Govt Highlight: Samir Abdallah, founder and president, Scorching Harry’s Contemporary Burritos | Enterprise
PITTSFIELD – Samir Abdallah always wanted to run his own business and own his own restaurant. When he decided to change his career 17 years ago, he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle and opened his own restaurant.
Hot Harry’s fresh burritos
Locations: Four restaurants (two in Pittsfield, one in Dalton, one in East Greenbush, NY)
Contact information: hotharrysburritos.com
Abdallah is the founder and president of Hot Harry’s Fresh Burritos, a fast food restaurant with three restaurants in the Berkshires and one in East Greenbush, New York. His grandfather, the late Isa Ali, co-founded the Angelina sub-shop chain with his grandmother Angelina is run by Samir’s uncle Faisal Ali, who also runs the Berkshire-based Juice N ‘Java chain. Faisal originally helped Samir start Hot Harry’s.
We recently spoke with the Pittsfield native about why he decided to change his career, how the fast food business has been affected by COVID-19, and how his family has contributed to the success of his business.
Q: Why did you choose Hot Harry’s 17 years ago?
ON: I was working with Georgia-Pacific, the paperwood company, in Atlanta, and September 11th had just kicked in. They fired people and sooner or later it would come to my family. So I published my résumé but with a name like Samir Abdallah after 9/11 it was difficult to find a job.
I’ve always wanted to do my own thing; always wanted to do a restaurant. So the idea came up and we did [Samir and his wife, Maggie] decided to return to Pittsfield and run a restaurant in our hometown. We had some contacts here, a family here who could help us get started and put us on the right foot.
Q: Why did you choose burritos?
ON: We loved the food. … They [burrito restaurants] appeared everywhere. Local mom and dad, there were chains, the big boys. We walked around, saw what we liked best and made our own menus and recipes.
Q: Your uncle has been in the restaurant business for a long time. How much has he influenced you and Hot Harry?
ON: We probably wouldn’t have been here in Pittsfield. And two, get up off the floor [he] was important to us. Just get in touch with the right people and help us with the design and layout.
Q: With relatives already in business, you must have had a good idea of what you are getting yourself into.
ON: I grew up in the restaurant business. My grandfather and grandmother founded Angelina. … My mother had an Angelina in Maryland [Ocean City]When I was growing up, I worked for them. It’s in my blood somehow. …
I was born in Pittsfield, grew up in Ocean City and Atlanta. My mother moved too [Ocean City] when i was in middle school.
Q: How did you come up with the name Hot Harry’s?
ON: We tried to make something fun. … We weren’t authentic Mexicans. We were Californian style Mexicans. …
We looked at some Mexican names, some Hispanic names. We decided that [Hot Harry’s] would be more of a [fun] Atmosphere to try to bind into what we were doing.
Q: In 2015 they brought in a partner, Richard Tarascio, who was a senior executive at Wayback Burgers, a Connecticut-based fast food chain. How did he help you
ON: When he entered, he was straightening our systems.
Our systems were easy to duplicate for each location. He helped us with our suppliers and purchasing power. He helped us think outside the box and change the recipes. we were so tight. Our logo has changed. Some of the store designs have changed.
Q: If you have someone to help you think outside the box, did you bring them here?
ON: Yes. It came from a larger company that had bought us. We have decided not to continue this deal. … But he liked us so much that he came over anyway. …
He’s not with us anymore, but he did a phenomenal job when he was here. He tightened our systems and made any business more profitable. … We remain good friends today. He still comes as a consultant, helps me when I need help. Everything is good.
Q: Tarascio told me when he got around that his goal was to have around 200 [Hot Harry’s] Locations within five years. That’s a really big goal.
ON: That was just a number he threw out there. When we went to COVID we actually got some momentum, but COVID kind of held us up. I hope it’s a temporary break. We’ll see how we get out of it.
Q: How has COVID affected the fast food business?
ON: We were very lucky. Our business model is set up to take away. Our sales were relatively constant. But there is the cost. They pay a lot more work.
We did a lot of things to comply with the COVID rules and then you have all of the takeaway material that you have to pay for on top of that. … the gloves are hard to come by and have doubled in price in the past two months.
Of course it hurts the bottom line, but we really can’t complain. We watch some of our bigger friends, the restaurants, what they have been through. … We were very happy with what we were able to do last year.
Q: Are there any other plans to grow the business?
ON: My wife and I are working on another new concept here in town. We’re opening a grand piano shop. It will be called Saucy Wings [the company went online the day after the Super Bowl].
We’re going to open a ghost kitchen [a professional cooking facility set up only for delivery purposes]. It’s a concept we like. … It will not be available for delivery through Hot Harry’s, but only through third party applications. … We try to diversify a bit. We now make our sauces in retail stores.
Q: What were your initial plans when you graduated from college?
ON: When I got home from school [Georgia State University]I started working for Georgia-Pacific straight away. I actually got it [recruited] from four different companies. I chose Georgia-Pacific because they had the best stability in the facility. It was good. I did a little bit of everything, indoor sales, outdoor sales, a little bit of service, purchasing, and national accounts for them.
All these years later, I am still using these programs. I put together purchasing programs in my stores. We do the marketing, my wife and I. Everything we learned at Georgia-Pacific pretty much applies here.
Q: Do you think you would ever return to the corporate world?
ON: I do not believe that. I love what i do. I wear so many different hats now. I can work in the restaurant and meet customers face to face. I can prepare something. I do the corporate side, the negotiations, the franchise sales. …
I really do everything in one job. It is exciting. You can only hope that you find a job that you love what you do, and I think my wife and I live this every day.