Sam Mustafa - South Carolina Restaurateur

Sam Mustafa is a successful entrepreneur currently residing in Charleston, South Carolina. Born in Kuwait, a small country in Western Asia, Mustafa came to the United States, dreaming of becoming an engineer. Along the way, Sam unexpectedly discovered a passion for the food services industry and a strong talent for customer service. Fast forward 20 years later, Sam Mustafa is a successful, well known entrepreneur in the hospitality, food services, and entertainment industries, known for his revitalization of South Carolina’s community and tourism efforts.

In 1989, Sam Mustafa began an undergraduate degree in Engineering at Southern Illinois University. Throughout his undergraduate career, Mustafa worked at various restaurants and entertainment businesses, which inspired him to pursue a career in the food industry. In his early entrepreneur days, Mustafa owned Phenomenal Falafel and Sam’s Cafe. Now, after two decades, Mustafa has owned over a dozen businesses specializing in hospitality, food services, and entertainment. Not only has Sam created a welcoming atmosphere for locals, his businesses have also been a major tourist attraction.

Currently, Sam Mustafa is giving back to the community once again, by helping aspiring entrepreneurs discover their passion for hospitality, entertainment and food services. With his assistance, Sam hopes to bring innovation and diversity to communities worldwide.

How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?

I started working in the food industry during my time at school. I was desperate to make cash while attending school so I could support myself and my family. I worked at various restaurants which exposed me to a lot of different business management strategies and customers. This exposure inspired me to open my own restaurant. When I became successful with my first venture, I started opening a bunch of restaurants and bars. I couldn’t get enough!

Although this can be extremely overwhelming, what makes it worth it is the connections I form with my partners, coworkers, and employees. Working with individuals who originally came to me without a passion or any dreams, and watching them transform into someone who is dedicated to providing amazing customer service or is passionate about culinary arts, is truly inspiring. I love helping people find their passion and watching them grow into a leadership role. For example, I hired an employee who had just been released from jail for stealing a packet of cigarettes. He served 6 months, and I was the only person to give him a second chance. He worked for me for over 14 years, and played a key role in the success of that company.

How do you make money?

I make money by providing the best service and product to consumers, making sure each space had its own niche in the market. For example, each business focused on a specific food (such as Mediterranean or breakfast foods) and vibe (nightlife or family friendly). A niche helps you differentiate from other similar services. I also believe that the key to making money as a provider is by exceeding expectations. When people are “wowed” with your products and services, you will not only earn their respect, you will also receive a lot of press and recognition.

Currently, I assist aspiring entrepreneurs who want to break into the entertainment and food services industries. This allows me to utilize everything I have learned in my career, while also partnering with someone who is new to the scene. They bring an inspiring amount of optimism and motivation.

How long did it take for your business to become profitable?

For the restaurants I own and manage, it often took 2-3 years to become profitable, depending on the location. Sometimes a location becomes extremely popular, and you get lucky with profits in the first year. Other times, you need to do more marketing to attract people to your location. In this case, it takes time to build a positive brand and reputation. When I say profitable, I mean in the way that I was confident about what our monthly earnings would be to where I truly felt like this venture would be successful for a long time. The first year a restaurant is open is often a tricky, difficult year for profits.

When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

Yes, of course. To this day I still have doubts. But if there is no risk, there will be no rewards. I have always been a dedicated and hard working individual, so I trust myself to do what’s necessary to be successful. The additional pressure of knowing that if I fail, I not only let down myself, but I also let down my employees and their families, is a great motivation for me. I handle the stress by breaking down my tasks and checking them off one by one. I also trust my employees to do their jobs. They know that if they work hard, I will work hard. We all depend on each other for things to run smoothly, so it’s important to trust each other.

How did you get your first customer?

I bribed them with food samples, of course! Nothing is better than free food. Unfortunately, this means it is incredibly difficult to be profitable at the beginning, but later on you will be able to charge more. It just takes time.

What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

The key to a great marketing strategy is knowing your audience and planning based on that demographic. For example, if you’re opening a fun nightlife spot, handing out flyers for the opening or other big events is a great way to educate locals. Of course, social media is a great way to reach a large audience, or to even attract a specific audience. Personally, I love using social media to promote events because so many people of all ages use social media now! If you aren’t online, you won’t be found by consumers. You must use whatever marketing strategy complements your target consumers.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

Letting people go is the toughest decision I ever have to make. It never feels good. But as a business owner, there’s no way to avoid it. I have to remind myself that letting employers behave poorly doesn’t only affect me, but also everyone else we work with. It ruins everyone’s motivation. Basically, letting them go is for the greater good.

What do you think it is that makes you successful?

Perseverance, hard work, taking risks, and making tough calls is what makes me successful. But for long term success, I have learned that trust, delegating tasks to employees, and hiring the right people is crucial. Without hard working employees, I would never be where I am today.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

The most satisfying moment is when I learn that I have beaten the sales of a competitor. The food service industry is extremely competitive, with a lot of businesses fighting for a small amount of consumers in Charleston. On a personal level, I find it extremely satisfying to watch employees develop new skills, and grow into a leadership role. I’ve hired a lot of people who have felt lost in the workforce, but after working with me for a few months, they have developed a passion for customer service and cooking.

What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?

I am excited to see how technology advancements will change the restaurant business. There are endless possibilities! We have already seen a change in people’s eating habits with apps like Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes. Even the way we order inside restaurants is changing, with some establishments installing iPad’s at every table to speed up the ordering process. Personally, I want to adopt new technology practices but continue providing consumers with our great face-to-face customer service. I fear that technology will take away from the genuine, personal connections you can make between consumer and provider.

What business books have inspired you?

I have read a lot of books but I always keep coming back to “It’s Your Ship” by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. This is a great read for business owners looking for some guidance on how to be an effective leader. Additionally, “Setting Up the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business” by Danny Meyer is a great read for individuals who want to open up a restaurant. Danny Meyer, the creator, and co-owner of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and Shake Shack, discusses the importance of “enlightened hospitality”.

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