Dance music pounds into the parking lot of a tight, L-shaped stucco strip mall in Downey, California. It’s a Thursday and, as usual, Fatima’s Grill — home of cheesy, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-laced burgers, giant quesaritos, overloaded fries, and halal Lebanese shawarma sandwiches alike — is hopping with customers ready to eat, phone in hand.
Half the pavement in the strip mall has been taken over by white party tenting, a nod to the makeshift on-site dining needs of the current pandemic. A line of eager customers, all who seem under 30, press against the shaded wall that wraps around and down hectic Firestone Boulevard. Always-energetic owner Ali Elreda, microphone in hand, takes turns calling out order names and wait times from a booming PA system inside the colorful restaurant. In normal times, Elreda might be in the back goofing around with his staff, or going live on Instagram to showcase his nacho-cheese drizzling skills, but now he stands in the dining room surrounded by to-go boxes, tubs bursting with Hot Cheetos bags, unopened cases of soda, and the kind of neon signs that would have made sense if customers could actually sit down to see them.
Elreda used to have big car-salesman energy, all smiles and charisma in his social media videos, shouting out the address to Fatima’s Grill “in the beautiful city of Downey, California” any chance he got — though these days he’s more likely to (politely) ask customers to keep safely away. From inside the makeshift takeout operation of his restaurant, Elreda uses his year-old microphone to remind customers of the rules of today’s restaurant world: only two people inside at a time, masks required, wait outside, and use the QR code menu to order ahead. His amplified words mute the pop tunes in the background like a chaperone at a high school dance reminding kids to have fun but not to get too close.
This is life now, every day, at one of the busiest restaurants in Los Angeles County — pandemic or not.
Elreda’s strip-mall restaurant has embedded itself into a particular part of the massive, wide-ranging LA food scene in the last half-decade, fueled by colorful, often outrageous Lebanese-Mexican creations, lots of Instagram savvy, and a hell of a story. Elreda served nearly eight years in federal prison for drug trafficking, a fact he embraces now as part of his overall journey. He picked up skills while working in the prison’s commissary kitchen in Safford, Arizona, infusing his Lebanese roots with the Mexican cooking common among inmates: tacos with Lebanese shawarma seasonings like cumin, if you could get it, and fries piled on with cheese and meat, so common to Southern California’s many fast-food diners. Occasionally, to liven things up, Elreda would combine these meals with snacks from the vending machine, creating for himself — in the vacuum of federal prison — the same kind of crossover snacks that play to the desires of a young generation of food Instagrammers.
Fatima’s Grill hung much of its early success on Elreda’s inventiveness while serving time. “I learned everything inside,” Elreda told FoodBeast in 2018. “Even my hot sauce came from the prison.” Fans followed, and so did celebrities, from NFL and NBA players to singers and rappers and actors. Much like Howlin’ Ray’s, part of the fun of Fatima’s Grill has been the visual nature of its success: fans who formed the crowds, took the viral photos, and ate the biggest meals. Success has also been part of the problem lately — a difficult line to walk during a tumultuous year marked by restaurant closures, unemployed workers, and unspeakable loss.
“You’re on lockdown, you can’t go nowhere, the supermarkets are going crazy — what are you going to do to stay relevant?” says Elreda of the early days of the first wave of stay-at-home orders, when no one quite knew how long things would last or how bad they might get. “How are we going to keep food not just on our customers’ plates, but on the plates of the family members of the employees who are working here?”
Being a constant presence on social media, and offering food, like Hot Cheetos-crusted chicken tenders, that appeals to a younger generation of users, has helped. Fatima’s Grill has north of 165,000 Instagram followers, and people routinely drive for hundreds of miles just to try the food — like the two guys who made the two-hour one-way journey from San Diego on the day of Eater’s shoot, or the other guy passing through from the Bay Area who showed up at almost the same time. There’s pressure in that, Elreda admits, not just to offer a product that will keep those people engaged, but to make sure he can service them all while keeping his employees and himself safe during a global crisis.
“It’s about them, the product, the foundation,” says Elreda of his eight employees. “They are Fatima’s Grill. People ask, ‘Why is Ali not going live? Why is he not spraying the sauce all over the place?’ These days I want to be in the back, have them be in the limelight. The staff has been just outrageous.”
Over the summer, a TikTok video featuring Fatima’s Grill went viral, racking up more than 4 million views in a matter of days and almost immediately causing the sidewalk to overflow with hundreds of customers. With wait times pushing to three hours, angry customers burning up the phone lines, and crowds of sometimes-maskless diners jostling to order, Elreda considered shutting the place down entirely, but wasn’t sure how long he could pay his staff without money coming in. Instead, he tightened protocols, and he isn’t shy about enforcing the rules from his microphone. Two inside at a time, masks required, order ahead if you can. A pair of tables pushed to the front door means nobody makes it more than two feet inside, well away from most of the crew. Still, says Elreda, “It hasn’t stopped; it’s been constant.”
Delivery apps have helped to quell the crowds, though an influx of online orders can still make customers waiting out front reflexively unhappy. Fatima’s, like many other restaurants, has also tried to embrace its own direct ordering app to help cut wait times and too much congregating, but the reality is that lots of folks still show up in person, ready to wait as long as it takes for nacho cheese-drenched burritos. Elreda is trying to hold on to it all: business, the forward momentum of his following, and the safety of himself and his team. It’s all made him more serious; still happy to see his customers, but less tolerant of those who won’t follow the rules.
“You only can preach so much,” says Elreda, who, like many, didn’t take the coronavirus seriously in the beginning, but has since seen COVID-19 remake not only the world, but his own immediate family. “At the end of the day, customers know what they have to do now. We’ve all had phones in our hands for the past year, we know what’s going on. Look, you need to mask up, these deaths are for real, these numbers are for real. This is not some type of government conspiracy. I’ve seen those deaths firsthand in my own family.”
Today, Elreda finds hope in looking back at how far he’s come and forward at all he’d still like to accomplish, including plans to franchise Fatima’s Grill through a local company named Franchise Creator. It’s a group that has been pushing a number of Southern California restaurants into new territory of late, including South LA’s own Mr. Fries Man, who recently sold another location down in San Diego. A licensing deal starts at $35,000, far less than the entry fee for big-name brands — though still quite a bit of money during down financial times, and with no guarantees of restaurant success during the pandemic or after. Elreda says he’s interested less in cashing out than he is on bringing others in.
“You know what?” he says, leaning on the decked-out delivery van he used to post his own straight-to-camera videos from. “I’ve accomplished what I want to accomplish. I’m out of prison, I’m beyond blessed. There’s convicted felons out there who maybe have some money but can’t get jobs. Let’s go find them.”
Don’t expect the near future of Fatima’s Grill to include a return to indoor dining, though, no matter what local public health officials might advise over the next couple of weeks. Elreda says he’s going to wait as long as he can for that, if only to keep himself and his customers safe as groups, two at a time, continue to move in and quickly out of the front door, all day long. “I’m only going to reopen when I’m fully comfortable with the safety of my staff,” he says. “When they’re ready, Ali’s ready, and Fatima’s Grill is ready.”