The head of A&R Creative Group, Ali Alshahal, has a knack for turning dicey spaces into dining destinations. He transformed a dive bar into a hipster haven, a known Campus drug spot into a bar and arcade and a rundown convenience store into an airy market. Up next: Prove an urban farm can be sustainable, continue to grow his concepts and transform dining out into a catalyst for social change.

The head of A&R Creative Group, Ali Alshahal, has a knack for turning dicey spaces into dining destinations. He transformed a dive bar into a hipster haven, a known Campus drug spot into a bar and arcade and a rundown convenience store into an airy market. Up next: Prove an urban farm can be sustainable, continue to grow his concepts and transform dining out into a catalyst for social change.


Ali Alshahal's office is from another time, with its wood-paneled walls and shabbier-than-chic threadbare furniture. It takes some vision to imagine that this 1980s-era former law office on Summit Street is where plans for organic juice bars, urban farms and paleo-friendly restaurants, constructed in dining deserts, originated. The only sign that restaurant-ing-and not litigation-is practiced in this room are buttons sporting the red rooster logo of his new Italian Village eatery, The Market, scattered among empty growlers in a bay window.

The managing partner of A&R Creative Group is at the table in his signature newsboy cap and neatly trimmed beard, looking over resumes for managers to run a planned 2-acre urban farm at Jeffrey Park on Fourth Street.

Carrie Lierl, the project coordinator, presents more than 27 would-be farmers. They come from Colorado, New England, even France. One is a chef wanting to break into farming. Several are skilled in starting urban farms. As Ali highlights resumes and watches Kickstarter-style video portfolios, Lierl receives an email. There's another applicant. This one is from Italy-a birthplace of the farm-to-table movement-where Ali's younger brother and business partner, Abed, has recently visited as a local delegate to Terre Madre, a massive biennial conference of Slow Food International.

Behind Ali is an idea board, a remnant of a meeting with the owners of Hoof Hearted Brewing. A collaboration brewpub-Hoof Hearted Brewery & Kitchen-set to open in early summer will anchor the Jeffery Project. The rendering promises a sleek, stark brewery and restaurant-a "Nordic vibe" Ali calls it. The drawings, which show lush rows of beets growing in a vibrantly healthy farm, are a complete juxtaposition to the board room that houses them.

No matter: Ali's vision has turned many less-than-sexy spaces into aesthetically beautiful places, like a shady convenient store into a bazaar-esque cafe and market, or a neighborhood dive bar into a shiny gastropub. His vision goes into his restaurants, not his workspace.

Situated on Fourth Street, this project could easily be the Instagram photo-op equivalent to slick table tents showcasing "farm-fresh" food at chain restaurants. But it's not greenwashing. The urban farm that will provide specialty produce like micro carrots and beets, for both the immediate community and the restaurant group, is part of Ali's mission and, by default, the mission of A&R Creative Group.

This group, which oversees 10 restaurants, including Ethyl & Tank, The Crest and Alchemy Juice Bar & Cafe, as well as the Columbus Growing Collective (a sustainable agriculture venture that includes the farm), shares lofty goals: Enhance the food system, create jobs, engage in environmentally friendly practices. From rooftop gardens to educational events to staffing nutritionists and farmers, this family-owned restaurant group is buttressed with initiatives that go beyond the basics of turning covers and cashing checks. This is an unlikely path for someone whose first business was selling cigarettes and Budweiser to college kids.

A&R wants to change the way restaurants work. "You go into some of these chain restaurants, and everything almost tastes the same because they're ordering from the same places," Ali says. "That's not a restaurant. Knowing where your beer comes from, knowing where your food comes from, knowing that the people working there are the people who are actually producing with their own hands. It's a beautiful thing."


Why bother with fresh food and farms when selling "sin items" is a solid business plan? Those who know the brothers best credit the patriarch of the family, Kamal Alshahal. Ali's father, an immigrant from Beirut, used to walk from Campus to the South Side to get to work. Kamal instilled a sense of value to his three boys-Ali, Abed and Ismail, head of A&R's operations-that they are always students and also always teachers.

Ali learned business-balancing books, understanding the bottom line, managing employees-working at the Dairy Mart his father owned in Clintonville. "[My dad] always made us understand that we could not disrespect what he was doing," Ali says. "When he came here, he had no friends and no family. He had to start from nothing. He was persistent, and because of that, we had a nice life." He practiced his father's basics when he opened his own convenience store, Tobacco International, after graduating from Ohio State with an international business degree.

Ali says he had never been inside a bar when he decided to venture beyond convenience stores and open up 4th Street Bar & Grill on Campus in 2010. All he was armed with was a love of craft beer (rooted in working at his father's convenience store) and an appreciation for food from his childhood in Beirut, where farm-to-table isn't a concept, he says, but a way of life.

Inspired by Mikkeller Brewery in Denmark and Collin Castore, the now former owner of Bodega, Ali leaped head-first into the bar business. (His first bar visit, by the way? Lucky's on Campus.) To say the learning curve was steep is an understatement. While he'd run Tobacco International for years, Ali was naive about what it took to operate a bar. "Each week at 4th Street was like a year in the bar business," he says. It was where he learned customer service basics and how to adapt quickly. When a breakfast menu, food delivery and multi-course meals failed, Ali found something that worked: fast pub fare made in house.

