David Suleiman started out in the restaurant business washing potatoes in the kitchen of a small diner in upstate New York.
“I was about as low as you can go but it’s a great way to learn the business, I did everything,” he said.
Now, he is about to manage the newest restaurant in The Villages called Amerikanos. It opens in Spanish Springs Town Square in mid-July –another sign that the Suleiman family become a force in the food service business here. They will employ nearly 125 people in three restaurants, counting the new one.
David and his cousin George Suleiman – with a little help in customer service help from cousin Nate — currently run Johnny Rockets in Sumter Landing. Joe and Jack Suleiman, fellow cousins, operate the popular Red Sauce Italian restaurant, also in Sumter Landing.
David Suleiman will leave Johnny Rockets to manage Amerikanos. It will have a capacity of 150 people and feature Mediterranean and American food. Customers can eat on an open patio, which will feature live music from 2-5 p.m. The restaurant replaces Athens NY Restaurant, which closed in November.
“We’re excited and working hard,” David said on a recent afternoon. “The restaurant business is a tough, hard business, but we love it and it keeps our family close together.”
These five, young, energetic entrepreneurs are mostly in their 20s and 30s. The family tree goes something like this: George and Joe Suleiman are brothers. David and Jack Suleiman are brothers and cousins to George and Joe. Nate Suleiman is a cousin to the other four.
Put them all together in The Villages, and you have guys who can serve anything from a rock and roll hamburger at Johnny Rockets to spaghetti and meat balls at Red Sauce to chicken kababs with tzatziki sauce in July at the new place.
For the Suleimans, the sizzle isn’t in the steak but customer service.
“It’s not about what you serve, but how you serve it,” said George Suleiman, general manager of Johnny Rockets. He and his brothers had been running restaurants in Tampa and Lakeland, when they came to The Villages about five years ago.
“We had success with Johnny Rockets, and they wanted us to look at The Villages,” George said. “This is such a dynamic area, and the growth is tremendous. The minute we saw it, we thought we could make it work.”
Five years later, sales have increased nearly 300 percent, the Suleimans said. Also, Johnny Rockets national office honored the restaurant recently as one of the fastest growing in the national chain.
The Villages’ Johnny Rockets has added a breakfast menu, including steak and eggs. The restaurant also does catering. It’s all part of the formula for success that the Suleimans follow: quality food, good service and taking care of customers and workers.
And there is one more thing – family.
“We’re in this business because we love it,” George said. “We’re working for ourselves and our family. All of us have setbacks. It’s a crazy business and things can go wrong. But we all stick together and make it work.”
Nothing comes easy in the restaurant business. The Suleimans often put in 16-hour days. They run and scramble when things get crazy. George Suleiman may be the general manger of Johnny Rockets, but it’s not unusual to see him pick up a broom and sweep the floor, or clean off a table during a lunchtime rush.
“It’s not about who is the boss,” George said. “The customer is the real boss.”
Joe Suleiman left the business a few years ago. He took a job as a banking executive in Orlando. He wore suits, sat in a nice office and worked 9 to 5. Despite all this, he missed the excitement and independence of feeding the masses in The Villages.
“I had to get back,” Joe said. “When you work in a big corporation, you get an idea, and you have to take to about three of four people to even think about it. In the restaurant, I get an idea for something new, and we just do it.
“But the big thing for me is working with my brother and cousins. Family will always be No. 1 for me.”
Still, family togetherness only goes so far. These cousins/brothers sometimes have their disagreements. But they don’t throw hamburgers and meatballs at each other.
“There’s a lot of tension in the business,” George said. “We can have our differences but we always talk things out.” David added: “We just want to make sure the job is done right, but we never forget that we are family.”
Sometimes, they take things out on a basketball court. The guys like to run and jump and burn out their frustrations playing hoops. “It gets pretty spirited,” Joe said.
It’s a totally different attitude dealing with customers, including an older demographic in The Villages.
“It’s not really about age; it’s about making sure people are happy,” Nate, one of the younger family members, said.
“You develop a relationship with customers. You want them to know you care for them, not just as a customer but as a person.”
That has been the key for the Suleimans’ growth in the restaurant business here.
“You can’t do this job unless you love it,” Joe said. “It’s never easy but what really matters is that we’re all in this together. That’s what being a family is all about.”