Anoush Ansari was 15 when he left his native Iran for the Twin Cities to visit his sister, a student at Macalester College.
He stayed when the Iranian revolution unseated Shah Reza Pahlavi and threatened Ansari's father, who was the country's minister of health. And he was on his own at 18, when his sister graduated, married and moved away.
Although he managed just two years of college, during which he kept the bills paid by working at a series of low- to mid-level jobs at area restaurants, Ansari has done exceedingly well.
Now 46, Ansari is managing partner of Hemisphere Restaurant Partners, a Minneapolis company that operates six restaurants with a versatile array of offerings ranging from fine dining to casual family fare to fast-service takeout.
It's a business that grossed $8.5 million in recession-battered 2009, up 6 percent from a year earlier thanks to the opening of one new restaurant and the rebranding of another. More impressive, Hemisphere has succeeded with three of its restaurants in locations where highly touted eateries had failed.
Its Atlas Grill, a formal dining spot featuring Persian-style fire-roasted meats and seafood, has endured for 13 years in a space vacated by Seagull in U.S. Bank Plaza.
Its Mission American Kitchen & Bar is prospering in the IDS Center space where the respected Aquavit failed. Mission features an American menu seasoned with "interesting" creations such as deviled eggs and olive popper appetizers, spicy Buffalo chicken salad and pot roast with Kobe beef.
And the recently rebranded Tavern on France, a casual dining spot featuring a traditional, family-friendly menu, is succeeding near Southdale where Pizzeria Uno closed. Hemisphere also operates the Flame at Rosedale with a concept similar to Tavern on France; Good to Go, a fast-serve takeaway in the Minneapolis skyway, and Kabobi Fire Roasted Grill, an Eden Prairie "kabobery."
Since the extent of my culinary expertise does not go much beyond Matt Bristol's Jucy Lucy double cheeseburger, I'll rely on a well-informed colleague to explain the secret of Ansari's success.
"Ansari has latched on to a fool-proof formula," restaurant critic Rick Nelson wrote in 2007. "It's not rocket science: Make service a priority, pump plenty of dough into decor, don't get weird with the menu and keep the prices from inducing cardiac arrest."
The common denominator is the service part: "As minister of health, my father entertained officials from around the world," Ansari said. "I was brought up in a culture of making guests feel at home."
Transferred to the restaurant scene, that culture means such neighborly activities as escorting elderly customers to their cars or, when a regular customer's auto is seen entering the parking lot, having his favorite cocktail waiting for him when he walks in.
It was the personal touch that helped launch him into the restaurant business. As a server at Alfredo's in St. Paul, "I kept a list in my head of client names, their food and drink preferences, their families," Ansari said. "And I'd never write down an order as they gave it; I'd look them in the eye," then hurry away to put it on paper.
The result: tips that far exceeded those of fellow servers. The bigger payoff came, however, when an Alfredo's executive joined the D'Amico + Partners restaurant empire and recommended Ansari for a job as its special-events manager.
In eight years with D'Amico's he moved up to service director of catering and special events and then to general manager of D'Amico's Azur restaurant in Gaviidae Common. Then he accepted a job in 1994 as general manager of the Morton's steakhouse in Minneapolis, then moved up to Midwestern regional manager for the Chicago-based Morton's chain.
In 1996, he and fellow Iranian Hadi Anbar started the Ansari Group with the opening of the Atlas Grill. The name was changed to Hemisphere in 2004 when three investors were added to help fund an expansion that doubled the size of the company's roster.
Part of Hemisphere's success can be attributed to Ansari's shrewd understanding of his markets -- and a willingness to act quickly when conditions and tastes change.
Example: The Southdale location, which opened in 2007 as Via to offer fine dining to higher-end customers. The decor matched the expectations -- plush carpets, velvet upholstery and curtains -- and so did the prices.
Which worked just fine until the economy collapsed. Ansari promptly sought out Tim Cary, with his background in casual dining as a manager at Champs and Granite City restaurants, and named him chief operating officer with the initial task of reworking the Via concept.
The resulting Tavern on France, with casual decor and a menu of build-your-own burgers, salads and flatbread pizzas, is generating "significantly higher sales," Cary said.
More important, it also provided a template for Flame and a seventh restaurant set to open this spring in Blaine: "Half our business now involves the build-your-own concept with chef design," Ansari said. "It's a hybrid of full service casual and fresh fast food."
Not to mention that it fits his concept of giving his customers precisely what they want.
Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • firstname.lastname@example.org