Leila Restaurant Coming to Detroit's Capitol Park - Getting to know Restaurantuer Samy Eid - ICONIC
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Leila Restaurant Coming to Detroit’s Capitol Park – Getting to know Restaurantuer Samy Eid

Leila Restaurant Coming to Detroit’s Capitol Park – Getting to know Restaurantuer Samy Eid

For those of you who do not know who Samy Eid is or what Phoenicia is, you are missing out.   My guest this week is…

Samy, thank you for taking the time to chat with me this morning.   Congratulations on your upcoming restaurant Leila in Detroit’s Capital Park, I know it took us longer than anticipated to get this one fully over the finish line in terms of cementing a deal, but now the real work begins, or likely has already begun.

I’ve asked you here today in response to last week’s announcement of the Leila restaurant in hopes to give additional color to you, the restaurant industry, Detroit and the like in response to the fact that the announcement on  our newsletter last week was the most popular link.

Kees:  How long has Phoenicia been in operations? 

Samy:  It started in 1971 in Highland Park.

Kees:  It’s currently in Birmingham, can you elaborate? 

Samy:  My family moved the restaurant to Birmingham in November of 1981 and we’ve been there since.

Kees:  So that’s pretty much where you were born?

Samy:  Exactly, I was born in 1980, so I was about 1 year old when they moved to Birmingham from Highland Park.

Kees:  Can you shed a little light on how you found yourself at the helm of Phoenicia some 35+ years later?

Samy:  I guess the short answer is, it was just by chance, kind of unintended. I wanted to take over for a short period  after college to try to right the ship, make improvements where I thought they needed to be made, then I was going to be on my way to whatever else I was going to do in my life.  I never left and here I am 16 years later.  We’ve been going strong every year since I’ve been there, so it’s been a fun ride.

Kees:  I’ve known you about 10 years.  Personally, I noticed a shift after you renovated the restaurant in Birmingham.  Did you notice a similar shift or something else changing  at that point?

Samy:  Well, I think, it was probably, honestly, expansion.  I call it an expansion, but I guess I should call it a renovation. We expanded our dining room a bit, increased capacity, and that overall investment into the property had impact on our business that we never foresaw.  We blew our projections out of the water and have been growing ever since because of it.  A total shift, it changed our whole business.  We are busier than we have ever been and a lot of that is attributed to the renovations. It shows what investing your business can do and how important it is to pay back your customers with atmosphere and change. I thought I saw a need in the Birmingham market.  I was really excited by the challenge to fulfil that need and give the city a unique and imaginative dining experience that we hadn’t had in a awhile. It’s been a fun ride and have been open for close to three years now, doing a great job and building a strong brand.

Kees:  I’m glad you mentioned three years because that’s about when you opened Forest and around when we really started really working hard for what is now Leila.  Can you talk about what lead you downtown?

Samy:  I think the vibrancy and rebirth of the city. Wanting to be part of something exciting which I think is the most interesting part.  You know, Kees, when we grew up, you are a little younger than me, but I wasn’t really allowed to hang out in Detroit. We would go to a hockey game and were dropped off at the steps and then be picked up at the steps. Now to see what the city is becoming and all the excitement and the movement, I needed to be part of it.  I wanted to be part of it and contribute to it. What you and I have done and placing Leila where it will be is going to a be a nice piece to the puzzle. I wanted to be part of something that special what is the greatest rebirth of the greatest city in America.

Kees:  With tha in mind, how did things change in the three years while we were working on this location, how did things shape as the process went on?

Samy:  Forest kind of landed in my lap as we were working on Detroit. I was frustrated and I took on Forest because we weren’t getting what we wanted in Detroit, but it shows what patience can do because ultimately we ended up in one of the best situations we could have been in because we were patient. We stayed true to what we wanted to do, and you were unbelievably patient in showing me spaces and getting me to the right spots I needed to be. That’s how we ended up at the Farwell Building. It showed me that patience wins.

Kees:  What were the key factors for you when yo are looking at a new location?

Samy:  There’s a couple different things. In Detroit, a lot of what I was looking for was substance in the space, good bones, something we could build on.  Not something cold and new, but the history was something I was looking for and that’s what the Farwell brought for us and the obvious things of course was location. For us Capitol Park is in the heart what will end up being the high-end district, if you will, of residential in the downtown area and probably in all of Detroit. For us being placed in the middle of that surrounded by the best hotels in Detroit, really on all four sides when you think about it, and whatever depends happening on Washington, was a big part of it for me.   The demographics, the income of residents in the area, the draw, and who are we drawing from was big factors for us.

Kees:  What role does design and architecture play in your industry?

