There’s far more to Ali Ibrahim’s résumé than just falafel and chicken kebobs.
A musician, former handball player and soccer enthusiast, Ibrahim is approaching his 27th year on Main Campus with his business, Ali’s Middle Eastern, located in the 12th Street Food Pad Vendors.
Ibrahim studied business management at St. Joseph’s University and hotel/restaurant management at Community College of Philadelphia in the mid-1980s. After catering, playing percussion and singing in a Middle Eastern band, Ibrahim was ready to start his own business at Temple, where six of his 13 siblings got their education.
“I used to have a lot of friends at Temple, and they used to try my cooking,” Ibrahim said. “I used to cater a lot, so they encouraged me to open a business somewhere here.”
Ali’s Middle Eastern wasn’t always nestled between Richie’s and Adriatic Grill. When Ibrahim started, he owned a food truck on 13th Street and Montgomery Avenue – a spot he loved for its central location. That’s not to say he isn’t content with his current placement.
“It’s building up, it’s getting better and better,” Ibrahim said.
Of Palestinian descent, Ibrahim was born in Damascus, Syria, but spent most of his adolescence in Kuwait before coming to the U.S. at age 21. His experience with the English language helped him during his transition.
“My father had a very well-known laundromat in Kuwait,” Ibrahim said. “Most of our customers were English, Americans or Europeans. So we used to speak English all the time with them.”
There was just one difference – Ibrahim was used to hearing a British accent, not an American one.
“We were like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell is this? They don’t speak English! It’s different,’” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim adjusted quickly, and is proud of his decision to move.
“I love America,” Ibrahim said. “This is my country. I’ve been here for 31 years.”
Ibrahim almost had a chance to show his patriotic spirit by playing handball in the Olympics.
“I played for Philadelphia, and we won the U.S. National Championship [in 1992],” Ibrahim said. “They held a tryout for the Olympics in Philly. I went to the tryouts, and I busted my Achilles tendon. But it’s OK. I had a lot of fun. I made a lot of friends.”
Making friends seems to come naturally to the charismatic Ibrahim. One of them, loyal customer and former Temple student Christina Wilson, recently stopped by to pick up her favorite dish – the chicken kebob platter with extra hot sauce. Wilson was named the winner of season 10 of “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“She was a regular customer,” Ibrahim said. “At least of the five working days, she’d come by three times.”
That was for good reason, Wilson said.
“I’d eat half for lunch and save the rest for dinner,” Wilson said. “That was sort of my longevity meal, because it’s so much. I could never eat that all in one sitting. It’s like seven bucks, and I eat for the whole day!”
Ibrahim said that although he watched a few episodes of the show, he didn’t realize it was Wilson until she stopped by in late August.
“One time I was watching and I thought, that lady, she looks familiar to me,” Ibrahim said. “Then when [Wilson] came in I said, ‘Oh Christina I’m sorry!’”
Ibrahim said he always enjoys Wilson stopping by.
“She loves to talk,” Ibrahim said. “When she came in, she kept talking, asking questions. I really admire her a lot and I wish her all the best.”
Wilson is far from being the only customer of Ali’s Middle Eastern to get that special attention. It’s nearly impossible to order without someone stopping by to say hello or give the latest soccer scores to Ibrahim.
“My customers are like my family,” Ibrahim said. “Honest to God.”
Jenelle Janci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.