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National Restaurant Association - Taki Sawi: Indianapolis operator finds American dream

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Taki Sawi: Indianapolis operator finds American dream

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From the time Taki Sawi was 14, he knew he wanted to be a restaurateur.

His career journey took him from Egypt to Jordan to Cyprus to Greece to Indianapolis, where he owns Santorini Greek Kitchen with his wife, Jeanette. In 2010, he won a National Restaurant Association Faces of Diversity Award. Here's his story, in his own words:

"I left Egypt when I was 14. My mom and dad died, and I had to help my sister support my nieces and nephews. I was looking for an opportunity, and Egypt didn’t have many jobs. When I left, I had a plastic bag filled with clothes and no money. I had no idea where life would take me. I was open to wherever God took me.

My first job was at a small restaurant in Amman, Jordan. I washed dishes, did prep and made salads. I saw how much the chef loved what he did, and I wanted to be like him. I wanted to have that same passion in my heart. After 35 years, this man, Hassan, is still in my mind every day.

After that, I moved from place to place, working seasonal restaurant jobs. I got more cooking experience and learned to be a good leader, manager and boss. I learned to set a good example, be a good listener and organizer and have vision. As a restaurant owner, you are the coach, and you have to know where you’re going. I knew I could never do any other job.

"As a restaurant owner, you are the coach, and you have to know where you’re going. I knew I could never do any other job."

One day in 1997, I was working in Santorini, Greece, and a woman sat down by herself. I saw she was quiet and beautiful, and we started talking. I gave her my business card and asked her to come back that night when I wasn’t as busy. To my surprise, she returned. I told her about myself, and she told me she was a nurse, on vacation with her brother. After she left Santorini, we stayed in touch, and she came back several times.

We got married in 1999, and I moved to Indianapolis, where Jeanette had grown up. Six months later, I opened my first restaurant. It was very small – just eight tables. I had a couple guys in the kitchen and two servers. Business was so good that after two and a half years, we had to expand and move to a new location. Jeanette left nursing and joined me in the business.

Today, Santorini Greek Kitchen has 145 seats and 30 employees. I’m the one who opens and closes the door every single day. I want my employees to see how their boss does his best every day, so they’ll do their best.

 It’s wonderful to be my own boss. I came to this country and did what I am passionate about. When you do something every day with passion and love, God will give back to you.

In Greece, I always thought about owning my own restaurant. When I came here, I found more opportunities. It’s a wonderful thing to accomplish what you have in your heart. And I did it here."

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