When Ahmed Abbas and his Portland restaurant Ameera Bread were first featured in Incomer magazine in 2018, Ahmed had already accomplished a great deal. Just six years after arriving in the United States from Israel with a mere $200 in his pocket, Ahmed had become the owner of a Middle Eastern bakery he had started working at only a year earlier.
Now, as the recipient of the 2019 Small Business Award, Ahmed has reached yet another milestone. In a ceremony held on May 15 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Freeport, Ameera Bread was one of 10 Maine businesses to be recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Named Maine Minority-Owned Small Business of the Year, Ameera Bread fulfilled all the criteria — an existing business (at least three years) that is majority-owned by an ethnic minority and shows staying power, including growth of business in sales and employees, product innovation, response to adversity, and contributions to the local community.
“This is a really big achievement for us, especially since we are a small business. We had nothing in this country, and we worked really hard to get to where we are,” says Abbas.
“While Maine may not be a very diverse state, the contributions to our economy and to our communities by immigrant business owners are immense,” said Amy Bassett, SBA district director for Maine. “In particular, business owners like Mr. Abbas, who came to Maine as a refugee and has become a successful entrepreneur, provide shining examples of what can be possible for those who choose to call our state home.”
To fully understand why Abbas is a “shining example” of what is possible, one need only look at how far he has come in a short span of time. As a refugee without any work history in this country, Abbas was dismayed to discover that the only way he could utilize his engineering degree was to first volunteer — clearly not a viable option for someone who had come to this country with little money and a dream of making a better living. When Abbas learned of a local bakery that was hiring, he jumped at the opportunity. Without any prior knowledge of the bakery or restaurant business, and with the tenacity and focus of a true engineer, Abbas set his sights on learning everything there was to know about the business.
When the previous owner decided to sell, he encouraged Abbas to buy the business and that was the beginning of Ameera Bread and its impressive selection of Mediterranean dishes from all over the Middle East.
While owning a business is one of Abbas’ biggest achievements, it also produces its share of challenges. “There are so many details — it’s complicated,” he says. “There is nothing you can do without a plan. It is risky and there are so many factors, which can either make your business a success or cause you to shut down. We were just lucky — people love the food — and we are growing slowly and firmly.”
Layla Kargar, the publisher of Incomer magazine and Abbas’ business neighbor, believes that Ahmed’s success has much less to do with luck and much more to do with Abbas’ goodness and vitality.
“There’s love in everything he does,” says Kargar, “whether it’s making food, greeting his customers, talking to his vendors, helping somebody park their car. He does everything with love, and that is what people are attracted to. His food is great, but he represents that food — people are buying Ahmed.”
Abbas agrees that his restaurant has a greater purpose than the food he serves; however, for him it is more about using food to connect people from different backgrounds.
“Food is a kind of communication between people — people from all over the world,” he says. “For example, when you visit a foreign country, the second thing you are thinking about, after choosing a place to stay, is the type of food they have. You go and you taste, and you experience the tradition of the community. You learn about their spices and unique ingredients, and their way of serving you the food itself. It’s part of their culture. At Ameera Bread, we like to share our traditions with people by serving tasty, healthy food that makes them happy.”
Ameera Bread’s customers are certainly happy, and they demonstrate that by showing up day after day. And Abbas never takes that for granted; he has an unwavering appreciation for his customers and how they have helped the business grow over the years. “I am thankful,” he says, “for everyone who has supported Ameera Bread and helped us grow through word of mouth and by continuing to visit us.”
In return, Abbas’ customers have him to thank for sharing his culture and traditions through his delicious food, and for serving as a role model for how far hard work, optimism, and goodwill can take you in life.
“The first question that Ahmed asks me when he comes to my shop is how are we going to change the world for the better today,” Kargar says. “He always has a mission, and it’s always for good. He works hard but he loves it — that’s what drives him.”
You can find out more about Ameera Bread at www.ameerabreadllc.com or visit them at 28 Monument Square or 845 Forest Avenue in Portland.