Busgirl to Business Owner: A Young Entrepreneur’s Journey

When she was 17, Laila Mahmoud had a dream. As a busgirl, she loved the restaurant environment she was working in. She didn’t want to spend her life being employed at a bar or a restaurant. She wanted to be the one that would employ others at her own bar.

After working as a busgirl, Mahmoud went on to become a bartender at a nightclub. By the age of 20, she was serving in a high-end restaurant and studying economics at the University of Ottawa. Soon she decided to quit school in order to pursue her dreams. She brought out her personal savings, took a loan and opened Izakaya Sushi Bar and Pub with her partners by the age of 26.

“Being a part of the business for so long, and having done every role from busgirl to management, it was a natural transition,” says Mahmoud.

While financing her start-up business, Mahmoud went by one rule: when borrowing, stick to a plan.

“The general unwritten rule in the restaurant industry is to be in the black by year two,” she says.

Mahmoud and her partners were strict in regards to bills and money allocation. They also, as a start-up, gave themselves some ‘wiggle room’ for any unexpected occurrences. Within two years Izakaya was debt free.

Mahmoud said her job as a busgirl acted as a great entry position into the business. Her transition to restaurant owner mainly involved hard work, endurance and gaining insight from knowledgeable individuals.

“The transition also came through the many people I encountered,” she says. “I was always trying to absorb any knowledge or information from my peers. Respecting others’ knowledge is the key.”

For Mahmoud, opening Izakaya came with many learning curves. There was continual growth and knowledge. Building something from the ground up was an amazing adventure, she says. She learned things like design, branding, furthering staff management skills, expanding interpersonal understanding, and the functionality of the hospitality industry.

Presently, there are several restaurants opening up near Izakaya on Elgin Street. Mahmoud said she sees this as a good thing because the more traffic in the area, the better it is for her restaurant.

“If you believe in your product, then competition should be a non-issue,” she says. “The best advertising in my industry is word-of-mouth, let your product speak for itself.”

Paula Radwan-Donovan, owner of Taste of Egypt in Saint John, N.B. shares similar thoughts. She also believes that word-of-mouth is the best form of advertising.

On a visit to Ottawa, Paula felt a connection to the city so much so that she sees herself opening a Taste of Egypt franchise location in the city in the future.

“I think that it would do well there,” she says.

Paula, who never wanted to be in the restaurant industry, wanted to get into social work. Over the years she discovered she was better at business than psychology and she now feels like she is where she should be.

“I enjoy it, especially the social aspect of it and the marketing,” she says. “It seems to be my niche.”

Mahmoud seems to think on similar lines. After years of hard work put into her business, she is happy with where she is today.

“For me, this is what I truly wanted to do,” she says.



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