4th Street (and its 58 taps) was about the beer. Next was Midway on High, purchased for its proximity to Tobacco International and with the goal of being a training ground for new chefs within the company. By then, he was hooked on creating places people love, providing jobs and making restaurants. When Cafe del Mondo came up for sale in 2012, Ali recognized its large kitchen as an ideal central bakery for his growing group of restaurants, none of which made as big of a splash as The Crest.

When the Clintonville gastropub opened with fanfare (and lots of billboards) in 2012, he says the restaurant was restrained by its own success. With a nonstop stream of customers, Ali and his brothers didn't have time to correct staffing, consistency and operational issues. Neighbors were frustrated about an onslaught of cars parking on residential streets, and customers took to the Internet to complain about poor service.

"You're not dealing with corporate chefs who have a lot of experience," says Ali, remembering the opening. "We're your next door neighbors that opened up this place. [The Crest opening] made us look in the mirror and ask, 'How do we get better?' You don't just open up a business because you love something or you have a gut feeling that says, 'This could work.' You have to have every detail in place."

The harried grand opening led to two things: a quiet opening for Ethyl & Tank (whose problematic vacant building he'd stared at for four years) near Campus and a vision for The Market Italian Village. During a drive to get some air, Ali laid eyes on the corner store that had been known to sell bath salts (not the Calgon kind) and turned it, in his imagination, into a corner store like the ones in Lebanon, with fresh produce, bread and provisions. "I thought, 'Let's create that,' " he says. "Let's give a little homage to my father, who started out with a convenience store." Today, the corner store serves milk, vegetables, coffee and dinner to its neighbors.

Next came the opportunity to partner with developer Jeff May to open Alchemy Juice Bar & Cafe adjacent to a new health club in the former Bobb Chevrolet site on Parsons Avenue. Aligning perfectly with Abed's background (a degree in human nutrition from OSU), the juice bar staffs a registered dietitian and provides healthier fare for those near Nationwide Children's Hospital. A second Crest location will open next to Alchemy and will feature a kitchen four times the size of the original, allowing for a varied menu, coal-fired grill and lots of paleo-friendly fare.

"It's easy to go to Easton or a big shopping center and put something in," Ali says about Alchemy and the Parsons Avenue Crest. "But [I like] to be challenged. How do you help the neighborhood? How do you become an anchor of something that's never been there?"


Abed describes Ali as the designer and motivator of each endeavor in this operation, instilling passion into the people who work for him. Ali encourages the team to invest emotionally in projects. The result? Restaurant-hosted beer dinners become works of art; empty lots turn into farms.

Passion is a recurring theme for those who know and work with Ali. Architect Tim Lai-who designed The Crest's rain garden and Hoof Hearted Brewery & Kitchen-considers him one of the most visionary people he knows. "Before the Market opened, Ali traveled to Cleveland and New York City and other places to find unique and rare food products and wines that you can't find in Columbus," Lai says. "He is a bit of a control freak, [in] that he likes to have a hand in everything, from the color of the paint to the kind of coffee beans they use."

At first meeting, Ali seems reserved, except when he talks about his children. (He is often late to his first meetings of the day, because he drops his kids off at school.) He studies those around him. He questions motives and holds back details (he's reluctant to talk openly about upcoming plans and dispelled rumors about a second Crest location for years). He likes to know what drives people. According to Ali, his interviews with potential employees are as much about mentality as they are about experience. In his eyes, it's easier to teach a candidate a skill, such as serving or hosting, than it is to teach them to appreciate the value of a rooftop garden or locally sourced food.

And while he happily-and aggressively-promotes his restaurants, he doesn't crave attention, and his personal brand is intentionally absent from social media. He's absent, actually, from the first days of business: "Opening the doors is my least favorite part," he says. "Every single place, I've left when they open. I travel. I go to New York or to Lebanon for a few weeks so I won't hear anything. It's the fear of rejection."

Touch on something he cares about-such as what drives him-and his short sentences become soliloquies. "I feel like I'm not working," he says. "It's exciting. It's about making sure your staff, your family and kids are part of something. It's creating something. It's helping others and being able to give back and to teach and to create."

Ali stacks his deck with those who care about his mission. He works closely alongside his brothers (Ismail does operations; Abed manages sourcing and community initiatives) and he's hired a trio of classically trained chefs, who worked under Richard Blondin of The Refectory, to develop menu ideas for all his restaurants.

Those who work with him have to be nimble. "I'd go to work, and he'd have the craziest ideas," says former Crest chef Dustin Brafford. He cites plans for a $100,000 rooftop garden. "I would be like, 'Where did that come from?' " But, he continues, he's never questioned why. "[Ali] has his reasons. He'll say, 'Let's grow some vegetables on the roof.' And I'll say, 'That's going to be a tough pass.' And he'll be like, 'Yeah, it's going to be a tough pass. Nothing's easy in life.' "