Immigrant restaurateur gives back to the community through Lebanese cuisine

Gus Sleiman’s family left their homeland in 1989 to escape the Lebanese Civil War, a 15-year conflict that killed an estimated 150,000 people and displaced another 900,000 — about one-fifth of the population.

Sleiman was 16. The family moved to Michigan then New York and, while visiting a church in Somerset, New Jersey, fell in love with the area. So they moved next door to New Brunswick, and opened Evelyn’s Restaurant.

“It’s been a nice, wonderful journey so far,” Sleiman says.

Sleiman, who did not speak English when he arrived in the United States, earned degrees in Political Science and Psychology from the City University of New York. When his parents retired in 2001, he and his brother decided to take over the business.

Evelyn’s still serves Lebanese cuisine — including what Sleiman calls their amazing hummus — but the brothers have updated the concept and added live music. Today, he estimates that nine out of ten customers are non-Lebanese.

“We’ve been fortunate,” he says. “You always have to innovate and introduce new things.”

Success has followed. The brothers have now opened Barca Cafe & Bar, a Spanish tapas restaurant, and expanded into real estate. They have 18 employees.

“Everybody has a different notion and perception of immigrating,” Sleiman says. “I was fortunate. It felt like home. I truly enjoyed it.”

In the days following 9/11, Sleiman and a friend found themselves outside a Salvation Army warehouse. “People were just moving thousands of water bottles on pallets,” he says. “And a man in uniform grabbed us and put us to work. I fell in love with it. I volunteered four days later.”

Today Sleiman chairs the local chapter’s board of directors. He also volunteers with New Brunswick Tomorrow, a nonprofit devoted to improving the quality of life of city residents, and the Lebanese Information Center.

“I care about this community; this is my home. They’ve done so much for me and my family so I ‘m always happy and eager and excited to give back,” he says. “Everybody has to play a role. Everybody has to add to the collective good.”

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