FREDERICTON – Two newcomer entrepreneurs just opened a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Fredericton with cuisine from 20 different area nations.
Karim Ali and Islam Elzayat, the owners of Sphinx, came from Egypt through the province’s Provincial Nominee Program to work in the IT sector and became restaurateurs instead.
Elzayat came in October and Ali in February. Elzayat says the company they worked for in Egypt, Enterprise Services, doesn’t have a branch in New Brunswick.
When they didn’t find any jobs, they were faced with two choices: do a career shift within the IT industry or change careers completely.
“To do a career shift in IT, you need to study and do a lot of things to work here in New Brunswick. Instead of doing this career shift in IT… we decided to start our new business,” he said.
Both had been working in the IT industry for around 12 years when they decided to do the switch, and they’re happy with the choice they made.
“We were always passionate about starting our own business,” Ali said.
Elzayat says the mayor and the city helped facilitate the process of opening their business. They chose to open a Mediterranean food business because they didn’t find many in Fredericton, and they say the city has many Arab people who have come through the same program.
“We are used to having our own cuisines in our country,” he said.
They also wanted to introduce Canadians to Mediterranean food. They’ve had a good response from customers since their mid-June opening.
“I find people here are very kind and very supportive. People are coming to try [our food] and returning again and again. That’s beyond our expectations,” said Ali.
Ali and Elzayat picked dishes from about 20 countries in the Mediterranean. They sell well-known dishes like Shawarma or Falafel, and new ones like Koshari and Béchamel Pasta.
He says they are working on adding more plates to the menu, with prices ranging from $4 to $20.
Elzayat and Ali preferred not to disclose how much they invested.
“It’s a huge amount,” Elzayat said.
“It’s not good to talk about numbers,” Ali joked.
They started renovating the place in April. They hired chefs from different parts of the Mediterranean because it was important that they were familiar with some of the recipes.
Ali says they’ve had challenges, but they’ve been able to tackle them with the support of many people.
And the competition? Ali believes they complement each other.
“We are serving things that they don’t serve, and they are serving things that we don’t serve. In a small city like Fredericton, you cannot find so many restaurants serving the same food. People are coming here for specific things,” he said.
The two men are still connected to the IT community. Aside from managing the restaurant, Ali volunteers for Civic Tech, a Fredericton IT volunteer group. Elzayat is pursuing a PhD in Cybersecurity and Innovation Management at the University of New Brunswick.
When asked about how he handles the workload, Elzayat laughs.
“Don’t ask this,” he joked. “It’s very hard.”
Sphinx also offers catering services. Ali says they hope to expand by opening different branches in New Brunswick and offering catering to more companies.
“We got so many different plans,” he said.