After emigrating from Montenegro in 1996, Ardsley resident Benjamin Prelvukaj took a job waiting tables and working in the kitchen at Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn. “I knew five words of English,” he says.
Prelvukaj saw a brighter future for himself in the US. When he left Montenegro, a tiny Mediterranean country in Southeastern Europe, it was still part of Serbia, which had been torn by internal conflicts. “The economy wasn’t doing well,” Prelvukaj recalls. “It was hard to make it there.”
Waiting tables turned out to be path to opportunity, giving him a crash course in how to run a successful restaurant. “I learned the whole operation,” he says.
By 2006 he was ready to make a bold move, by going out on his own. Teaming up with his brother-in-law, Ben Sinanaj, and recruiting Arturo McLeod, a longtime chef at Peter Luger, Prelvukaj opened Benjamin Steakhouse in Manhattan. The eatery did so well that by 2010, he and Sinanaj opened a second location, in White Plains, not far from Prelvukaj’s home. They followed up with The Sea Fire Grill, their first seafood restaurant, in Manhattan, three years ago. Together, his restaurants employ 200 people.
What’s the key to his success? “I think you have to understand the concept of what people want and eat,” Prelvukaj says. “I offer good quality food and service. People are willing to pay for it.”
Prelvukaj is part of a long tradition of immigrants in the US who have dived into entrepreneurship. They range from Alexander Graham Bell to Sergey Brin at Google. Immigrants are almost 50 percent more likely than native-born Americans to start businesses—and their rate of new business creation has increased by more than 50 percent in the last 15 years, according to a 2012 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy. Immigrants started 28 percent of new businesses in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available, though they made up only 12.9 percent of the population, the report says. Another report by the Partnership found that immigrants and their children created 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
Besides starting new businesses, many immigrants are buying them, bringing new life to Main Street. “Overall, as the economy is picking up, we are seeing more immigrant entrepreneurs purchasing businesses,” says Ramit Arora, president of Biz2Credit, a Manhattan-based online middleman between small business borrowers and lenders. His firm has worked with a number of entrepreneurial immigrants in Westchester, among them owners of gas stations, convenience stores, liquor stores, restaurants, and a manufacturing plant.
Starting a business may be a natural fit for immigrants who are still learning the language and have few connections in the traditional job market. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Many would-be business owners need to learn the cultural nuances of doing business in the US. And getting financing for a small business can be challenging for immigrants, if they have not yet established a credit history in the US.