A dream achieved: From menial labor to Panera exec.
'I had to find a way to land on my feet.'
COURTESY PANERA BREAD/
LIVING THE DREAM: Coming to the U.S. in 1984, Bahjat Shariff has worked his way from a cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken to now operating partner and senior vice president of operations of Panera Bread/Howley Bread Group.
In May 1984, Bahjat Shariff, born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, then in the midst of the 1982 Lebanon War, arrived in Los Angeles with a dream to start a new life in the United States, with the support of parents he left behind in his war-torn, native land.
He was just 18 years old and had only $300 in his pocket.
Twenty-eight years later, he holds the titles of operating partner and senior vice president of operations for a chain of 24 Panera Bread restaurant franchises. In June he was awarded the National Restaurant Association’s 2012 Faces of Diversity Dream Award, given to celebrate industry professionals who represent how hard work and determination can lead to achieving the ‘American dream.’
He became a United States citizen in 1994 and eventually was able to bring his parents to America, where two of his three siblings now also live.
PBN: What were your early days in the United States like?
SHARIFF: I left Lebanon in the middle of the war. My hope and chances were to do something else, somewhere else. All these years, looking back, it is absolutely crazy for an 18-year-old to come to a foreign country to go to school and try to support themselves. I had a couple of friends here as well and every one of us had our own situation. A couple of them had to go back and I opted not to [when] I got a call from my dad and [he] said, “I can’t send you any more money.” I started working two jobs, at a gas station, as a mail carrier for a private company that did overnights, at KFC. I just had to figure it out. I had to find a way to land on my feet.
PBN: Did you speak the language at all?
SHARIFF: I did, but not [well]. I went to an English-speaking school [in Lebanon] and our math and science classes were in English but it’s not the same [as living in an English-speaking country]. When I came here it took me a little while to figure out the dialogue. But it improved quite a bit, especially when I married my English-speaking wife, Zoila.