One unexpected announcement by his father probably changed the course of Norman Abdallah’s life.
At the age of 14, Abdallah was living in Duncanville with his father, Norman Sr., mother, Brenda, and five sisters. As the family gathered around the dinner table one evening, Norman Sr., who worked in the Zales Corp. computer department at the time, announced that the family would be moving to Waxahachie in order to run a newly purchased restaurant.
“Growing up we always had family dinners. My dad came home one night and he said he had bought a restaurant in Waxahachie and we were moving to Waxahachie,” Abdallah said, adding that at the time, he had never been to Waxahachie. “They wanted to raise us in a good community in a smaller town.”
At that point, the family became co-workers, with each completing various duties at the family’s Monday’s Soup and Sandwich, which was located on Main Street.
“I worked in Mom and Dad’s restaurant for a year and a half. I would work on the weekends and during the summer,” Abdallah said, adding that he did everything from cleaning to flipping burgers and helping make soups. “We made all of our soups from scratch. We had the best hamburgers — we served them on a homemade onion roll.”
Abdallah described his parents as the perfect owners and operators of a restaurant — with an open door policy at both their business and home, they made friends quickly.
“The whole family kind of ran it. I was there all the time. I enjoyed working there,” Abdallah said, adding that the employees immediately became part of the family during the time Monday’s was in business. “Mom and Dad have never met a stranger in their lives. Mom would pick up hitchhikers and they would stay at our house for a couple of days or a couple of months. People who worked at Monday’s would always come over for dinner and stay overnight.”
Although Abdallah enjoyed the time spent with family and friends at Monday’s, by the time he was 16, dreams of fast cars called for an increased income.
“When I was 16 I found a car I wanted and I asked Dad for a raise,” Abdallah said, saying that the car was badly in need of a new paint job.
His father agreed to the raise, saying that he would double his son’s salary.
“But, you haven’t paid me for the last year and a half,” Abdallah responded.
“Then, son, maybe it’s time you get a real job,” his father said.
Abdallah took his father’s advice and was hired as a busboy at the Durham House, which at the time was ranked as one of the top 10 restaurants in the nation. Abdallah said people from Austin and Dallas frequented the restaurant housed in a historical Victorian home.
Abdallah also took a second job at K-Bob’s in Waxahachie.
“I started working there as a dishwasher. I moved from dishwasher to busboy to cook to waiter then to manager,” Abdallah said.
Abdallah worked at Durham House for about a year, then focused on his career at K-Bob’s. He graduated from Waxahachie High School in 1980 and continued working at K-Bob’s through 1987, moving to various locations and eventually to the corporate office for K-Bob’s.
While working at K-Bob’s, Abdallah met his wife of 20 years, Chela, when she came in for a job interview. Chela came into the New Braunfel’s K-Bob’s the day Abdallah, then a regional manager, happened to be covering the restaurant for the store manager.
“I just happened to be there when the general manger was off that day. I was hanging out at that restaurant a lot after I hired her,” Abdallah said.
Chela was a schoolteacher working an additional job to help pay off her school loans at the time. Abdallah interviewed and hired her, then eventually the two started dating.
“She worked there probably two or three months when we started dating. Then we decided she probably shouldn’t work there anymore,” Abdallah said. “That’s kind of cool. Going back to the restaurants and it being all about relationships — I met my wife and best friend while working at K-Bob’s.”
In 1987, Abdallah began working with Brinker International, the licensee for Chili’s, and served as vice president of franchise operations and development during his time there. In 1996, Abdallah served as president and CEO of Red Hot Concepts, which licensed Chili’s franchises in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
In 1997, Abdallah and Creed Ford founded Fired Up Inc., based in Austin, and purchased the Johnny Carino’s Italian restaurant franchise.
“In June of 1997, my business partner and I bought Johnny Carino’s, which had five restaurants at the time. Ten years later we have 170 restuarants in 28 states. We also have nine restaurants in the Middle East,” Abdallah said.
Abdallah had an interest in Johnny Carino’s in the years before he purchased it.
“It used to be part of Brinker International. I saw it from the very beginning when it was being developed. At Brinker we sold it to a private company and they only owned it for a year. I was watching from the sidelines,” Abdallah said, saying that the casual, traditional Italian atmosphere and food appealed to him from the beginning. “It’s a great setting and a great atmosphere. We thought it had great potential. You could have the high-end consumer eat with you and you could also have middle America come in. And people eat there often - once or twice a week.”
Abdallah has always looked at his restaurants the way his parents looked at Monday’s Soup and Sandwich — a place for people to gather and share their time, their stories all while eating great food.
“In the restaurant business, you’re opening up your home and kitchen for everyone to enjoy. Even today, with 170 restaurants, we really get to meet some great people that we form some lifelong relationships. The key to business is about relationships,” Abdallah said.
Abdallah said he immediately planned to bring a restaurant to Waxahachie from the very beginning of the founding of Fired Up Inc.
“When we bought the company from day one I was looking at Waxahachie as a place to build a restaurant,” Abdallah said. “A lot of people in that town helped give us a foundation — that’s why we came back so quick after we bought the company. Every time I go there I’ll run into a fomer schoolteacher and friends. That’s the place where I started my career. That’s why we went back.”
The company furthers its relationships in the community by hosting various events benefiting community organizations and causes, as well as the company’s selected organizations.
“That’s something going back to Mom and Dad — the only reason we’re successful is because the communities support us. The day we bought the foundation we set up the Carino’s Foundation. Not only do we give back to communities, but nationally,” Abdallah said.
Johnny Carino’s supports research for Duchenne muscular dystrophy through various events held at restaurants throughout the nation.
“It’s something we’ve been very passionate about,” Abdallah said, explaining that Duchenne muscular dystrophy only effects males.
The Ronald McDonald House is another organization Johnny Carino’s is dedicated to helping.
Through weekly wine dinners and other events Johnny Carino’s focuses on helping organizations dedicated to children.
“We want to give back. That’s what makes us different from the big chain restaurants,” Abdallah said. “We’re a family company and it’s important for us to connect to our communities.”
This year marks an important transition period for the restaurant as Johnny Carino’s Country Italian rebrands to Carino’s Italian Grill.
“Carino’s Italian Grill reflects the energy and excitement of the open-flame grill that engages guests and makes the dining experience so much fun,” Abdallah said. “Carino’s is at heart Italian. We started by perfecting the classics, now we’ve opened up the grill.”
Abdallah’s two sons, Robert and Jeffery, have already shown flair for different aspects of running a restaurant business.
“My oldest son, Robert, he’s 23, and he works in the computer department,” Abdallah said, saying he recently graduated from TCU. “He’s also getting his pilot’s license.
“My youngest son, Jeffery, recently graduated from high school and he went to Italy in May as part of his senior project. He’s always wanted to be a chef and he spent three weeks in the restaurant where we train our chefs,” Abdallah said. “He probably makes the best lobster I’ve ever had in my life.”
Abdallah explained the experience served as an opportunity for Jeffery to decide if he wanted cooking to be a hobby or a career, while also working to develop a dish to add to the Carino’s Italian Grill menu. He did develop a dish, which Abdallah said the company will test at a New Jersey restaurant location, but also made an important decision about his future career.
“The great thing about doing this is he decided he didn’t want to be a chef,” Abdallah said, laughing. Abdallah said Jeffery plans to go to St. John’s College and major in anything but culinary arts.
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