A refugee’s restaurant opens its doors

15 de maio de 2016

São Paulo – A new place to sample Syrian cuisine opened in São Paulo late last April. Besides typical dishes, the restaurant, set in Brooklin district’s Jardim das Acácias area, is run by 42-year-old Talal Altinawi, who has lived in Brazil for two years and four months. He was only able to get his project going after launching a crowdfunding campaign.

Last year, backed by NGO Adus, Altinawi resorted to crowdfunding to raise the cash to go into business and open his restaurant in Brazil. He had tried working in other areas in the country, but failed to prosper. Since he was always a good cook, he decided to use his talents in the kitchen as a source of income.

In a crowdfunding website, Altinawi raised BRL 71,000. The website kept 12% of the amount, and he brought home BRL 62,000. The money helped, but wasn’t enough to cover all costs, since the venture took roughly BRL 200,000 in investment. Around BRL 140,000 came out of Altinawi’s own pocket. "I still need to buy equipment, a gas stove, a freezer. I’ll have to spend some more money. But I’m happy,” he says. The people who donated are entitled to discounts and free meals. Some of them have already stopped by to check out the Syrian flavor.

There aren’t that many options on the menu yet. One chicken-based and one vegetarian dish, and another whose star is baked kibbeh. With grape leaf meat rolls and Syrian rice on the side, it goes for BRL 30. It’s the patrons’ go-to choice. Hummus and pitta bread (BRL 25), kebab sandwich (BRL 18) and Arab sweets (BRL 6) round off the list of typical Syrian delicacies.

Other options are coming up soon, since Altinawi has bought a table where he will be able to serve a bigger number of hot and cold dishes. Tabbouleh, curd, and rice with lentils will accompany the existing dishes. The restaurant also sells decorative items and handmade boxes imported from Syria.

Keeping the restaurant afloat and profitable demands redoubled efforts from Altinawi, his wife Ghazal and five employees. He opens at 6 am to serve breakfast, and doesn’t close until midnight. From Sunday to Sunday.

“I do that because I need the money and the overhead because I need to invest and meet my costs. My rental is BRL 5,500, the water, electricity and phone bills are BRL 2,000, my staff’s pay is BRL 6,000. I get up before sunrise to pray. Then, I get to work,” says Talal, who’s a Muslim. He and Ghazal cook all the dishes. “The employees are Brazilian and don’t know our exact recipe,” he explains.

When Altinawi first decided to open the restaurant, Brooklin wasn’t his first choice. He wanted to work out of Vila Madalena, the neighborhood where he first presented his dishes, at an immigrant’s bazaar. “My son won a grant at a school near here, and besides, here I managed to rent out a place without having to find a guarantor or pay surety. All I had to do was pay three months’ rent upfront. I get a good amount of customers, but then again there’s much competition,” says Altinawi. He grosses an average of BRL 1,000 to BRL 1,500 a day.

Altinawi is an engineer who moved out of Syria to flee the conflict between the government and its opponents, which has dragged on for over five years now. Upon arriving in Brazil as a refugee, he was startled by the paperwork requirements and had trouble adapting to the local culture. He still finds it hard to live here. “But if you want to grow, you’ll make it. There are a lot of opportunities in Brazil and in São Paulo,” he claims. Even the crisis doesn’t faze him.

“For us Syrians this isn’t that serious. I know Brazil has seen better days. By the time I arrived here, the political and economic scenario was not so good. But that was the reality in which I opened my restaurant and had a few accomplishments. If things get better, that’s ok. If not, I’ll continue to thrive here, the way things were when I arrived,” he asserts.

Talal Culinária Síria
Rua das Margaridas, 59, Jardim das Acácias, São Paulo - SP
Monday to Friday, 6am to midnight
Saturday and Sunday, 9am to midnight
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*Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum