have the atmosphere. Everything.
How do you build a place that the community wants?
It's not easy. You have to go through it. Step by step. You have to change a lot of things. Still. Do you get to the point when people are happy and satisfied? It takes a while in order to get to the point that you want. Yeah, it's not easy, but don't give up. You have to have passion in what you do—what you love.
You have to love what you do first and then you work eventually we'll work.
Other than the pandemic, what have been your biggest challenges?
I'm the only person. I'm brand my company. Do everything besides my wife. Of course, she helped me doing all the paperwork and, there is no challenge. Guess you have to keep up with everything where if you have the right staff—you have to have the right staff. If you have the right staff, you're good.
Finding The Right Team
How do you find the right staff?
Well, it takes a while. But when you get to that person, don't let 'em go. Offer them an extra dollar, $2. We'll keep them, okay? Keep them instead. Changing everybody every time. People love to see the same person all the time. People love to see people recognize, they know their order, and they know what they love. They don't wanna repeat it all over.
It's the same thing. They stick for you for a while. We, these days have a really, really tough time finding people, which mostly now I work full time and I still have like, almost five people working for me. But I'm still looking for people more. But there are no people at this time, we're having a really, really tough time finding people here.
And not only me. I mean very particularly all of California.
That's where you see a lot of businesses, they close early or they open late because there is not enough staff to keep up with the demand.
If you open at the same time all the time, you get the same business. But if you keep closing because—And people, of course, they're gonna go somewhere else and then expect you to open all the time. This is the problem right now.
We open at six o'clock sharp. The reason we have to open sharp, we have a lot of people, who do business in San Francisco. They can't waste the time a minute. They have to get in and out.
How do you balance serving quickly and building relationships with your community?
Well just keep it simple, man. Keep it simple. Don't waste the time. “Good morning, sir. How are you?” Even like you said, you know them well, it’s still “Hello, how are you doing?” Greet them with a good greeting and then thank you. “Have a good day.” Don't get long conversations going because they don't have time for you.
If they see you wasting time. Some they may be like you, but they don't wanna—.
What challenges have you had to overcome over the years?
Nothing is nothing hard, is very simple. The only hard, it's that you don't find employees. Stand up yourself. Okay? If there are not enough people, that's all. Otherwise, you have some issues in a restaurant, like anything you could deal with it, but there is nothing I could tell you is really stop me from not opening the business or stopping me from running my operation.
What will you do differently next time?
Well, right now, not right now. I'm switching to...I'm from my type of restaurant to a Mediterranean clubs. Uh, a Mediterranean restaurant. Cuisines is sit down, family upscale style, reservations only. This is what I always dream of—to open my own Middle Eastern high-class family orientation place to come and be, could enjoy, and have a good time in a nice area where I live here called Marin County. This is what I've always dreamed of.
Let’s talk about the supply chain, has it been an issue for your restaurant?
We have had really big issues with the supplies before, but a lot of people understand if you run out of something, either you could replace it with something else, or you tell people it wasn't me and they understand there was—switch to something else.
Okay. That's regarding the supplies. It was for a little while, but we accommodated some people differently. They don't have it everywhere else. That's what it is.
What about price increases?
It's almost three, four times what it used to be. For example, the case of chicken used to pay $40. Okay? Now we pay $180. That’s four times extra.
Did you have to increase your prices because of that?
Of course, I have to. In order to pay rent, survive, to you know, pay my employees. That's the only way. And be able to understand, to say I'm sorry, this is what it is.
People will still—they understand. They're gonna still want to eat.
It got worse before it got better, which I’ve seen is picking up even much better now, even with the high prices. But hopefully, it will go down. I hope so.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to be in the restaurant industry?
Show up on time. Be patient.
Okay. Show your boss you wanna work. Do everything they ask you. Learn. Don't wait for people to come and teach you. Push yourself. Okay? Don't let people to take your hand and grab learn. You need to learn. Don't be on time. Be on time is the key for being successful, okay?
If your boss sees you coming on time, like least five minutes before, 10 minutes, whatever the company rules. That's a good sign. That means you need to work. That means you love what you do. And one key for, for people they looking for. Make sure, you go to whatever you feel like you wanna do. Don't go just like you work in the restaurant because you need the paycheck.
Go. Don't go somewhere. At least if you love what you do. Be responsible. Be on time. Show up.
Nothing gonna come easy. Nothing gonna come easy. Trust me. There's drama. When you open your restaurant, your own place, the first three, four years, I'm not joking, I'm serious. Especially when you bought every dollar you save in your life in 12 years, you save that money, you put it all in on this.
Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for Restaurants, helping them gain and retains their loyal customer base.