The American Dream—the idea that anyone can get ahead in the U.S. if they work hard to achieve it—has always been particularly poignant for immigrants seeking a fresh start in this country. And perhaps no industry has made that dream more possible for newly arrived immigrants than the restaurant business, which is awash in fry-cook-to-franchisee tales.
At a time when U.S. immigration policy is poised for seismic changes under President Donald Trump, it’s important to recognize the enormous role immigrants have in foodservice—and to highlight the opportunities available to those from other countries. Here, we take a look at the stories of four immigrants who climbed the economic ladder and grabbed their own slice of the American Dream in the quick-service industry.
Claudia San Pedro
CFO & EVP, Sonic Drive-In
Claudia San Pedro’s parents brought her along as a 2-year-old when they moved from Mexico to the U.S. Her father originally came to study medicine, but they soon decided to put down roots.
“For them, the opportunity to be able to become part of a country that would allow their children to achieve so much more than they could have in their native country was a huge deal,” San Pedro says. What was so amazing was her parents’ foresight, she adds. They told her to remember where she came from and celebrate that culture, but to also take pride in being an American and the opportunities it affords.
She struck that balance even as a child growing up in Oklahoma, traveling frequently to visit extended family in Mexico. There, it became clear how courageous her parents’ choice was to leave—and how incomparable the trajectory of her life would have been without it.
“There is no question in my mind, it would have been an entirely different experience with respect to opportunity with economic success,” she says. “There’s just no question, no question whatsoever. Not to be overly cheesy or emotional about this, but for us it’s a gift. It’s a huge gift. We cherish it.”
San Pedro worked in finance for years at the Oklahoma State Capitol. In 2015, she joined Oklahoma City–based Sonic Drive-In to become CFO and EVP. She says her family’s immigration story gives her a deeper sense of compassion and empathy.
Lest the public worry that the American Dream is fizzling away, San Pedro says she sees it daily in her business. Sonic is working to recruit new franchisees and, among other operators, the brand is specifically targeting second-wave immigrants whose parents may have brought them to the U.S. or given birth to them here. That generation is now looking to build its own piece of the American Dream, she says. And she’s optimistic that immigrants will continue to shape the patchwork of the U.S.
“The story of America is one of not only immigrants coming 400 years ago, assimilating, and making their dreams come true, but also of constant regeneration of that story with new immigrants,” she says. “I think if you look at the root of who we are as a country, we were founded on immigration. That is who we are as a country. That story will come again and again.”
Franchisee, Jack in the Box
Atour Eyvazian can practically taste the piping hot french fries that, as a new immigrant to the U.S., quickly embodied his rising personal success and freedom.
Speaking little to no English in his first job at Jack in the Box 33 years ago, he would pick up a bag of fries on days that he had a little spare change. The fries, like all fast foods, were entirely foreign to him months before in his native Iran. But that didn’t matter.
“I’m telling you, that bag of french fries, the color was so gold, so rich. It was so vivid, I can picture it right now,” he says. “I would tell myself, ‘I have arrived. This is my promised land. I’m free, I’m able to work. I have a future in front of me. No government agency is breathing down my neck.’ I felt so amazing. I felt, honestly, that I had arrived in the promised land.”
Eyvazian fled war-torn Iran in 1984, moving through the nation’s northern mountains and seeking refuge in nearby Turkey. After being pursued by the Iranian Guard, robbed by his guides, and captured by Turkish police, the then-19-year-old spent 40 days in jail. The U.S. embassy helped him arrange safe passage to Los Angeles, where he stayed with an uncle, who prompted him to apply for work at a local Jack in the Box.
“It was the happiest day in my life,” Eyvazian says. “And my job was to be a janitor, basically.”
He learned English at that restaurant, as well as about American culture and customs—including things not taught in books, like the meaning of Valentine’s Day and Easter or the reason restaurants offer senior and veteran discounts. People all around helped and mentored.
“Here, it’s like everybody’s trying to see you grow and become better,” he says. “Looking back, now that I’ve been here 33 years, what I love about our industry is what it gives people like me: It opens a door to culture, to the country, to the customs, the do’s and don’ts. It taught me what I know about the United States. And I don’t know how many industries can do that.”
Eyvazian quickly moved up the ranks, first to the role of assistant manager, then manager, and eventually to auditor for Jack in the Box. By 2005, he began purchasing restaurants in Sacramento after cashing in on earlier real estate investments. His restaurant group has since grown to some 220 locations. Eyvazian oversees 106 Jack in the Box units in Texas, while his partner oversees California stores.
His employees represent a tapestry of nationalities; with workers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, he says, more than half of all employees are immigrants.
“We have a United Nations. We have people from everywhere,” Eyvazian says. “And I think that’s what makes us strong. For folks coming here to this country, they feel this is an industry that opens the door and gives them the bridge to what it means to be a good citizen.”
