25 years ago
I think it is safe to say we all dream—what we dream about is another story. As children, we fantasize about what our lives will be like. We envision the white picket fence, the high-rise executive job accompanied by a 401k, two-and-a-half kids (with a dog). We envision the shangri la of life, if you will.
I recall a story told to me once. It was about a gentleman who grew up in Bangladesh. He was, from what I can recollect, a successful man—he inherited land from his father and held a prominent job with the American embassy as a security officer. And he was starting a family. Everything seemed ideal—but, inside, he was still dreaming.
Talk to people today and many will say that the American dream is dead or, at best, sputtering along like an old Model T Ford. To this man, though, it was not only alive, it was inspirational. So one day he applied for the lottery to win the elusive golden ticket—a U.S. green card for him and his family. And, after time had passed, he learned he had won.
I am walking down the street, guided by the cuisine of Market Night in Redlands, CA, and I stop and trade salutations with a friend named Kadir Fakir. Kadir is the co-founder of Cheesewalla, a gourmet grilled cheese pop-up, that according to rumors is slated to open a brick and mortar in the near future. Intrigued by his venture, I ask Kadir to share with me his ideas about taking on the American culinary staple. “We are not going to reinvent the grilled cheese. It’s been invented. It’s just creating it in a unique way that people have never seen before. That’s what we are trying to do,” he says. Walking up to the grill and inspecting the prep area, I understand what he’s talking about.
A sea of onions fills the air with a fragrance that elicits watery eyes while Kadir’s sister and Cheesewalla co-founder, Kamrun, dips a brush into a dark substance for one of the night’s features: BBQ Mac & Cheese rubbed with espresso from local favorite, Augie’s Coffee. “I love to collaborate with people,” Kadir says. “What’s been helping us is collaborating with a lot of the local businesses. Keeping a sense of community with it,” he adds, as I take a bite and nod my head in approval.
“Order up,” someone yells, providing the soundtrack for the rest of the night. Seeing that the line is now extending down the street, Kadir apologizes, needing to tend to the line. Agreeing to speak later, we say our goodbyes.
25 years ago
Sinking deep into the reality that America was no longer wishful thinking but a dream that would soon be realized, the man sought to find the means to pay for plane tickets for his whole family. With the spirit of an entrepreneur, he sold the land he inherited and made the over eight-thousand mile trek to San Bernardino, California.
“I’m downstairs,” the text reads from Kadir. He and his sister Kamrun stop by my studio to share their story with me further. Before we settle into the dance of Q&A’s, Kadir quickly checks his Instagram—his main outlet to the loyal followers of Cheesewalla—to see how his post is doing. “It’s doing great,” he gleams with humble pride. And he should be proud, I say— he built up a following of over six thousand people all by himself. No degree in marketing. No business training. Just pure old-fashioned hard work, with some charm and an understanding of his core audience.
Playful banter amongst Kamrun and Kadir fills the room as they recall how the initial idea of Cheesewalla came about. Kamrun grins. “Kadir said ‘grilled cheese’ once and that was the first time I actually hesitated in saying no right away, like I did with most of his ideas,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘You know, he might be onto something with the grilled cheese,’ especially...because there is nothing like that around the area.”
Kamrun was correct—Kadir did have ideas, and lots of them. His eyes gleam with excitement and his passionate work ethic becomes apparent as he describes his memories of the initial concept—late night calls to his sister, logo ideas drawn on a napkin, and ideas of growth and expansion beyond the pop-up. He is what many would call a visionary.
But to say Kadir’s passion is the sole driving force behind Cheesewalla’s success would be false. The restaurant’s success wouldn’t be possible without the blood, sweat, and tears shed by Kamrun, its chef. The open flame from the grill provided her with a deep love for food and cooking early on. “Food is something I have always had a passion for, but I never thought that I could do it. I never went to culinary school,” Kamrun says with a sense of disappointment. What she “lacked” in formal education, though, didn’t stop her from creating Cheesewalla’s twelve-item menu featured on a rotating basis. She recalls the countless hours spent honing the menu through taste-testing, sourcing products, and innovative ideas such as a samosa grilled cheese.
It’s this dedication that elicits a feeling of gratitude in Kadir. “I couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone else. I literally have the perfect business partner. She’s patient enough to deal with my temper when I have it, at times. She can’t run away from me because we are blood. It has been amazing working with someone I can completely trust.”
8 years ago
After years of lost in translation moments, riding to the grocery store on his bicycle, and countless hours spent working for someone else, the man from Bangladesh purchased a business. With days of early mornings and late nights, the man provided for his family by the sweat of his brow. Honest work from an honest man. Then one day it all collapsed. The year was 2008. Disappointed, despite all he had accomplished and overcome, he returned back to his previous job to continue to provide for his family and help with his kids’ college educations. To focus on their dreams.
“We want to serve really great food but more than that we want to connect with the people that we meet,” Kamrun says. Head to a Redland’s Market Night and you will quickly realize the main ingredient to their success is not only the food. It’s them. They are the secret ingredient that sets Cheesewalla apart from its competition. And the way they treat their customers is the most important business move they make. She points out, “We realized you can have the best product in the world but if you don’t put yourself out there to people and put that little extra effort into making them feel important, they are not going to come back.”
Kadir agrees. The relationship they have cultivated within the community is something he values. He also understands the importance of what they’re doing as culinary entrepreneurs and was the main impetus for bringing a brick and mortar to the city of Redlands. “I want to become a staple in this city,” he says. “When people think of Redlands they think of A La Minute, Augie’s Coffee, and Hangar 24—I want Cheesewalla thrown into that mix.” He adds: “It’s an amazing city with a lot of opportunities and resources.”
6 months ago
A lot has changed for the man from Bangladesh. Dreams accomplished. Dreams shattered. But one thing that’s remained constant is the way he’s cared for his family, providing them with every opportunity he could through honest hard work. He did this with humbleness, with selflessness, and now—wearing his Cheesewalla shirt with pride—he’s seeing his dream realized through his children, Kadir and Kamrun.
“Cheesewalla symbolizes the American dream to me. It still exists. It’s still a real thing. A lot of people feel like it is gone and it’s not. Our family is actually living the American dream still. We moved here from a foreign country with absolutely nothing. We worked our butts off to get to the point where we are at. We are able to create this business that people are enjoying and it has given us the opportunity to make a name for ourselves. Essentially, that is what all families want to do—make a name for themselves. Cheesewalla has given us the opportunity to do that,” Kadir says as he looks away toward the window.
Toward their future.
Photo by Tawny Alipoon