Three years ago, Al Rahmani was driving down 40 Avenue in south Edmonton when he again saw the eyesore, an abandoned car service station.
The service station had been closed for years. Its roof had collapsed. Mud covered the floor. It sat slowly crumbling in the northeast corner of the parking lot of the Petrolia Mall in south Edmonton.
Rahmani often came to the area. He had owned condos in the neighbourhood for years. His sister Shazma Rahmani lived there, within view of the dilapidated service station.
“Really, the building is such an eyesore,” Rahman said to his sister. “I don’t know why it can’t just be demolished, or do something about it.”
“That’s a good idea,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
And so they did. Today a gorgeous new restaurant, Mimi’s, is open for business.
Rahmani isn’t the type just to complain about something. He’s a doer, an engineer and a businessman, a long-time partner of the famous Ghermezian brothers of West Edmonton Mall. He was an engineer for the Ghermezians and built projects around the world for them and with them.
He grew up in Iran, earned his masters in engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and ran a successful engineering firm in Tehran, Iran, until 1979, before the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamist police state took over, taking away freedoms and making it intolerable for Rahmani and his family to remain there.
He and his wife started over in Edmonton. Rahmani is now president and CEO of Maverick Engineering, which works in the Texas oil field. He commutes to work in Texas, but he’s involved in numerous business ventures here, including investing in restaurants.
“I’ve been extremely lucky when it comes to business,” he said. “I got exposed to a variety of business, from engineering, to development, in some cases construction. They’ve all been fascinating, tremendous experiences, which really gives me that wide-angle look.”
When he applied that wide-angle look to the eyesore building, Rahmani envisioned a top drawer restaurant, even if it was tucked away in an old mall in a residential area. He wanted a restaurant that could compete with the shiny new eateries on major streets and in power centres.
“I don’t agree with putting lipstick on a pig,” he said. “I like to do things right. I like to do proper funding. I didn’t do it for any reward in terms of money. I thought this would be a good project for my sister and also something for the community.”
He and his sister dug into the project, but encountered numerous roadblocks at once. It was a challenge to track down who owned the property and whether or not they could remake the building. In the end, they were able to lease the building and get a permit to build, but then they found they had to get permission from the mall’s supermarket to allow them to put food services there. By the time they got that, the city told them their old permit was void and they had to re-apply.
Another issue was simply getting power to the old building because Epcor said it was off the grid. It would cost an unexpected $50,000 to hook up power.
Rahmani was now more than one year into the project and was losing patience. “When you look back, at some period of time I was so discouraged I was just going to say, ‘Forget about it. The hell with it.’
“It took us more than two years for a simple deal like that to get completed. It is very unusual. I think certain processes at city hall just take too long. The red tape we go through here is slightly too much.”
But this May, after $950,000 in investment by Rahmani, Mimi’s restaurant opened, named after his mother.
Patrons have flocked to the place. “I get so many thanks from the community,” Rahmani says. “A guy comes in and says, ‘You’re the owner. Thank you for what you’ve done.’ To me that’s more than money. There’s no price for that.”
Rahmani hopes his investment will pay, but that’s not his main concern with this project.
“We’re hoping we’re going to recover (our investment), but if we don’t recover, the fact that we did something for the community, I think it’s fantastic.
“I’m so pleased with the reaction. That is so much rewarding to me and my sister that we don’t even think about the money we spent. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to recover that in the next few years.”