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The Ansara dynasty: An immigrant success story

Most immigrant success stories start with a single idea, and, of course, a little bit of money to get it off the ground.

For Lebanese immigrants Andrew Ansara and his brother George in 1956, the idea was to own a small business they could make their own, with the hopes of working their way up the ladder to something bigger.

The extra money, however, came from an unexpected source: an $800 loan from their milkman, who had enough faith in their work ethic to know that he would be repaid in the future.

The brothers used the extra funds along with their own savings to buy a tiny shop called Coyle Market in Detroit.

Soon, the Ansara brothers, who came to America from the village of Aita al-Foukhar in Lebanon in 1951 (George was 23 at the time and Andrew was 19) with just $25 to their names and without knowing a word of English, had a booming business in Detroit.

More than five decades later, Andrew's Ansara Restaurant Group has become a well-known Michigan institution. It owns 22 Red Robin restaurants and six Big Boy restaurants (the group has sold many others in recent years to focus on other projects) under its umbrella, along with various buildings through their real estate business and some shopping centers. Other restaurants include the new 2Booli Mediterranean restaurant in Farmington Hills, the venerable Portofino in Windsor, and the new Burgrz restaurant in Rochester Hills.

Andrew Ansara, who's now 80-years-old,  insists he's "semi-retired" but still plays the role of the sharply-dressed, hands-on businessman who enjoys the group's day-to-day operations, along with the occasional game of backgammon.

While his brother George has since passed on, Andrew Ansara has kept a strong family presence within the company.

His son, 59-year-old Victor, is the CEO of the company, having closed his own law firm in order to take over the family business. His other sons Norman and Andrew, along with George's son Lew, all help oversee the group's various restaurants.

"My kids are running the show now," said Andrew Ansara, who is also a board member of the Arab American and Chaldean Council (ACC).

"Our way of being successful has stayed the same. You have to be straight, you have to be honest with people, and you have to do what's right and don't treat anybody different. Even if you're doing it for nothing, always do your best at it."

There were times in the early days when it seemed as if Andrew and George were working for nothing. But they had their sights set on a particular restaurant franchise, the Elias Brothers' Big Boy restaurants, back in the late 1950s.

Eventually, after running a restaurant in Allen Park and selling it for $19,000, they went to the Elias Brothers in hopes of making a purchase. They fell short in terms of funding, so the Ansara brothers took out a second mortgage on their house before being approved and buying their first Big Boy in Garden City on Ford Road.

The brothers toiled for 17 hours a day, seven days a week, and eventually, the work paid off as customers started pouring in; even Little Caesars Pizza tycoon and Detroit Red Wings/Tigers owner Mike Illitch frequented his establishment when he had time off from running his own fledgling business in Garden City.

A mere 2 ½ years later, the debts were all paid off and the Ansara brothers were on their way back home to Lebanon for a six-week vacation celebration in their home town before returning to Michigan to focus on business again.

More and more Big Boy restaurants were added to the mix over the years, becoming the backbone of the Ansaras' success.

Choosing a path and sticking with it is vital in the business world, but there also comes a time when reinvention is necessary.

The Ansara group managed to do just that at the right time 17 years ago, when Andrew took a trip to Arizona and visited a Red Robin restaurant franchise.

"We used to go to Arizona a lot and I liked what we saw, being in the restaurant business you can tell when a place will be successful or not, so we brought it to Michigan and it's doing very well."

Even in the downtrodden economy, a new Red Robin opened in Ann Arbor last year and the chain has continued to spread across the state thanks to the Ansara group. Northern Ohio also has Red Robin locations and the group is continuing to scout for new ones as well, while southeast Michigan remains the home base.

"We were all born in the Detroit area, my brothers and my cousin and me, and we still feel good about the area and its future," 59-year-old Victor Ansara said.

"It's great to walk into a full restaurant and see a bunch of people having a great time, that's the reason we're successful, because we have that and a great team of people working with us of course."

Andrew Ansara also has faith in Detroit as evidenced by the ACC's remarkable work with the group's oft-praised Seven Mile Project and the host of other social services offered in and around the city for all citizens, not just those of Arab descent.

He and much of his extended family reside in the Farmington Hills area and continue to love what they do despite the long hours.

"The business landscape is a little risky right now but if you're willing to work hard in everything you will succeed; it's not going to stay this way forever, things will get better, I'm sure," Andrew Ansara said.

"There is still plenty of opportunity in this country. If you work hard, you will get somewhere, but you have to be honest and sincere. Some people get rich in the crooked way but we don't believe in that."

The Arab American News

New Michigan Media

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