How Nasim Alikhani Built One of New York's Hottest Restaurants at 59
Alikhani opened her first restaurant, Sofreh, at age 59, and she says she's only just getting started. Here are her tips for succeeding in business, no matter your age or experience.
As a student at Tehran University, Nasim Alikhani's dream was to become a judge. But when revolution struck and schools closed, she had to reorient herself and figure out a new dream. In her early 20s, she moved from Iran to the United States. "I came here as a student to go to law school and quickly realized I did not have the money," says Alikhani.
Soon, the chef and restauranteur found herself settling down in a new country without any social connections. "I knew a few Iranians, but essentially it was me and myself," recalls Alikhani. "I had to provide for myself and go to school and just work 70, 80 hours a week." She worked as a nanny, a copier store manager, a senior caregiver, and in restaurants.
By the time she was 30, she started her own copy print shop with her new husband. "I was making money, and I had an amazing staff," says Alikhani. "We all bonded very quickly." But there was one problem: The young entrepreneur's heart wasn't in the business. "It was not my passion," she says.
And then, Alikhani suffered a pregnancy loss. "I was devastated," she says. "I put the business up [for sale] immediately."
She had been contemplating putting whatever money she made on the sale toward another long-held dream: opening a small cafe and catering to her neighbors. "I grew up in a circle of women—my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, and neighbors," says Alikhani. "My culture is just food-obsessed. The women in my family were especially amazing cooks that, to this day, people call and ask them [for their] recipes." And while she didn't always think about owning a restaurant, Alikhani knew she loved to cook and feed others.
But she would channel that passion into her home life before her professional one, as she soon found out that she was pregnant again—this time with twins. "After all that heartache, there was no question that I would sacrifice anything. I just listened to the doctor's orders, stayed in bed, delivered my babies, and I became a stay-at-home mom for the first time in my life," she recalls.
It was only a matter of time before she was throwing herself into cooking for her family. "Every meal my kids had, even as little as 3, 4 months old, became a project," says Alikhani. "I started making my yogurt from scratch. Baking bread every day from scratch. Even my own oatmeal flour from scratch."
When her kids got a little older, Alikhani became involved in their school events and extracurriculars. She found herself coming up with new opportunities to host events. "Forty or 50 people—the numbers did not matter," she says. "I started thinking of, 'Who are my guests? How am I going to feed them? And how am I going to prepare for that? How can I be a perfect host that nobody can see any stress on my face even when I am alone feeding like 50 people or 100 people sometimes?' It was just so exciting."
As her kids were finishing up middle school, she knew her joy of feeding a soccer or basketball team was coming to an end. She told her husband that she was going to open a restaurant and asked him to help her set it up.
Although she heard time and again how risky the restaurant business was, Alikhani knew she could live with failure and financial loss. "What I could not live with was looking back and knowing I had the opportunity of realizing my dream, and I did not [go after it]," she says.
For six years, the driven mom of two interned at various restaurants and even did a six-month program in French culinary school. In 2018, at the age of 59, Alikhani opened Sofreh in Brooklyn, NY.
Here, the successful entrepreneur shares her best tips for succeeding in business and feeling fulfilled in life.
Put Money Away for a Rainy Day
Savings allowed Alikhani to take a calculated risk and open her business. "I have done a lot of risky things in my life—pretty much everything from me coming to this country to open the first copy print shop and now this," she says. "I took risks, but I took calculated risks. I always had money aside for rainy days. By rainy days I mean what if tomorrow I can not work, and then what happens to Sofreh? I already have a system that can assist me for a while. Or maybe even permanently."
She points to COVID as a situation no one could have seen coming, but there's merit to realizing that certain circumstances might prevent you from working. And in that case, it pays to know your options and have money set aside.
Don't Be Afraid to Start a Business Later in Life
Alikhani encourages people to avoid buying into the narrative that you can't dive into a new business—let alone a risky one like a restaurant—after a certain age. In fact, experience is a gift. "Nothing freaks you out as much, because you have been there, you have done that," notes Alikhani. "I have seen failure. I have seen success. The glory and the misery, they pass. And you come out of it on the other side as long as you persevere."
Instead of losing sleep over worries like not making the rent, as she did when she was younger, Alikhani believes her past experiences allow her to feel centered in knowing that tough times will pass, and "tomorrow will be fine."
Surround Yourself with a Support System
Now living a vision of success she crafted over the course of several decades, the proud mom and wife believes passionately that "dreams require soul-searching, passion, dedication, and continuously working toward them."
Given how long that road is, it's crucial to have a supportive partner and team along for the ride, says Alikhani. "You can not reach a dream alone," she says. It's for this reason that she encourages her children to think about who they are spending time with and if they're going to help them achieve their dreams.
See Money as a Tool
Try not to see money or accumulation of wealth as the goal, says Alikhani. "Money is just a tool to allow you to dream further," she says. She encourages her kids to earn, save, and then have a wild ride—from giving it to charity to following their passion to do good in the world.
Value All Your Experiences
The New York mom credits her experience as a stay-at-home mom with helping teach her about running a restaurant. "People really discredit or do not understand what goes into home life—when you have a tight schedule and you have to accomplish so much—from shopping to the laundry to the kids getting sick, cleaning, and doing this over and over again," says Alikhani. "A restaurant is the same. You do the same thing over and over again. And every time, you do it faster, you do it better."
She also says feeding her children fueled her love of catering to restaurant patrons. "It was a huge experience for me to feed my kids and to understand their needs and to feed their friends," notes Alikhani.
And it was also important for her to feel privileged and honored to be a stay-at-home parent. "That change of perspective allows you to appreciate the intricacy and what goes on in a daily routine of a house, and then you just build on upon it," says Alikhani. "A restaurant is the same. I can open the door and I am like, 'Oh my god, I have to stir fry onions again.' Or, 'Oh my god, let us see how much faster and better I can do it today.'"
The takeaway: "Like every challenge in life, you can be kind of destroyed by it or going under it with the best attitude you could have," says Alikhani. And if you opt for the latter, she believes you certainly will be rewarded.
This story originally appeared on parents.com