What happens when the career you originally pursued is no longer working for you? In this episode of Career Relaunch, Youssef Salameh, shares his story of relaunching his career from running a family restaurant in NYC to becoming a realtor in Las Vegas. We’ll talk about the emotions of walking away from your career, the barriers that stop you from moving on, and the realities of leaping into a new industry.
I decided to have Youssef on the show because his story is one that you might be relate to. Sometimes, we invest a lot into one path in our career, and even when we know we’re not completely happy, we keep hanging on. But as Youssef is going to describe, sometimes, when the writing’s on the wall, you just have to change course.
During the Mental Fuel® segment, I also address a listener question about whether your next career move should be one that’s practical or aspirational.
Key Career Insights
- Walking away from something you’ve built from scratch will inevitably involve a range of emotions including sadness, disappointment, anger, and fear.
- Even if you can see the writing on the wall about your need and desire to change careers, people tend to hold onto the careers they have to maintain the stability it offers them.
- Taking a mental break can actually be very productive and clarifying.
- Pride can often stand in the way of letting go of a career that is no longer working for you.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of getting very clear with yourself on what specific metrics you’ll use and hurdles you’ll need to cross that will trigger you to pursue something else in your career and define where you’ll draw that line.
Will it be a certain number of days each week you truly enjoy your job vs. dread your job? Or accumulating a certain amount of savings so you can feel comfortable weathering a temporary hit to your income?
Or will it be something more personal? For example, the number of days each week you can actually tuck your kids in at night? Or the amount of time you feel energized vs. depleted?
Decide what’s important for you to have, and if you cross that line from your situation being acceptable to unacceptable, make your bold move, knowing that your transition may be an emotional one as Youssef described earlier, but certainly one worth making.
About Youssef Salameh, realtor
Youssef Salameh was born and raised in New York City. He and his mother, originally from Lebanon, built a successful restaurant brand there named Wafa’s. And for 11 years, the restaurant did really well, featured at the top of most major publications’ food lists. But eventually, they had to close down their restaurant, and in early 2020, Youssef, his wife, and daughters moved across the US to Las Vegas to launch Wafa’s there. But then, the pandemic hit, and Youssef dropped his plans to open a restaurant there and decided to instead pursue a completely different interest of his–real estate.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): I truly didn’t want to let go of it. It was all I know. We decided to sell it and just move on with our lives. It was probably the scariest moment of my life. It was more than a financial loss. It was a personal loss for me.
Joseph: Youssef, thank you for joining me on Career Relaunch. It is great to have you on the show!
Youssef: Thank you, Joseph. It’s great to be here.
Joseph: Alright, so we have a lot to cover today. We’re going to cover your time working on the restaurant industry and then what you’re up to right now as a realtor. Could you just start us off by telling me a little bit about what you’ve been focused on in your career and your life?
Youssef: Well, as of late, I’ve just been focused on the real estate industry as a whole and getting to know the ins and out of it. For me, the real estate industry is a people business. It’s a business that I’ve always been in whether it was cooking for people and now, finding people homes. I’m extremely grateful that I have time to spend with my wife and daughters now which I didn’t have much of before.
Joseph: How may daughters do you have and how have things been going for them with everything going on with the pandemic?
Youssef: I have 2 girls. One is going to be six next week, and one is going to be 10 in August. It’s been tough on them. They take it well on the surface but as a parent, I feel like it’s my job to notice the little things that are not the same anymore. I mean, don’t forget, they’re not really socializing. They might have maybe 2 or 3 friends on the neighbourhood over here that they get together with, but overall, I feel like children really need to be in a setting with multiple children on a daily basis.
Joseph: Yeah, for sure. I think when we spoke before I mentioned I’ve also got a young daughter. She’s 3 and it runs through my head every day, this balance of trying to get her to socialize but also trying to make sure she’s staying safe and not socializing which is a really hard balance to strike. It’s an impossible situation.
Youssef: It is.
Joseph: Well, we are going to come back and we’re going to talk about your time as a realtor. I know that you recently moved to Las Vegas. We’re also going to talk about that transition. What I’d like to do is, first of all, go back in time and talk about your time—way back in the day—before you became a realtor, and you were working in the restaurant business. Would you mind just taking us back in time and telling us a little bit about your time in New York?
Youssef: New York is my home. I was born and raised there. I’m a New Yorker living in Vegas now. I come from a family where it was the mother and her four kids, basically. My mother used to always cook these big, elaborate meals and invite friends and family over. Everybody would tell her, “Hey, why don’t you open a restaurant?” And she’d be like, “Nah.” Before we were in the restaurant business, my family was in the furniture business. All those big box stores came along and it got very competitive. So, one day my mom said, “How do you feel about opening a restaurant with me?” I said, “You know what? Let’s give it a shot.” So, we started in a—I call it the closet. We were cooking up shawarmas and felafels on an electric stove. That’s how small the place was.
Joseph: We should probably mention a little bit about your background. You’re Lebanese and you mentioned to me before that your mother is originally from Lebanon. Can you tell me a little about her journey into opening up her first restaurant and what that was like for her as an immigrant in the United States? And this first location was based in Queens, right?
