Gastronomy News Chef

Fatima’s Grill: From prison to owner of 7 restaurants, Ali Elreda's small empire.

Serena Curto
copertina fatima s grill ali elreda

Ali Elreda is 47 and learned to cook in prison. His California restaurant now earns over 1 million dollars annually, while others continue to rise, building a loyal customer base.

Cover photo: @CNBC Make It

The story 

In 2009, Ali Elreda faced a conviction for cocaine trafficking, spending the years between 2007 and 2013 between prison and halfway homes. However, today, his life has undergone a radical transformation, as beautifully narrated in a special feature by CNBC Make It dedicated to the chef's story. The 47-year-old now manages a restaurant in Downey, California, named Fatima’s Grill, after his 19-year-old daughter. His passion for food developed from childhood when, as a kid, he’d follow his mother around the kitchen. It was in prison, however, that Elreda had the opportunity to take lessons to become a professional chef, starting to work in the prison kitchen.

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His personal and professional story took an unexpected turn in 2011 when his cousin, also the owner of a meat market stall in Bell, offered him a job as a cook and manager of a small kitchen, similar to the one he managed in prison. Everything changed when Elreda and his cousin, who had meanwhile moved abroad, reached an agreement to purchase the stall for $80,000. This marked his first steps as a business owner, experimenting and combining cuisines from his youth, including Mediterranean dishes and grilled tacos. Increasing the value of the stall, Ali developed a true investment strategy, selling the kiosk for $125,000 to open his first restaurant.

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Since 2016, Fatima’s Grill has offered its customers a fusion cuisine that blends Mediterranean and Mexican-American flavors. Dishes like the "shawarma crunch wrap" with meat, cheese, and a layer of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos showcase Elreda's Lebanese and American background. The menu pays tribute to Elreda's Lebanese and American background, as well as a strong connection to the Latin community in nearby Bell, California where he was raised. Creative dishes like the "Lebamex" hot sauce (a blend of Lebanese and Mexican) quickly became viral on social media. "People started driving from Las Vegas, Chino Hills, from San Fernando just to visit us. Food has the power to bring together people from different cultures," says Elreda.

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The vibrant colors and recipes with distinct flavors led to the success of this brand, not only ensuring sold-out days but also gaining 1.4 million followers on TikTok and Instagram. This success then led to the opening of six new locations in Southern California, New York, and Texas, establishing a full-fledged franchising operation in 2021. According to documents examined by CNBC Make It, the original location generated $1.1 million in total revenue last year, and a company spokesperson stated, "This year we are on track to earn up to $1.8 million."

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The Fatima’s Grill project aims to expand to Atlanta and Cleveland next year, with plans to conquer Canada too. Ali Elreda's unstoppable rise is a testament to never giving up on second chances.

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