As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hicham Azhari of F&H Food Trading Group. Azhari came to Atlanta in 1997 to study computer science at Georgia Tech. During that time he met his now partner, Fikret Kovak. They opened their first restaurant, Salt Factory Pub in 2008 in Roswell, Georgia. It was modeled after the pubs of the English countryside with exposed brick walls, dark hardwood floors, cozy booths and dim lighting creating a causal atmosphere for guests. It offers a variety of comfort foods and an international influence and offers more than 50 different draft and bottled beers. There are now Salt restaurants in Alpharetta and Woodstock. They opened the original Little Alley Steak on Canton Street in Roswell in 2012. The second location opened up in 2018 in Buckhead, at three time the size of its sister location. Both serve the finest prime USDA cuts of beef from Meats by Linz in Chicago and have been rated among the top 100 steakhouses in the country by Forbes Magazine. Azhari believes in giving back to the community and has supported local non-profits including Meals on Wheels, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. His most important job is being a father of two.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I left Morocco in 1997 to study computer science at Georgia Tech. I played recreational soccer and that’s where I met my now business partner Fikret Kovac. We argued a lot on the field but we both shared a love of food and the hospitality industry. We opened our first restaurant in 2008 called Salt Factory Pub and never looked back.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?
I once sold candles. I really thought I could out sell Yankee Candle. That was a mistake but a learning experience. From that point on, I continued to take risks and I always strive for excellence.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I read Sweet Paul Magazine because I love to cook and Small Business Trends and other business publications to keep up to date on this ever changing industry.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I’ve done it all in this business, washed dishes, waited tables and through it all believed I would one day own my own restaurant. It didn’t happen overnight but it was my goal and my thought process was to keep learning. It was important to realize that I had to be patient. Hard work is key. Believing in yourself is vital, and by following your dreams, you can be an example to others that anything is possible.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I live by the phrase, “Hope for the best but expect the worst.” So many people told me I was crazy to open another steakhouse in Buckhead in a space that didn’t fare well, not just once, but twice. This philosophy pushed me to do my research, work smart and take a leap of faith. Doing what my gut tells me has allowed me to be successful. My partner and I have a lot of drive and we are passionate about life in general. An accidental kitchen fire forced us to close the Buckhead location last November and then the pandemic put a halt on reconstruction but we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and hope to reopen by the end of the summer.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’ve tried to stay positive for my children but it isn’t always easy. Like trying to explain that keeping them home, away from their friends was for their own safety. Trying to remain calm for their benefit was tough while I had to close all of our restaurants and layoff many of my team members. The early months were challenging to everyone but at the same time it brought us closer. It no longer bothers me when my kids ask me questions during a business conference call. It’s my new reality. We’ve adopted a new rule, no internet before breakfast. I enjoy taking walks with my daughter more than going to the gym. We spend time reading together. I have also seen a new level of community support. We have felt so much love, not only from our customers, but those in the industry. We are all working hard to help everyone get through this.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
It hasn’t been easy but we still have hope things will work out. Since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve been using our time to look for ways to modernize our operations and reduce costs. The hope is to come out leaner and more efficient in front-of-house and back-of house operations. I’ve partnered with HugoPosh owners Scott Rosenblum and Brian Smith to create a new supply app called SkilletWorks that connects to distributors and suppliers from local growers, to beverage distributors and large nationals like Sysco. For instance we can now see what liquor brands are performing better and which are more profitable.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s most important that I make my children feel safe during these trying times. I make sure they have a routine they stick to. I answer all their questions. It’s not easy when you have to explain that it’s not safe for them to play with their friends in large groups but I never lie to them. There are a lot of video chats going on in my home.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We have always adhered to strict health guidelines and I think now more than ever, more restaurants will focus on better cleaning standards. The safety of our crew and our customers has always been a priority.
Will there be new rules to follow in the future?
Probably. We don’t have a problem with that. Also, the app we’ve created, SkilletWorks has made a tremendous difference, saving our managers time, which in turn saves money. No more time spent writing out orders by hand and calling each distributor to place orders. It can all be done on your smart phone. We hope to be able to provide the app to other local restaurants very soon.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I fully expect to see designer masks advertised around the holidays. And I do hope to be able to go to a soccer game in the future.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization?
I fully intend to continue to open new restaurants in the future. We are currently looking at several possible opportunities in Nashville and Charlotte.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Be creative, compassionate and generous. People want to come back to restaurants. Use this time to change the landscape. Continue to make sure your employees and patrons feel safe.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you dream it, you can do it.”- Walt Disney. I want to pass this on to my children. If they learn anything from me and my life story, I hope that it’s compassion, kindness, respect and giving back mean everything.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!