Youssef: It was. You know, I was very proud of her because at that point, she had never done anything without my father. And then she just went up and decided instead of going to him, she came to her eldest son, which was me, and she was like, “How do you feel about this?” I said, “If you’re ready, I’m ready.” For her, it was amazing. I basically ran the place. I did learn to cook along the way, but I still cannot cook like her. I mean, she is…When she comes to visit me in Vegas, she’ll cook food for weeks and she’ll just put it in the freezer for me. She was here over the summer, and I just finished her last batch of meat pies a couple of days ago. It was amazing.
Joseph: Can you just give me a glimpse of what it was like to start a restaurant. Because I’m just thinking, so many people out there, they start restaurants, but you never really understand what is involved with literally opening the doors on the first day. How did you guys find a place and how did you create the kitchen? What was involved with that? I’d imagine that was pretty complex process.
Youssef: Well, that first little location wasn’t complex at all. It was literally done in under two weeks. We outgrew that place in under two years. We literally had people sitting on the outside on the sidewalk, on tables. They’d bring their own chairs just to make sure there’s room for them. It was nuts. And then, the city came to warn us, like, “Hey, you couldn’t do this.” So, we had to close up shop there, but we found a place just two blocks away which was a full-service restaurant. At this point, we thought we had some experience already, so we jumped in with both feet. Now, with this place, setting up the kitchen it’s very intricate. It’s very important to the flow of things. You have to set it up in a way that you start at A and you move in a certain direction to be B, C, D, E, F, and G. G is basically where you send the food out. Everything had to be laid out because you’re working on a system. You’re like a clock. In addition to that, you have to make sure your health codes are up to code. You have to make sure you’re fire department code’s up to code. There are so many moving parts and that’s the job that I took on. I had to worry about everything but the cooking. And obviously, when we were short staffed, I became the jack-of-all-trades. I would help my mother cook. I would wait tables. I will wash dishes if I have to. It just turns into a thing where if you want to be successful, you have to do anything. You’re not too good to do any job.
Joseph: So, you’re working with your mother on this restaurant. I can tell it’s already quite an intensive process to be running a restaurant. Your restaurant’s called Wafa’s, right?
Joseph: You have a location in Queens and eventually, you opened up another one in Brooklyn. Can you give just a snapshot of what a typical day is like for you. I’m especially curious about this, Youssef, because I’m also thinking about just waking up in the morning and this is kind of unique because you’re not working with a random set of people. You’re actually working with your family. What was that like for you? Can you just take me through a typical day?
Youssef: A typical day for me is waking up at 7AM, having breakfast, coffee, seeing my family for—maybe—an hour and then rushing out the door. My first stop would be restaurant depot because I refused to—well we refused, as a team, my mother and I—to use any purveyors because we like to pick our own meat and produce ourselves. So that would be my first stop. From there, once I’m finished there, I would go to the restaurant and start setting up for the day. That was basically pre-opening. There’s a lot of prep that goes into your day before you even open the doors. There’s produce prep, meat prep, and kitchen prep. There’re all the extra little bottles you have to fill up and pita that you have to have ready. No, it wasn’t easy with my family because at one point, my brothers wanted to be involved in this. I mean we’re family, you want to get involved? Sure, come on in. But trust me, it was probably the hardest thing ever but at the same time, the most amazing thing ever is to be able to work with my mother and my two brothers in one business.
Joseph: What in particular makes that especially challenging? I can kind of speculate, I’m trying to just imagine if I was working with my own family on a business. I can imagine the complications involved with that but what was the most difficult part of working with somebody who’s part of your family?
Youssef: Being in your family, you’re obviously very familiar with each other. You think that you can just say, “This is going to be the way it’s going to be and that’s it.” Well, obviously, no one’s taking that answer. There was a lot of back and forth. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes animosity at times but the best thing about working with family is that you do know each other so well. When it’s crunch time it’s like a fine tune machine when we were all there together. You just move perfectly, flow perfectly. All the customers are happy. Sometimes we didn’t even know our dining room was full and we had people outside. The tables aren’t turning over fast enough. Obviously, there was a lot of arguments, but it happens with families around the holidays too. So, we had holidays all the time.
Joseph: 24/7, right? You mentioned flow, Youssef. Things were flowing for you guys. You got Wafa’s in your original location, Queens. You opened up another one in Brooklyn. Sounds like things are going really well. I know when we spoke before you even got some great press coverage. What ended up happening over time for you and the restaurant industry?
Youssef: We did get some amazing press coverage. We had The New York Times in there a couple of times. We were Michelin recommended four years in a row. We had New York magazine multiple times. ABC News came in and did an actual piece on us called “Neighbourhood Eats”. We were very successful. It was great because we did it together. We did it as a family. But over time, what I noticed was happening was, my life turned into the restaurant and vice versa. The restaurant was my life. I was a young man and I have a family and I’m unable to be with my family because the rigor of this job is just so demanding. It started getting very hard as I started getting older. I don’t even see them at night. They’re already asleep because I get home at 10 or 11 at night. In the morning, like I said I’ll see them for half an hour and off they go to school. I started wanting something a little different, but the restaurant business was very familiar to me and I was very successful in the restaurant business. I was always scared to move away from it because of my finances, to be honest with you.
