Riding in the backseat of an American car that felt like a boat on wheels, one of Dany Abi-Najm’s first thoughts upon arriving in the United States was, “Where are all of the skyscrapers?” Having traveled with his family to start a new life in America, Dany’s idea of what his new home would look like was based on the images of the New York City high-rise buildings that he had seen on television in his native home of Lebanon.
“In Lebanon, even in 1976, the American influence was very alive and well and I’d always had dreams about living in the United States.” Dany explains, “I was fascinated with New York and its skyscrapers and the big American cars.”
Along with his four siblings, Dory, David, Gladys and Grace, and his parents, Tanios and Marie, Dany was excitedly taking in the sights of their new home and country en route from the airport. At fifteen years of age, Dany had already lived more life than most adults. Having fled a war-torn Lebanon, where he and his older brother, Dory, had been called into military service, Dany’s life already had the beginnings of an epic tale. It was when Dany and Dory, then 14 and 16 respectively, were called to join the ranks on the front lines that their father decided it was time for the family to leave Lebanon.
“My dad said, ‘We’re moving. I don’t want to lose my sons to this war’.”
Dany’s father, had a passion for food, and although he was never in the food business before coming to America, serving as a customs officer in the Lebanese government, it was always in the back of his mind to one day open a restaurant. It was a natural progression for that dream to be realized once the family arrived in the U.S.
But once they arrived safely in America, the Abi-Najm family’s one goal became survival. Having to sell all of their belongings in order to leave Lebanon, they arrived with $600 cash, a few pieces of luggage, and their father’s dream of starting a restaurant. Dany had three uncles who lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Rosslyn, Virginia who let them stay for a few weeks until the Abi-Najm’s got on their feet.
“When we arrived, we spoke little English, and had very little means, so we all started working as soon as we got here. My brother and I got busser jobs our second night in America. My father got a job painting houses at first, but then he and my mother got jobs working at a Lebanese restaurant. We would go to school in the morning and go to work in the evening and any money that we made went into the family pot.”
A few years later they had enough money saved and the family began looking for an opportunity to buy a restaurant business. In 1979, they met a man who was selling his restaurant, “Athenian Taverna” and they made an offer. After purchasing the business, it was time to decide what to call their new restaurant. As funds were low, they decided to only change half of the restaurant name, to “Lebanese Taverna”, reducing the cost for creating a new storefront sign. Everyone in the family took a position in the restaurant and for the first year, it truly was, all in the family.
From the beginning, Dany was asked to take a leadership role in the business. Though he was only 17 years old, Dany assumed the responsibility of running and managing the restaurant.
“My dad was not comfortable with his English and he had me doing the management of the restaurant, including ordering the food and handling the books, from day one. I remember he took me to our accountant’s office and I spent half a day learning how to handle the cash flow and bookkeeping. I was very responsible and my dad depended on me a lot. That’s how my career in the business started.”
They continued to run the restaurant with its original menu of Greek and American diner fare when one day a frequent patron inquired why they didn’t serve Lebanese food. Dany’s father prepared a few sample items for the patron to try and the rest is history.
By 1981, the business had found its legs. Though, at the time, Lebanese food was virtually unknown, the on-going Lebanese Civil War and its news coverage began to spark people’s interest. Soon thereafter a writer for the Washington Post discovered the restaurant and wrote an article about the family. The business took off.
Though Lebanese Taverna was doing well and the family expected him to continue his leadership role in the business, Dany was restless.
“The restaurant soon became very small for a family of seven. Some of us had large egos and I felt that the restaurant couldn’t fit everyone’s needs anymore.” Dany continues, “There was a clear switch for me one day, when I realized that if I wanted success, I was going to have to go after it. It was that simple. It wasn’t coming to me, I was going to have to go out and get it. So I went and put myself through college.”
Dany decided to enroll at George Mason University, eventually earning his degree in Economics. While in college, Dany saved up enough money to purchase a house together with his younger brother, David.
Though his family was against it, after graduation Dany began looking for another job. He was still working at the restaurant, but he also began interviewing for positions in the investment world.
“I was always interested in the business world and the financial world, but when I interviewed, I realized that I would have to start at the bottom. I would have to make very little money, working the phones, and that was just not in my nature. So at that time, I decided to go back into the family business and expand it.”
