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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Sky’s the limit for entrepreneur

Huddle House Haltom City

4900 Western Center Blvd.

Haltom City



An egg is cracked open next to pieces of sizzling bacon on the stove. A line cook places a plate with pancakes on the serving counter as he sprays whipped cream on top, the sound subdued by the murmurs of diners having breakfast.

It’s a rainy morning on a recent Friday as more wet and hungry customers enter through the doors of Huddle House, the newest restaurant in Haltom City.

Zack Shalabi, wearing dark blue jeans under a blazer, is overseeing all the actions and reactions. He is the owner of the food joint, located at 4900 Western Center Blvd.

Shalabi greets some of the customers, tells the front desk attendant to get water for one of the tables and then picks up a straw wrapper left on the floor – making sure even the smallest details don’t end up making big differences, something he has been trained to do.

Just 24 hours earlier, the sky was the literal limit for Shalabi, who was flying a long-haul flight back to his home. When he is away from his restaurant business, Shalabi works as a private jet pilot, flying corporate executives.

“I’ll die in an airplane,” Shalabi said in laughter about his wish to continue flying. “Either that or the restaurant business gives me a heart attack. Or in the kitchen, step on, slipping and dying.”

At age 17, Shalabi went to Fort Hood in Killeen to learn how to fly airplanes. The training, conducted by military personnel, was rigorous. He graduated with an aviation degree in 1989 and then moved to Fort Worth.

To Shalabi’s dismay, the aviation industry was not performing well during that time.

The rising cost of fuel and decreasing demand for air travel during a weak economy were affecting airlines. Pan American World Airways, once the largest international air carrier, went bankrupt and ceased operation in 1991.

“Flight schools shut down and the economy just took a dip,” Shalabi said. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a house. I started working in convenience stores.”

He ended up saving a little bit of money, which he put into a small Mexican restaurant in Arlington. He operated the restaurant with his wife and in-laws.

And ever since, he has been an entrepreneur in some form or another.

He used to own a Mediterranean restaurant and also the historic Arlington Steak House. He has bought and managed gas stations, a towing company and a check-cashing store.

Then, in May Shalabi opened his latest venture.

The new Huddle House location in Haltom City sits on a commercial lot that also has an Exxon gas station and a taco shop. Shalabi owns the whole lot, which is valued at $2.2 million.

The Huddle House restaurant, by itself, cost about $800,000 to open. Currently, about 15 employees work at the location.

The Southern-style eatery borders Fort Worth’s city limit and is surrounded by residential neighborhoods.

“It matched the neighborhood over here,” Shalabi said. “I think it needed something like this where families can gather, instead of driving too far. When I looked at this concept of Huddle House, we decided it’s what they needed.”

Huddle House serves typical American cuisine of breakfast, lunch and dinner in a casual-dining atmosphere.

However, through all of his business dealings, he never lost his passion for flying.

Shalabi began his commercial pilot career in the late ’90s with American Eagle, the regional branch of American Airlines.

He switched to international travels with Qatar Airways, followed by Virgin Nigeria Airways.

“Aviation gives me self-satisfaction and prestige, and just running around the world,” said Shalabi, who has flown commercial airplanes for more than 32 years.

At his current job as a corporate pilot, he has so far flown the queen of Jordan, a president of South Africa, three Nigerian presidents, and many other international dignitaries and politicians.

“I get in an airplane, program my computers, check my airplane out, taxi out,” Shalabi said about flying. “Eight hours later, I land and I am in a total different environment – different languages, different climate, different ethnicities, different culture.

“It’s very exciting. When you look at the map, you see how you were able to fly from the United States, or Thailand or wherever, to another place. It’s just, wow, a great achievement,” he said.

As good as he may be at the controls of an airplane, Shalabi admits his skills in the kitchen are not as admirable.

Even after all these years in the restaurant business, he still leaves cooking to the pros and his wife while at home.

“I am mostly an entrepreneur, more of a manager,” Shalabi said. “I like to set up operations. I know how to put things together and then manage it.”

Shalabi also runs a second gas station business in Forest Hill, south of Fort Worth.

As management is his forte, he said he is open to bringing more Huddle House locations to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The Huddle House franchisors are looking to expand in the area. The Haltom City location is one of about half-a-dozen operating in the Metroplex.

According to the Atlanta-based Huddle House Inc., the company, founded more than 50 years ago, is planning to grow by 25% by the end of this year. There are about 400 locations open or in development across the U.S.

Next year, the plan is to add 100 more.

“I have passion for restaurant business like I have for aviation,” Shalabi said. “And both are very, very demanding, time-consuming, very delicate businesses.”

As Shalabi heads into a new week of flying, he knows his business ventures are waiting back home to keep him grounded.

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Neetish Basnet
Neetish is a writer and digital content producer for Fort Worth Business Press. He has been covering businesses of all shapes and sizes in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex for several years. After graduating with a journalism degree from University of Texas-Arlington, Dow Jones News Fund selected him for a digital media fellowship. He still likes the smell of a freshly printed newspaper.

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