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Faissal Aridi, 46: Owner and Cook, Westwood Pharmacy’s Diner

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"I was 26 years old when I came over here to Richmond. I lived all my life in Lebanon. I served during the war — Lebanon has a long story with war — with the Lebanese Red Cross for eight years. And my wife, we were together in high school, and her parents moved here and she came with them and then she got immigration papers for me. It took two and half years. I came in '94, finally.

"I was supposed to go back to school, but she was already in school and we can't both afford to go to school. So, I have to work; she has to go to school. I never think I would be a cook, but then I start working at Westbury Pharmacy. Faiz Oley hired me. He was like a father to me. I came to him and he said to me, "You have a job," and I didn't even have to say anything. I worked there for three years. I learned the business. Then I get opportunity over here at Westwood.

"In Lebanon, my dad owned pastry business, so only I know the pastry business. Now, I make baklava and I make cookies — they're called ma' amoul — for my customers as a Christmas gift.

"It really was a challenge for me to leave Lebanon because I leave behind [chokes up] — I'm sorry — I leave big family. We are a very, very close family and that was the hard part.

"When I come to Westwood, this was a little small grill behind a small counter. The lady who used to work with the people before me stayed and we started the business together. She was a waiter. I was the cook. It was hard, but we built business from zero, really. For breakfast, I used to have three, four customers, only. This was in 1998. But I think from first month, I start to build it up.

"I add fresh soups every day. Fresh vegetables every day. Every day, I put 10 to 15 specials on the board. People love the chili. Our chicken salad is very, very, very popular. Cactus soup, people love cactus soup. You have to try that. I learned something in this business: I won't let customers get bored from my menu.

"I have very loyal customers and I appreciate them very, very much. I have one man who comes from West Virginia. His daughter lives in Virginia Beach and he cannot pass one time without stopping here. One lady, they have a bridal shower for her here. One of my customers, she says, "Faissal, can I create a salad?" I say, "Of course." I put it under her name.

"You know, when I see the same people come and support me, great families and great friends, it gives me strength to make it. I found my place. I love it. I work hard for it. I have my family in Lebanon and my family here."

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