Since 2004, Yelp has worked to connect millions of people to the best in local business. In that time we’ve met thousands of passionate small business owners, a group as hardworking and diverse as any you’ll find. In this series, we share stories of just some of the people who, through their commitment to building great local businesses, are sustaining the vibrant local communities we call home.
In 2016, Gazali’s was awarded the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit Business Award, a humbling experience for MJ, an actor turned restaurateur. MJ came to Des Moines from LA to help run, and eventually own, Gazali’s. Cooking is in the blood of the Gazali family, always striving for the freshest and best tasting foods. MJ’s mother and his brother, Mario, were the original chefs at the restaurant, with his mother passing on many of her recipes. Over time, all of eight of her children became great, if not phenomenal, chefs at home and in various restaurant ventures. MJ worked for the award-winning Emirates Airlines and was exposed to some of the most delicious and interesting foods on earth! While in LA, MJ pursued an acting career, supplementing it with his involvement for some of the most prestigious restaurants in the LA area.
MJ was born and grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. “We spent our time mostly in the city, but we would spend summers in Rashaya, my mother’s village up in the mountains. Lebanon is a beautiful country, with history going back to the Phoenicians for over 8,000 years! We would go to the mountain and be skiing by 8 in the morning, then head back to the city and be swimming in the Mediterranean Sea by noon!”
Gazali’s has been a family-owned and operated restaurant in the Des Moines area since the 1980s. “My mother and older brothers began Gazali’s in the Valley West Mall. Over the years it moved a few times, but has been in our current location for the last 16 years. Four years ago, I was given the opportunity to buy the restaurant from my brother. I felt it was a good idea to build something here in Des Moines. I have been very fortunate. We have expanded and business is good!”
When MJ moved to the states, he had his eyes set on the Hollywood Hills and not the Midwest. “Prior to coming to Des Moines, I was a flight attendant for Emirates Airline based out of Dubai. I was so fortunate to be able to travel the world and see so many fascinating things. After six years, I followed my passion and with just a suitcase and a one way ticket, I went to Hollywood to pursue my dream. I was lucky to spend some very productive years in Hollywood making films and working on TV.”
MJ moved to Des Moines in 2014 and hit the ground running. Gazali’s was awarded the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit Business Award of the Year in 2016. “That was a humbling experience. I was very happy to be able to share that day with my family, especially with my mother. It was because of her that I was in a position to be there at all! Another big success for us has been the expansion of our space and the addition of beer and wine. Our menu continues to evolve with the addition of new dishes and more vegan/vegetarian fare. These changes have really helped Gazali’s achieve the success we have been experiencing. I am very grateful to be here! Des Moines has so much to offer and has grown and changed so much in the last few years alone!”
MJ loves talking about some of his favorite spots around the city he now calls home. “Des Moines has grown incredibly since I first visited in the ’90s. Open Sesame, my brother’s restaurant, remains a favorite with me. I have so many memories of family and friends gathering there. Baru 66 in Windsor Heights is another favorite. David Baruthio, the owner, puts a lot of his passion for food into that place! Raygun is awesome! It is eclectic and fun! Mike Draper is dedicated to what he does. B&B Grocery, Meat and Deli is another great place in Des Moines. The owners, John and Joe Brooks and their family, make you feel welcome and at home. Not to mention the great sandwiches and ribeyes! The Waverly is another favorite of mine. Dave Chornuk, the owner, has made an impact on the local music scene by using the space as a venue for up and coming bands in the Des Moines area. The Wasabi restaurants are super! Jay Wang is very driven and strives for quality! You can see it in everything he does in his restaurants! Akebono 515 also has super sushi! Everyone there makes you feel part of the family! Chef Nam Tran is a true artist with sushi! There are lots of other place in Des Moines that I truly enjoy! So many wineries and breweries now that make wonderful beverages. Also Louie’s Wine Dive, Shannon Wooly and Cory White and their team have done a fantastic job over the last few years to make their restaurant one of the staples of the neighborhood. So many restaurants, shops, the list goes on! I could write all day about how Des Moines continues to grow and change for the better!”
You can tell MJ loves what he does and where he does it. “Know your product and love what you do! Don’t think of just the money, although it certainly is great when there is some! Think about what you offer, why you offer it, and be the best at what you do! Put your customers first and always be upbeat! That’s why we serve from the heart, not from the freezer!”