Egyptian-born Samy Youssef is living the American Dream.
Friday, Nov. 15 marks 25 years since the Oak Park Heights resident went into business as owner of the Main Cafe in downtown Stillwater. He said the small cafe was founded six years before he bought it, making it a mainstay in Stillwater for 31 years, and it’s still serving up plenty of omelets and pancakes, as well as lunches.
After graduating from the University of Cairo with a business degree, Youssef said he left Egypt to avoid potential conflicts because of his Christian faith and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Initially he moved to France, where he spent eight years in the restaurant industry. But he had friends in Minnesota, and he came to the U.S. in September, 1984. He came alone, but he went back to Egypt to marry his wife, Fifi. Now they have three daughters.
For a few years Youssef made a living as dining room manager at the Minneapolis Women’s Club, but he wanted to buy his own restaurant.
“I like a challenge,” he said. “I like to depend on myself. I like to be in charge.”
When he saw the Main Cafe listed for sale, it seemed a good fit, so he bought it.
Downtown looked different then. It was less tourist-focused and had more shops catering to residents.
“At the time in Stillwater (there) was a lot of business downtown,” Youssef said. “It was more active than today.”
One by one, he saw familiar shops leave downtown — the hardware store, the pharmacy.
“Everybody’s gone,” he said. “I am the one that’s still here … I am the only one who stayed. It makes me feel good. I’m a survivor in downtown Stillwater.”
With the ups and downs of the economy, it hasn’t been easy to stay open. But that’s part of business, in Youssef’s opinion.
“It goes up and down,” he said. “That’s normal.”
When business is down, he said, he works harder and manages expenses more tightly.
He said his high-quality food, good value and friendly atmosphere have earned the cafe a good reputation and many loyal customers. The regulars at the restaurant have helped keep it afloat.
His brother, Bebo Youssef, who works at the cafe, agrees.
“Stillwater people … appreciate the good quality and the good service and the good atmosphere,” he said.
Bebo Youssef came from France to help Samy Youssef run the business a few years after he purchased the place.
“I followed in (Samy’s) footsteps,” Bebo Youssef said. “I look up to him.”
After 21 years at the cafe, Bebo Youssef says there are still regular customers he recognizes from the beginning.
Main Cafe has done so well that Samy Youssef and his wife were able to open another restaurant, Aristos, about five years ago. Located near the Valley Ridge Mall, Aristos serves Greek and Mediterranean food, which is similar to the cuisine Samy Youssef and Fifi enjoyed in Egypt.
Samy Youssef expects both restaurants will continue to succeed for a long time.
He also thanks the community for its support.
“Without them, I couldn’t have been here for 25 years,” he said.
On Nov. 15, he plans to celebrate his 25-year anniversary as a business owner by offering 25 percent off lunches through the end of the month.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]