To the owners of the Orleans and York Deli on Spring Street, projecting an enduring and ambitious spirit in the face of hardship is something familiar.
Samer Akel and his twin brother, Samir, operate the Downtown deli among several restaurant businesses open around LA County, mostly under the brand Crave Cafe.
The Akel brothers’ daily lives of keeping their businesses afloat during the pandemic, however, is only the latest part in their story as Los Angeles business owners.
Samer and Samir moved to the United States from Syria in 2012, when a revolution and ongoing conflict in the region climbed to a death toll of more than 350,209 identified casualties. The United Nations indicated “a minimum verifiable number, and is certainly an undercount,” according to a 2021 statement from UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.
“We had a good life back home,” Samer said, describing his life as “spoiled” before the war. Samer’s father is a business owner in Syria, running multiple restaurants, a night club and an apartment building.
After Samir and his brother graduated from a private college with degrees in business management and marketing, the conflict in Syria had escalated dramatically, he said.
“When ISIS began getting into the conflict, you either switch your religion to be like them or you need to pay them money. If they know that your family has money and you support the government, the Syrian government, you’re going to die,” he said about his family’s situation in 2012.
“My dad at that time went to Dubai for a business trip, and he got a phone call from somebody saying, ‘We know your kids are in Damascus right now. Either you pay us money, or we’ll give you their heads,’” Samer said.
Samer said he and his brother were in Damascus at the time of the phone call. “That’s when my dad called us that day and he said, ‘Go back home. Wait for me to get back to Syria.’ He literally got back to Syria and just bought us tickets to America.”
The plan was for the brothers to use their tourism visa and stay in America for a month, but “that one month became 10 years,” Samer said.
A year later, in 2013, their family house was bombed by ISIS and their father’s businesses in the area were taken over.
“In the beginning, when we moved out here, I lost one of my best friends that ISIS killed,” he said. “I lost my two grandmas while I was here. That all happened in the first year of being in America.”
Samer and Samir arrived in the United States and moved into a family friend’s garage in West LA, taking various jobs at liquor stores, banks and as furniture movers.
“There was a lot of hurt. There was a lot of broken pieces. When we moved out here, for the first two years, me and Samir were depressed. I used to cry every night before I would go to sleep. Losing my best friend and my grandmas; a lot of crazy things happened after I moved here,” Samer said.
“We were not moving forward. Me and him had a talk and said, ‘If we’re going to stay like this, this sad, then we’ll never move forward in life.’ I have a screensaver on my phone that I had since then that says, ‘Never give up,’ and from that day we just kept pushing and pushing.”
With their father’s help, Samer and Samir obtained their Social Security and work permits and found an apartment in Woodland Hills. Not long after, in 2015, they entered a partnership and opened Orleans and York Deli in Downtown.
The twins experienced a steady climb in their career, working to rebuild their lives in the United States, and within two years of Orleans and York Deli co-ownership, they eventually opened a line of restaurants under the brand Crave.
Samer and Samir now oversee Crave Café in Woodland Hills, Pasadena and Sherman Oaks, along with Crave Sushi and Pita Kitchen, which is next to their Sherman Oaks location.
“At that time, me and my brother had one goal of wanting to build the life that I lost back home. That was our goal,” he said.
Samer remembered having one day off a week and deciding if he should use the time to sleep, go on a date or spend time with family. “Up to this day, my life is more work than anything else,” he said.
“At the moment, what we do is I leave in the morning and stop at Woodland Hills location, then I stop by the Sherman Oaks location. My brother wakes up, goes to check the Pasadena location, then goes to the Downtown location, since he’s out there in the area. We do that daily,” he said.
Though Samer and Samir primarily manage and oversee the businesses, the omicron variant has presented more challenges, being that the variant is highly transmissible.
“I’m a restaurant owner. Every two weeks, one of my employees calls out with COVID-19. A lot of times we have to step in and fill those roles,” he said.
Like most local business owners, the brothers feel the impact of COVID-19 in decreased foot traffic and sales but keep a positive outlook on maintaining the restaurant locations and keeping them open.
“This all goes back to the way you manage your business, but there are also some things you can’t control, like affording rent and operating expenses. As of now, thank God we’re doing OK,” he said.
“If you own a business, you need to know your business from A to Z. Anything from being a dishwasher to a server to a manager, everything in your store. That’s when you can understand what’s going on and you can adapt to the situation.
“All of us would like to stay positive. Everybody’s taking a hit from the pandemic, and this will pass. No one knows exactly when, but we just have to keep pushing.”