When customers at Afghan Village restaurant can’t afford a meal, our waiters make them an offer they can’t refuse: It’s on the house. Anyone who comes to my restaurant and can’t pay eats for free.
This might seem like a terrible business practice, but we have plenty of paying customers to keep the lights on. Besides, being generous is simply how I was raised. Growing up in Afghanistan, I was taught to follow the teachings of our Muslim faith: If a neighbor is hungry, you must feed them. My parents frequently invited neighbors over for dinner because they knew they needed a meal.
Of course, many people in the Houston restaurant community provide food to the needy through different fundraisers and charities, as our restaurant does. But, I’m proud to also contribute in this very personal way — inspired by my heritage. I’m glad to live in a city like Houston that welcomes diverse traditions and culture. In fact, a new report from New American Economy (NAE) found that the city’s immigrant community had grown from 1.3 million to 1.6 million since 2011. These latest arrivals are important contributors to the Houston economy. More than 13 percent of us are entrepreneurs and generate $3.2 billion in business income annually. We’re also twice as likely to start businesses as our U.S.-born counterparts. In addition, immigrants in Houston are filling critical gaps in the city’s labor force, which has enabled companies to create or retain more than 72,500 local manufacturing jobs.
Other new research celebrates the contributions of entrepreneurs like me from the Middle East and North Africa. As a group, nearly one in five immigrants from the region own businesses and were six times more likely to be entrepreneurs, according to an NAE report.
For my part, I own three other Houston businesses in addition to Afghan Village: Afghan Halal Market, Blackhawk Security and Arianna Afghan Bakery, and I employ 20 people in all.
I believe that people from my area of the world are so entrepreneurial because we’re motivated by all the opportunities we see here. I came to Texas in 2001 to study law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. After graduating, I was recruited by a Houston company that contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and worked as the operations manager for a large staff while stationed in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2012. That’s when I got the idea to start my own business. During mealtimes, I noticed that the American troops were very happy when they were served fresh Afghan food prepared by local chefs, rather than the usual frozen food shipped in from abroad.
I decided to open Afghan Village when I returned to Houston in 2012. I was amazed by how straightforward the process was. In Afghanistan, starting a business is very opaque and cumbersome, as I learned when I tried to create one for my employer. I was delighted when I found our Gulfton commercial space — a former Mexican restaurant with a fully equipped kitchen. Then I paid the deposit, filed the necessary paperwork and was up and running within a few months. Since then, we’ve done a brisk business, with great write-ups in the Houston Chronicle and New York Times and 4.5 stars ratings on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. On weekend nights, our restaurant is filled with Houstonians from all over the city who come for signature dishes like kebabs, quorma stews or lamb or goat karhai (meat seasoned with ginger, tomatoes, spices and garlic). Some people like to dine in the section of our restaurant that has a more traditional Afghan setup — low tables with pillows on the floor.
Of course, at Afghan Village, most customers pay for their meals. They might not know that they’re helping to provide the dinner of the person next to them or that they’re participating in a tradition I’m proud to have brought from my homeland. They’re just excited to try new a cuisine and to kick off their shoes and dine Afghan-style. That spirit of openness and welcoming is what I love about Houston and what makes this city great.
Omer Yousafzai is the owner Afghan Village in Gulfton.