Tastemakers: Ismail, Ali and Abed Alshahal

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Ismail Alshahal

Head of operations, A&R Creative Group


Why they are Tastemakers: Five years ago, no one in the restaurant world had heard of Ali, Ismail and Abed Alshahal. Now, the founders of restaurant group A&R Creative run seven restaurants and employ more than 300 people. This year, they'll open an urban farm and two new restaurants-a Parsons Avenue location of their popular gastropub, The Crest, and an Italian Village brewpub in partnership with Hoof Hearted Brewing. This rapidly growing restaurant group has earned a reputation for creating aesthetically pleasing spaces that attract diners in droves and for crafting locally sourced food and drink. A&R is poised to be the next powerhouse Columbus restaurant group.

Brotherly love: Sure, all siblings have disagreements, Ismail says, but not seeing eye-to-eye has never been an issue for this family business. "We all have strong personalities," Ismail says. "We're very open and honest. We make decisions together. There's no dictatorship."

Keeping it going: After eight years in the military, Ismail was working for the State Department when Ali pulled him into the business. Ismail's regimented mindset-everything needs to be just-so, he says-made him the perfect fit for an operations manager. Ismail describes himself as the general on the ground, making sure the ship is righted on a daily basis.

New ideas: The brothers have always traveled locally, Ismail says, but they've recently started to journey internationally, scouring the globe for new restaurant ideas. "We are always on our phones or computers learning different things, researching new ideas. What are people talking about?"

Good service: Ismail likens the first year of 4th Street to the sitcom "Cheers"-he says he could still name 75 percent of the customers by name, along with their orders. "Knowing what they drink, having that conversation. Not only are you a client, but you are part of something that is growing. That's how I feel we separate ourselves."

Age: 37

Off-night eats: "I'm a homebody. I love my wife's cooking. I eat my mom's cooking and my wife's cooking all the time." I binge over, it's sports."

Ali Alshahal

Owner, A&R Creative Group

Brutal honesty: Ali admits he "was stupid and naïve" when he opened 4th Street Bar & Grill in 2010. "I assumed I would be capable to handle any of the issues that popped up," he says. There were other challenges-understaffing, kitchen consistency issues-as A&R grew, but the company is the one he envisioned years ago.

The A&R mystique: Ali believes the restaurants' authenticity resonates with diners. "Once you have honest passion behind what you are doing, and it's not just a business, I think people feel it," he says. "I think it's our responsibility to source properly for our customers."

The new Crest: "We never wanted to open up another Crest," he says. But the more they looked at the neighborhood around Parsons Avenue, the more they realized they needed to open a destination restaurant. "It's such a challenging location that we figured we would put a name brand behind it and hopefully draw customers. I am so rooting for that neighborhood."

What's next: By the end of 2015, A&R will have opened nine restaurants in just five years. It's a challenging pace, Ali admits, but that doesn't mean he'll be slowing down. The next restaurant he'd love to open? A place that merges food from his two cultures-Lebanon and America.

Age: 37

Last meal: "My mother's home-cooked Lebanese meals-that would be so comfortable, and it takes me back to my childhood. It's not a single meal; it's everything that my mother cooks."

Guilty pleasure? "I have a 1974 Mercedes that I absolutely love. I get a lot of inspiration from old car colors for different concepts-those old yellows and blues and greens."

Abed Alshahal

Head of engagement and logistics, A&R Creative Group

Medical calling: Five years ago, Abed figured he'd be half way through medical school. But then The Crest came along. It was a project that appealed to his nutrition background (he was a nutrition coordinator with Local Matters) and his interest in systemic food systems. He jumped in to help with sourcing and to lead A&R's community relations, working with farmers and area organizations.

Social change: "I always say The Crest is different from any other restaurant," he says. "We use it as a platform for social change. Growing up, we'd discuss family issues at the dinner table; we'd celebrate at the dinner table; we'd celebrate with food. The restaurant is a place for people to come together from the community. It's a micro example of what can be done on a larger scale."

Urban gardening: Urban farming piqued Abed's interest in college: "I had a professor who talked about community developments and access to food. It didn't make sense to me at the time, but he was talking about how there's a shift away from houses being built around golf courses and toward houses being built around farms." Abed advocated installing gardens atop both locations of The Crest. The Parsons location will feature a 1,100-square-foot garden. Next to the Italian Village Jeffrey project will be a 2-acre urban farm.

Age: 25

Go-to drink: Grapefruit, orange and sage juice

Food heroes: Anthony Bourdain and food activist Vandana Shiva