How LA Superstar Fatima’s Grill Navigates Social Media Fame Amid a Pandemic

Dance music kilos into the car parking zone of a good, L-shaped stucco strip mall in Downey, California. It’s a Thursday and, as traditional, Fatima’s Grill — house of tacky, Flamin’ Sizzling Cheetos-laced burgers, big quesaritos, overloaded fries, and halal Lebanese shawarma sandwiches alike — is hopping with prospects able to eat, telephone in hand.
Half the pavement within the strip mall has been taken over by white social gathering tenting, a nod to the makeshift on-site eating wants of the present pandemic. A line of keen prospects, all who appear below 30, press in opposition to the shaded wall that wraps round and down hectic Firestone Boulevard. At all times-energetic proprietor Ali Elreda, microphone in hand, takes turns calling out order names and wait occasions from a booming PA system contained in the colourful restaurant. In regular occasions, Elreda is likely to be within the again goofing round along with his employees, or going dwell on Instagram to showcase his nacho-cheese drizzling expertise, however now he stands within the eating room surrounded by to-go containers, tubs bursting with Sizzling Cheetos luggage, unopened instances of soda, and the type of neon indicators that might have made sense if prospects might truly sit all the way down to see them.
Elreda used to have huge car-salesman power, all smiles and charisma in his social media movies, shouting out the handle to Fatima’s Grill “within the lovely metropolis of Downey, California” any probability he received — although nowadays he’s extra prone to (politely) ask prospects to maintain safely away. From contained in the makeshift takeout operation of his restaurant, Elreda makes use of his year-old microphone to remind prospects of the principles of as we speak’s restaurant world: solely two folks inside at a time, masks required, wait outdoors, and use the QR code menu to order forward. His amplified phrases mute the pop tunes within the background like a chaperone at a highschool dance reminding youngsters to have enjoyable however to not get too shut.
That is life now, every single day, at one of many busiest eating places in Los Angeles County — pandemic or not.
Elreda’s strip-mall restaurant has embedded itself into a selected a part of the huge, wide-ranging LA meals scene within the final half-decade, fueled by colourful, typically outrageous Lebanese-Mexican creations, a number of Instagram savvy, and a hell of a narrative. Elreda served practically eight years in federal jail for drug trafficking, a reality he embraces now as a part of his total journey. He picked up expertise whereas working within the jail’s commissary kitchen in Safford, Arizona, infusing his Lebanese roots with the Mexican cooking widespread amongst inmates: tacos with Lebanese shawarma seasonings like cumin, when you might get it, and fries piled on with cheese and meat, so widespread to Southern California’s many fast-food diners. Often, to liven issues up, Elreda would mix these meals with snacks from the merchandising machine, creating for himself — within the vacuum of federal jail — the identical type of crossover snacks that play to the wishes of a younger era of meals Instagrammers.

Fatima’s Grill hung a lot of its early success on Elreda’s inventiveness whereas serving time. “I discovered every thing inside,” Elreda advised FoodBeast in 2018. “Even my scorching sauce got here from the jail.” Followers adopted, and so did celebrities, from NFL and NBA gamers to singers and rappers and actors. Very like Howlin’ Ray’s, a part of the enjoyable of Fatima’s Grill has been the visible nature of its success: followers who fashioned the crowds, took the viral photographs, and ate the largest meals. Success has additionally been a part of the issue currently — a tough line to stroll throughout a tumultuous 12 months marked by restaurant closures, unemployed employees, and unspeakable loss.
Folks routinely drive for lots of of miles simply to strive the meals
“You’re on lockdown, you’ll be able to’t go nowhere, the supermarkets are going loopy — what are you going to do to remain related?” says Elreda of the early days of the primary wave of stay-at-home orders, when nobody fairly knew how lengthy issues would final or how dangerous they could get. “How are we going to maintain meals not simply on our prospects’ plates, however on the plates of the members of the family of the staff who’re working right here?”
Being a continuing presence on social media, and providing meals, like Sizzling Cheetos-crusted hen tenders, that appeals to a youthful era of customers, has helped. Fatima’s Grill has north of 165,000 Instagram followers, and other people routinely drive for lots of of miles simply to strive the meals — like the 2 guys who made the two-hour one-way journey from San Diego on the day of Eater’s shoot, or the opposite man passing via from the Bay Space who confirmed up at nearly the identical time. There’s stress in that, Elreda admits, not simply to supply a product that can preserve these folks engaged, however to verify he can service all of them whereas retaining his staff and himself protected throughout a world disaster.
“It’s about them, the product, the inspiration,” says Elreda of his eight staff. “They’re Fatima’s Grill. Folks ask, ‘Why is Ali not going dwell? Why is he not spraying the sauce all over?’ As of late I need to be within the again, have them be within the limelight. The employees has been simply outrageous.”