Once Dany realized that his best opportunity for success and growth would be within the family business, he made his dad a proposition. He wanted to start a second restaurant. Dany’s expansion idea was met with opposition from all sides. Though he felt it would be in the best interests for everyone in the long run, only his younger brother, David, agreed with him. Dany and David took their combined savings and a loan on the equity in their house and started the second Lebanese Taverna in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington D.C.
“We didn’t use any of the family’s money but we always considered it as a part of the family business. I just couldn’t see me starting the restaurant and splitting the family or being selfish with it. Our family has always put in together and shared in the success of Lebanese Taverna and my motivation was always to take care of the family. So the first money that was ever made in the second restaurant was given to my father. I can still remember the day I walked into his house and gave him the money. He really didn’t believe that we could actually make it and I wanted to show him that we could and did.”
It was during this time that Dany met and fell in love with his wife, Jenifer, who he credits as his unwavering support to branch out with the second restaurant.
“When I met Jenifer, it was love at first sight. I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. She really believed in me and was a great motivator. She not only helped me with emotional support, but she helped me financially. When I started the second restaurant, all of my money was going into the business. At that point we were living together and she was taking care of all the bills, all the groceries, and giving me whatever I needed. She did that and we were only boyfriend and girlfriend, we weren’t even engaged. She really believed in me.”
Dany credits many mentors that helped him along the way. From friends made when he first arrived in America like Herbert McArthur, who he met in his 9th grade French class, to Howard Lagarde, who is currently his management coach. But there is one mentor and friend that stands above the rest, Henrik Suhr.
Dany met Henrik in 1986 when Henrik moved into the same neighborhood after relocating from New York. Dany and Henrik struck up a conversation and learned that they were both avid fishing enthusiasts. They soon became fishing buddies, taking several trips together. Henrik, a graduate of the Cornell School of Hospitality and Hotel Administration, easily became a go-to resource for Dany in his growing vision for the Lebanese Taverna Group. In 1995, Dany asked Henrik to join the company in a consulting capacity and after a few years, it was clear to Dany that a partnership would work out well for everyone.
But the family did not agree. Once again, Dany found himself in the position of trying to motivate his family to accept his vision for expansion. Slowly the family came around to seeing things Dany’s way and over the next few years, Dany and Henrik would open eight additional restaurants within the Lebanese Taverna Group. While the family was initially hesitant to bring Henrik into the fold, as the company grew and its success multiplied, everyone became happy with the arrangement. Sadly, in November of 2011, Henrik lost his life in a motorcycle accident. The loss rocked the group, but Henrik lives on in the company’s success and its plans for the future.
Today the Lebanese Taverna Group grosses approximately $22 million annually and has eleven units, including a catering business. The future looks bright for the organization as Dany looks to new ways to diversify the business. In addition to running and growing the business, Lebanese Taverna Group also reaches out to help local immigrants in the process of becoming legal citizens.
“Many of the younger generation of ethnic people look to us and they see that the ‘American Dream’ can be realized. When I see them opening a business or succeeding in what they want to do (and they point to our restaurant as helping them), it makes me feel very good. We feel that, since the opportunity was given to us, we want to give that opportunity to others.”
Not only do they help individuals, but the company also gives back to many local charities including the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (founded by a fellow Lebanese immigrant), local schools, as well as other community organizations. The restaurant group has been recognized and awarded for its philanthropy, by the local and national chapters of the National Restaurant Association.
Dany is most proud of his family, wife and children, wanting his legacy to be one of loyalty, not only to family but also to the company.
“My son is 18 years old now and he is a wonderful young man. He exhibits a great motivation and desire for success and traits of loyalty, not only to the family but to the business. I brought him up to know that the world is at his disposal and that he does not have to go into the family business. He can do whatever he wants with his life. But it seems that his focus is on the family business. I can see him taking over the reins one day, maybe fifteen to twenty years down the road.”
Dany recalls one day when his daughter came home to share with him a quote they learned in school that day, “If it is to be, it’s up to me!” Reminding him of the moment when he realized that a shift was needed for his own success, the quote is now his advice to young people and those just beginning a career. Dany also counsels, “Just do it. I see so many people expecting success to fall in their laps and it just doesn’t happen that way. You have to go after it and work for it and be persistent… and DREAM!”
A long way from that first car ride along George Washington Parkway, Dany Abi-Najm has charted a course and navigated through to success. In a family where business and personal are one and the same, Dany took a strong leadership position early on and never looked back. A passionate, determined leader, proud father, loving husband, and faithful son, Dany Abi-Najm shows us that when you keep it all in the family, you can’t go wrong.