District Supervisor, White Castle
Jahangir Kabir didn’t exactly choose the restaurant industry. Rather, it was the only place that would have him.
“No one would hire me because I didn’t speak any English,” he says. “So the restaurant industry was kind enough to give me an opportunity to work and make a living.”
Though Kabir couldn’t communicate and he hadn’t worked a day in his life, a local White Castle hired him as a beginner cook. Kabir had never heard of, yet alone tasted, fast food. In 1990, the 19-year-old moved to Elmhurst, New York, from Bangladesh, seeking the same thing as many before and after him.
“America is the land of opportunity. I chose to come here. America did not choose me,” Kabir says. “The only reason I came here was because I knew I could not make a good living back home, because opportunity is so limited. And opportunity was only available to the folks already doing well. I knew America was the land of opportunity, and anybody can make it if they work hard.”
While working as a cook, he ferociously consumed newspapers to teach himself English. White Castle noticed his improving language skills and his potential. Within a few years, he was tapped to lead a Bronx location as general manager.
Today, Kabir oversees seven stores in the New York City area as a district supervisor. The majority of his crewmembers are immigrants, he says, and his stores would have trouble keeping the doors open without them. He relishes the job, which he says allows him to make a difference with employees and customers every day.
“For me it’s never about food. I don’t think we’re in the food business. We’re in the people business,” Kabir says. “We happen to serve food. Without the people, the food really doesn’t matter. You go to a restaurant and if you really don’t have a highly motivated team, no matter how good your food is … what difference does it make?”
He’s dabbled in ventures outside of the restaurant business, including extensive volunteering and working as an adjunct instructor after earning his MBA. He’s now pursuing a doctorate degree, but doesn’t plan to leave the industry—or White Castle.
“There’s two reasons why I stay: [No.1,] I felt that the restaurant industry came to my rescue when I was really, really not doing well. So I had a sense of loyalty to White Castle,” Kabir says. “No. 2, I saw an opportunity to move up and continue in the restaurant industry. I saw an opportunity to move up and make a big deal out of it and have fun at the same time. … I’ve been doing it for the last 26 years, and the only reason I’m doing it is because it’s fun.”
Operating Partner, Howley Bread Group (Panera Bread franchisee)
Bahjat Shariff’s kids still have trouble believing his first job was working over the fryer at a KFC.
“We all underestimate that,” he says of the entry-level position. “I tell managers: None of us were born in our current position.”
Shariff certainly wasn’t. A Lebanese citizen, he made his way to Los Angeles in 1984 with $300 in his pocket and an acceptance letter to a Southern California community college. He soon learned that the war-torn economy back home was worsening, and that his family’s financial support would be limited. So the then-18-year-old Shariff walked across the street from campus to a KFC, where he picked up an application from a woman he would later marry.
He ended up working for the brand for a decade, eventually running some 20 stores in the area. He bought a car. He rented a nicer apartment. He even sent his folks some money here
As he inched toward a six-figure salary, Shariff left KFC for Au Bon Pain Co., which owned Panera Bread at the time. He became a Panera franchisee, and today oversees 29 cafés and 1,200 employees through his Rhode Island–based company, Howley Bread Group.
“It haunts me all the time. If that did not happen—if I hadn’t applied at KFC, and they hadn’t liked me and I hadn’t liked them…,” Shariff says, trailing off. “Here’s this little guy that, for one full year, my only form of transportation was a little red bike. Here I am now with a
He credits his success to the shift leaders and managers along the way who mentored him. Now he’s passionate about propelling similar success among entry-level employees, whether they’re immigrants or not.
“In our industry, people thrive on this,” he says. “It is like the unspoken policy or law that you’ve got to help people; you’ve got to promote people; you’ve got to develop people. Someone helped you up the ladder, now you’ve got to put your arm down and lift somebody up.”
Howley Bread Group, relies upon immigrant labor, he says. And it’s still a constant struggle to find willing staff.
“Just imagine if I didn’t have the immigrants that work for us, what would we do? Who’s going to bring your order; who’s going to make your salad? Who’s going to make your lunch?” says Shariff, an operating partner and SVP of operations with Howley. “Everything is fueled by manpower. You need the helping hands to fuel this industry.”
The political rhetoric about immigration reform has Shariff worried about what this country will look like if immigrants are discouraged or outright barred from coming or staying here.
“There’s been all this conversation and talk about getting rid of these 11 million [undocumented] immigrants,” Shariff says. “Well, we sure don’t complain at 12 o’clock when we go have lunch on a nice patio and someone serves you a $12 salad. Who’s going to do that? You can’t suck all these people out of the industry, out of our country, out of the economy.”