Dance music booms in the parking lot of a narrow L-shed mall in Downey, California. It’s a Thursday and as always Fatima’s grill – Home to cheesy Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos laced burgers, giant quesaritos, overloaded french fries, and Lebanese halal kebab sandwiches – hops phone in hand with customers ready to eat.

Half of the pavement in the mall was taken over by white party tents, a nod to the makeshift on-site needs of the current local pandemic. A line of eager customers, all under 30, huddle against the shady wall that winds around hectic Firestone Boulevard. With the microphone in hand, the always energetic owner Ali Elreda alternately calls out order names and waiting times from a booming PA system in the colorful restaurant. In normal times, Elreda could be behind fooling around with his staff or live on Instagram to show off his skill in drizzling nacho cheese, but now he’s in the dining room surrounded by to-go boxes, tubs full of Hot Cheetos bags, unopened boxes of soda and the sorts of Neon signs that would have made sense if customers could actually sit down to see them.

Elreda used to have great energy for car salesmen Smile and charisma In his social media videos, he called Fatima’s Grill „in the beautiful town of Downey, California” every chance – although nowadays he is more (politely) telling customers to stay away safely. From the provisional take-out operation of his restaurant, Elreda reminds customers of the rules of today’s restaurant world with his one-year-old microphone: only two people inside, masks required, wait outside and order in advance using the QR code menu. His amplified words dampen the background pop music like a cherone on a high school dance, reminding kids to have fun but not get too close.

This is everyday life at one of Los Angeles County’s busiest restaurants – pandemic or not.

Elreda’s mall restaurant has embedded itself in a certain segment of the massive, far-reaching LA food scene for the past half decade, fueled by colorful, often outrageous Lebanese-Mexican creations, loads of Instagram know-how, and one hell of a story. Elreda served nearly eight years in federal prison for drug trafficking, a fact he now recognizes as part of his overall journey. While working in the detention center’s kitchen in Safford, Arizona, he learned his Lebanese roots from the Mexican cuisine common among inmates: tacos with Lebanese kebab spices such as cumin if you can get them and chips with cheese and meat, so common in southern California many fast food restaurants. Occasionally Elreda would combine these meals with vending machine snacks to liven things up and create for herself – in the vacuum of federal prison – the same kind of crossover snacks that cater to the desires of a younger generation of food instagrammers.

Fatima’s Grill depended much of its early success on Elreda’s ingenuity in serving. „I learned everything inside,” Elreda told FoodBeast in 2018. „Even my hot sauce came out of jail.” Fans followed, as did celebrities from NFL and NBA players to singers and rpers and actors. Much like Howlin ‘Ray’s, part of the fun of Fatima’s Grill was the visual nature of its success: fans making the crowd, taking viral photos, and eating the biggest meals. Success has also been part of the problem lately – a difficult line in a turbulent year marked by restaurant closings, unemployed and unspeakable losses.

„You’re banned, you have nowhere to go, the supermarkets are going crazy – what are you going to do to stay relevant?” says Elreda of the early days of the first wave of home orders, when no one knew exactly how long things would take or how bad they could get. „How can we keep food not only on our customers’ plates, but also on the plates of the family members of the employees who work here?”

It has helped keep a constant presence on social media, offering foods like Hot Cheetos-crusted chicken tenders that appeal to a younger generation of users. Fatima’s Grill has 165,000 Instagram followers north, and people routinely drive hundreds of miles to sample the food – like the two who took the two-hour one-way drive from San Diego on the day of Eaters filming Man from the Bay Area that showed up at almost the same time. Elreda admits that this is not just a pressure to offer a product that will occupy these people, but also to ensure that he can serve them all while protecting his employees and himself during a global crisis.

„It’s about you, the product, the foundation,” says Elreda of his eight employees. “They are Fatima’s grill. People ask, ‘Why doesn’t Ali go live? Why is he not Spray the sauce all over?’ These days I want to be in the background, let them be in the spotlight. The staff was just amazing. „

Two masked customers pick up groceries from a neon-lit restaurant in the Los Angeles area.

A line moves slowly and briefly inwards

An employee in a mask is working on a large frying pan and sautéing prawns as well as beef and vegetables.

A customer who has turned around waits briefly in a restaurant while a neon page lights up.

Outside a colorful restaurant with bright banners advertising food.

Over the summer, a TikTok video featuring Fatima’s Grill went viral and did more than that 4 million views Within a few days and almost instantly, causing the sidewalk to overflow for hundreds of customers. With waiting times of up to three hours, angry customers burn the phone lines and Crowds of sometimes maskless guests Elreda pushed to order and considered closing the shop completely, but wasn’t sure how long he could pay his staff without cash coming in. Instead, he tightened the protocols and is not afraid to enforce the rules from his microphone. Two inside at the same time, masks required, order in advance if you can. A pair of tables pushed to the front door means no one can get in more than three feet, away from most of the crew. Even so, Elreda says, “It hasn’t stopped; it was constant. „

Delivery helped keep the crowd down, though an influx of online orders can still reflexively make customers waiting outside the door unfriendly. Like many other restaurants, Fatima’s has tried to assert itself Direct order p to cut the waiting times and to gather too much, but the reality is there are still many people showing up in person and ready to wait while it takes the nacho cheese soaked burritos to finish. Elreda tries to cling to everything: business, the dynamism of his following, and the safety of himself and his team. It made everything more serious; I’m still happy to see his customers, but less tolerant of those who don’t follow the rules.

„You can only preach so much,” says Elreda, who like many others did not take the coronavirus seriously at the beginning, but since then, COVID-19 has reshaped not only the world but its own immediate family as well. “Ultimately, customers know what to do now. We’ve all had phones in hand last year, we know what’s going on. Look, you have to mask yourself, these deaths are real, these numbers are real. This is not a type of government conspiracy. I’ve seen these deaths firsthand in my own family. ”

A worker in a hairnet holds up two freshly wrapped burritos.

Ali Elreda takes a moment to stand in front of the camera

Today Elreda finds hope as he looks back on how far he has come and what else he wants to achieve, including plans to market Fatima’s Grill through a local company called Franchise Creator. It’s a group that recently broke a number of Southern California restaurants, including South LA’s Mr. Fries Man who recently sold another location in San Diego. A license agreement starts at $ 35,000, far less than the entry fee for well-known brands – though it’s still some money in bad economic times and is no guarantee of any restaurant’s success during or after the pandemic. Elreda says he’s less interested in a payout than in engaging others.

„You know what?” he says, leaning on the decorated van from which he posted his own videos straight from the camera. “I have achieved what I want to achieve. I’m out of jail, I’m more than blessed. There are convicted criminals out there who may have some money but can’t get jobs. Let’s go find them. „

However, don’t expect Fatima’s Grill to return indoors in the near future, regardless of what local health officials recommend over the next several weeks. Elreda says he’ll wait as long as possible to protect himself and his customers while two groups get on and off the front door quickly at the same time throughout the day. „I will not open again until I am completely satisfied with the safety of my employees,” he says. „When they’re done, Ali is ready and Fatima’s grill is ready.”

Employees in masks stand in front of a restaurant during the daytime pandemic.

Fatima’s Grill workers

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