Two customers in masks pick up food inside of a neon-lit restaurant in Los Angeles area.

A line strikes slowly, and briefly, inside

An employee in a mask works a large griddle, sauteeing shrimp and beef and vegetables.

A customer, back turned, waits inside a restaurant briefly, as a neon side glows on.

Outside of a colorful restaurant with bright banners advertising food.

Over the summer time, a TikTok video that includes Fatima’s Grill went viral, racking up greater than 4 million views in a matter of days and nearly instantly inflicting the sidewalk to overflow with lots of of shoppers. With wait occasions pushing to 3 hours, offended prospects burning up the telephone strains, and crowds of sometimes-maskless diners jostling to order, Elreda thought of shutting the place down fully, however wasn’t positive how lengthy he might pay his employees with out cash coming in. As an alternative, he tightened protocols, and he isn’t shy about imposing the principles from his microphone. Two inside at a time, masks required, order forward when you can. A pair of tables pushed to the entrance door means no person makes it greater than two toes inside, properly away from a lot of the crew. Nonetheless, says Elreda, “It hasn’t stopped; it’s been fixed.”
“I’ve achieved what I need to accomplish. I’m out of jail, I’m past blessed.”
Supply apps have helped to quell the crowds, although an inflow of on-line orders can nonetheless make prospects ready out entrance reflexively sad. Fatima’s, like many different eating places, has additionally tried to embrace its personal direct ordering app to assist lower wait occasions and an excessive amount of congregating, however the actuality is that a number of people nonetheless present up in particular person, prepared to attend so long as it takes for nacho cheese-drenched burritos. Elreda is attempting to carry on to all of it: enterprise, the ahead momentum of his following, and the protection of himself and his group. It’s all made him extra critical; nonetheless joyful to see his prospects, however much less tolerant of those that received’t observe the principles.
“You solely can preach a lot,” says Elreda, who, like many, didn’t take the coronavirus severely at first, however has since seen COVID-19 remake not solely the world, however his personal fast household. “On the finish of the day, prospects know what they must do now. We’ve all had telephones in our palms for the previous 12 months, we all know what’s occurring. Look, it’s essential masks up, these deaths are for actual, these numbers are for actual. This isn’t some sort of presidency conspiracy. I’ve seen these deaths firsthand in my circle of relatives.”

A worker in a hairnet holds up two freshly wrapped burritos.

Ali Elreda takes a second to goof off for the digital camera

At present, Elreda finds hope in trying again at how far he’s come and ahead in any respect he’d nonetheless like to perform, together with plans to franchise Fatima’s Grill via an area firm named Franchise Creator. It’s a gaggle that has been pushing quite a lot of Southern California eating places into new territory of late, together with South LA’s personal Mr. Fries Man, who not too long ago offered one other location down in San Diego. A licensing deal begins at $35,000, far lower than the entry price for big-name manufacturers — although nonetheless fairly a bit of cash throughout down monetary occasions, and with no ensures of restaurant success through the pandemic or after. Elreda says he’s much less in cashing out than he’s on bringing others in.
“ what?” he says, leaning on the decked-out supply van he used to publish his personal straight-to-camera movies from. “I’ve achieved what I need to accomplish. I’m out of jail, I’m past blessed. There’s convicted felons on the market who possibly have some cash however can’t get jobs. Let’s go discover them.”
Don’t anticipate the close to way forward for Fatima’s Grill to incorporate a return to indoor eating, although, it doesn’t matter what native public well being officers would possibly advise over the subsequent couple of weeks. Elreda says he’s going to attend so long as he can for that, if solely to maintain himself and his prospects protected as teams, two at a time, proceed to maneuver in and shortly out of the entrance door, all day lengthy. “I’m solely going to reopen once I’m totally comfy with the protection of my employees,” he says. “Once they’re prepared, Ali’s prepared, and Fatima’s Grill is prepared.”

Employees in mask stand in front of a restaurant during the pandemic, during the day.

The employees of Fatima’s Grill

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