Samy:  Dining out now there is a lot of competition. Dining out is the whole experience more so than ever before of course there is historical restaurants that you don’t care what the carpeting, sound or lighting is like, whatever it may be, but as the newer restaurants come up even the ones done on budgets there is attention to detail, lighting and sound, overall atmosphere that really as important if not more in some cases.  I can come up with examples, but I’m not going to use them.  It’s probably more important than what’s in the center of the plate for the first time in my life.  People want the whole experience.  If you deliver just one out of a list of what the expectation is now I don’t think you’re going to survive.  So you need to bring it all.  You can’t eat lighting or sound, but I tell you what those two things are huge in a person’s dining experience. The first thing I talk about in every design meeting I have.  So, it’s a very important part of dining out.

Kees:  Can you speak more about the space at the Farwell Building and why it was the perfect location?

Samy:  The park itself and what the park is going to become. I thought for me it felt right to be on that park and the history and beauty of the space, it’s going to be one of the cooler looking buildings in Detroit definitely in that area.  It was a perfect fit for what I wanted, something that was important beyond what we do with food, the space at the Farwell with the height of the ceilings and the feeling of the room. I think you felt the same way when we went there two and a half three years ago.  It’s a pretty cool room.  It just felt perfect for what Leila is. Leila is a history lesson in my life and in my family’s life, a journey through the Mediterranean cuisine that we love. It all fit well into that spot.

Kees:  I know Mark Kurlyandchik @mkurlyandchik touched on it a bit in his article, but what is Leila and how is it different from Phoenicia and Forest?

Samy:  It’s a cliché to say this, but it’s Sunday dinner at my mom’s house.  It’s that same cuisine derived from Phoenicia, but there’s more of a casual feel, sharing and enjoying of others.  Not that Phoenicia is not that. It’s more of a low-key version of Phoenicia. More modern, hip, enjoyable drinking and eating experience.  Phoeniciais a bit more proper and fine in some ways.

Kees:  What challenges do you for see in the restaurant industry in Detroit or more globally?

Samy:  Staffing, staffing, staffing.  It’s becoming harder and harder for us to find willing and able employees at reasonable rates. It’s changing the way dining is being approached acrossAmerica.  If you look at the growth and expansion of what we would call “fast fine dining service”.  You look at guys like David Chang @momofuku in New York and Michael Mina @chefmichaelmina actually working on some concepts for Mall’s “fast fine dining service”.  There’re cutting out fine dining service.  They’re order windows basically.  It’s a trend to try and figure out.  The restaurant business as a whole is hard business to make money in of course that’s why a majority of the restaurants fail, but this is a way we can start to control costs and make ourselves more viable in the future and that’s unfortunate because it’s going to take away from the diner’s experience. It shows how hard staffing is whether if it’s the front or back of the house, really. It’s just becoming very expensive to run a business right now in America. Eventually it’s going to lead to higher prices and the diner is going to be forced to be a bit more picky and careful where they choose to eat now because they won’t be doing it too often. So the pressure is on.

Kees:  What are you doing to position yourself to combat those issues?

Samy:  Cross training.  We are trying to make it so we can move people when we need to move them from restaurant to restaurant. Being prepared for shortages. To me that’s one of the biggest things.  The other side is we’re over staffing to a certain degree, so it’s costing us more to do business, but we are able to sleep at night because you don’t know when another guy is going to steal one of your employees. I never in my life have seen it this competitive for restaurateurs looking for staff. The gloves are off if you will. People are doing things that I never thought they would do to get people to move from restaurant to restaurant. It was always an incestuous business in a way, but it’s taking a turn for the worse in some ways.

Kees:  Can you talk a bit about how ICONIC was able to help you in this search?  Were we able to add value? 

Samy:  Your patience was pretty amazing.  You worked hard for what you were getting out of this deal. I’m appreciative of it.  Your guidance and ability to tell me where and when I can or can’t push and when I was pushing too hard.  You knew what I wanted and what I was looking for, you got us to the spots.  It took a long time, but we did.  We worked hard on a lot of deals till this one came through when you really think about it. Your knowledge of the market of course was a huge asset for me getting this deal done.

Kees:  Thank you for your time, we are eagerly awaiting the opening of Leila, any final thoughts on the restaurant industry, real estate, and the future of Detroit you’d like to share? 

Samy:  Just excited to see how this all takes shape.  Excited to see what all this competition does to the market in Detroit especially the dining market because it’s growing at a pretty fast pace and the question of whether or not were sustainable.  If we’re drawing enough people to make these restaurants all succeed.  It will be interesting.  The pressure is on us all.  The pressure is on me to make sure that were giving people something that they can’t get anywhere else.  It’s really special because we won’t survive if we don’t. It’s true for anybody whether it’s a retail store or a restaurant or whatever else it is.

Thank you for reading, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic, so please comment, email or call!

Kees Janeway – Managing Partner, ICONIC Real Estate

Read last week’s most read article, Family Behind Phoenicia, Forest to Open Lebanese Downtown, from Detroit Free Press 4/4/18  here.

ICONIC Newsletter – 4/7/18

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