Inside Track: Pursuing a lifelong dream
Ali Ghebleh opened Shiraz Grille in 2009 after Iranian wars kept him in the United States.
When Ali Ghebleh moved from his home country of Iran in 1980 to obtain an MBA from Central Michigan University, he intended to return and open a business with his brothers.
He finished his degree during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War. So, for his safety, his family asked him to stay in the U.S.
Initially, his plan was to re-evaluate the situation year by year. The Iran-Iraq War lasted until 1988.
In the meantime, he worked as an assistant manager for K-Mart, landed in Grand Rapids, married and had two daughters. Along the way, Grand Rapids became his second “country,” he said, and his home.
Twelve years after he left Iran, he finally was able to visit. He waited until after he obtained his Green Card in 1990, not wanting to risk leaving the U.S. and being prohibited from returning to his family. He became a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen in 1996.
Ghebleh is the oldest of five siblings. His youngest sister was 4 when he left Iran and 16 the next time he saw her. Though he had kept in touch with the family over the phone, it’s not the same as seeing each other in person, he said.
“It was the strangest feeling ever,” Ghebleh said. “It was a shock.
“But it felt good. It was home.”
Ghebleh followed in the entrepreneurial footsteps of his father, who owned home appliance businesses in Iran. After about eight years with K-Mart, he spent the next 25 years owning tanning studios and travel agencies in Grand Rapids.
Ghebleh then decided to pursue his lifelong dream of owning an Iranian restaurant. After a few years of planning, he finally opened Shiraz Grille in Grand Rapids, at 2739 Breton Road SE, celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year.
The restaurant building’s main floor was once home to a Biggby Coffee and a car rental business, he said, and his tanning business was in the lower level. Ghebleh had the opportunity to purchase the building and did so, feeling he was ready to open the restaurant.
"That's the last thing I wanted to do before I'm retired and done,” Ghebleh said, “because it was my passion and I did it for that purpose only, not to make money and get rich.”
He spent a couple of years requesting and being denied a liquor license for the business. He said he was told to prove the restaurant would attract customers from within and outside of Grand Rapids.
In the meantime, he took a few classes at Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, not to learn about cooking, but to learn about the business of running a restaurant.
Finally, with letters of recommendation from the mayor and other representatives, and a few trips to Lansing, he was granted the license for about $25,000.
“I was lucky because I own this space, and I was able to keep it for two years until they gave me the liquor license,” he said. “I don't know why they don't make it easier for places to have licensing.”
The restaurant was pretty busy in the first couple years of opening, getting a lot of press and attracting people curious about the food and culture, he said.
Shortly after opening, he sold the downstairs tanning business, which still exists, to focus on the restaurant. He said it has experienced its fair share of ups and downs over the years but, largely through word of mouth, has received steady business — enough to provide for his family, even after his wife died of cancer when their daughters were 7 and 4.
“Dedication and love,” he said. “Don’t look at it as a job. If you look at it as a job, it isn’t going to work. It has to be a passion; then you make it work, no matter what.”
As the only Persian restaurant in West Michigan he knows of, Ghebleh said he takes pride in offering a cultural experience most residents may not be familiar with. He said he believes West Michigan people are some of the nicest, though not always knowledgeable about the outside world.
“This is one way for them to learn about this culture and know who we are,” he said. “I get great feedback from people for what I have brought to not only Grand Rapids but also to their neighborhood.”
Ghebleh said he has felt the sense that people sometimes come in with ideas — perhaps politically motivated, he said — that may affect their experience in the restaurant. He wants his guests to know there is more to Iranian people and their culture than what is portrayed about the country.
Upon the first steps inside the restaurant, one could easily forget the modest building sits on the busy corner of Breton Road and 28th Street.
The dim lighting and sweet aroma of cardamom and cinnamon invite guests further in, past Middle Eastern lanterns to tables set with white cloths and linen napkins, the olive walls lined with Persian pastel paintings. The quiet strums and flutters of traditional Persian instrumental music create an atmosphere perfect for conversation.
It’s like being transported to another country, Ghebleh said customers often tell him. “The ambiance of the whole thing explains who we are, where we're from.”
Ghebleh is 64 years old and said he has no plans to work until age 74. He added he worries about what will happen to his restaurant.
Iranian cooking takes a lot of passion and skill, he said. The rice, alone, takes weeks of continual practice to get right. Much of the food uses small amounts of saffron — the world’s rarest and most expensive spice — and herbs and warming spices to create subtle aromatic tastes.
He said he knows his nephew has the passion and skill to take over, but he lives in Iran.
Ghebleh said though he has petitioned regularly on his nephew’s behalf, and his nephew has been to Europe and Canada, he has not been allowed to enter the U.S. With regulations set by the latest federal administration, Ghebleh said the process has been even tougher.
Ghebleh said he has been told his nephew entering the country to take restaurant ownership is unnecessary, that any domestic chef can learn Persian cooking and take over Shiraz. Ghebleh is cautious, though, because he wants to ensure the restaurant maintains its authenticity. If someone passionate about another cuisine takes over, he worries there could be too many deviations from the traditional menu.
If there’s a change, he said he hopes it happens soon, while there’s still time for his nephew to take over.
“Otherwise, in the next few years, I might have to close the place, and I don't want to do that because I have a lot of happy people walk in here, and they're happy it's here,” he said.
Ghebleh said he is open to training and mentoring the next owner, as long as there’s an appreciation for the food.
“If a right person comes through, of course I will,” he said. “But they have to have a passion for Persian food.”
Though most of his family never has been able to visit, Ghebleh now spends time with his family for about two weeks each year or two. His daughters have gone along several times, and their mother and his second wife have gone, as well.
Once he retires, Ghebleh likely will spend more time overseas with family, but he said he’ll always come back to his home in Grand Rapids.