Joseph: It sounds like things are going pretty well for you then in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit which I know had major impact on the New York City area. What impact did that end up having on Wafa’s?
Youssef: The salt water had gotten into the train tunnels. What happened is that New York City never addresses anything when it happens. They wait 5 or 6 years. At this point we just had the Brooklyn location. They decided that they were going to fix the subway tunnels and the electrical components because of the salt water situation. And of course, we were in Brooklyn, we were in front of the L-train, our shop was 150 feet from the train and that was the reason we picked that location because of the train and all the commuters that lived in the area. But with the train closing, there was a mass exodus out of this particular area in Brooklyn. All the working professionals left. At this point, I was pumping personal money to keep it afloat because after you’re so successful for so long, you can only be down for so long—or so I thought. I truly didn’t want to let go of it. It was all I know. I was doing it for 11 years, at that point. We decided to sell it and just move on with our lives. It was probably the scariest moment of my life, when I handed those keys over on October 31st, 2019. It was more than a financial loss; it was a personal loss for me. We started Wafa’s from a little place—where four people could not sit in—into this brand where we were known all over the city. Where it would be like, “Have you been to Wafa’s?” “Oh yeah, I love that place!” We grew from nothing to something, and we did it all organically. By hard work, perseverance, and word of mouth.
Joseph: It must have been really tough. So, you turned in those keys and you’re leaving this restaurant that you built from nothing to something pretty huge, what was that moment like for you as you were walking away from the restaurant? Can you just take us back to that moment when you realized that this thing was over?
Youssef: It was monumentally sad, disappointed, obviously very angry. I was scared because at that point, I was the breadwinner in the house. My wife had just finished her masters, so she was just getting her career going. So of course, fiscal fear of not being able to provide for my children. There was just so many different emptions going through me. Thank God, for the women I have around me. They made me just realize that this is just a setback and I’d been so good at what I did for so long that there’s no reason for me to not be good at it again or at something else.
Joseph: At the end of 2019, you sold Wafa’s. I’m imagining, okay, everything you’ve known is now gone. What did you do next?
Youssef: I took a trip to Vegas with my wife and daughters.
Joseph: And your wife has family there, right?
Youssef: She does. Her aunts are here and her cousins. It’s been hard for me to get away with them. So, she was like “How do you feel about going to Vegas before Christmas?” And I said, “Sure, let’s go.” So we came. We stayed with her aunt. I rented a car and, I don’t know. I was driving around one morning, and it just seemed so peaceful to me. You know, I didn’t say it to her right there and then but when we got back to New York…We’ve been thinking about leaving New York but I never left because of the restaurant, obviously. So, you know, I tell them, “You know, I didn’t tell you this, but I could probably live in Vegas.” She said, “Really?” And I was like, “Yeah.” She said, “You want to try?” What happened was, basically we were just hanging out watching re-runs of the Sopranos one night, and we decided to move to Vegas. That’s what happened.
Joseph: And then you get there early March 2020—when you were way over to Vegas. What did you have in mind that you were going to do in Vegas professionally?
Youssef: My wife got here in February. I got here March 3rd. My plans were either a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Wafa’s Vegas, or a food truck. Food was still in the picture for me but not even 10 days later, the world shut down. And you see what’s going on with these restaurants. Anything to do with hospitality was breaking down—literally. And I felt horrible. I felt horrible for these people because I felt like these people were my kinfolk almost. I just couldn’t believe how bad it was for them, to be honest with you. That was also the moment that I realized that I can’t do this anymore. Somebody bigger than me doesn’t want me to work like that anymore or work in that industry. So, I took a step back and I had to re-evaluate my course.
Joseph: This is interesting, Youssef. Because it sounds like it felt like the time to move on and at the same time, this is all you knew for many years—the restaurant industry. How did you pick up the pieces? Sounds like you had a realization that this restaurant path is definitely not going to work; at least not right now. How did you then regroup and decide what to do next?
Youssef: I just took a couple of steps back because I didn’t even know what to do. I was confused. I was back to where I was when I handed in the keys to the restaurant in 2019, basically. My plans were shattered. I really didn’t think much of COVID in the beginning, to be honest with you. I thought it was going to be that initial two-week lockdown and then we’d be back to life. But lo and behold, that wasn’t the case. What I did was take a mental break. I had no interest in talking about work, career, or a restaurant, or anything. I had zero interest in talking about it. What I did was, for 2 solid months, I just ate. I ate and just watched movies—a lot of movies. It was a very confusing time for me. It was like, you know, this is what I know. This is what I’m good at. This is what I’ve been doing for x amount of years. Now, there’s a big monkey wrench thrown in it. Then it just dawned on me. I did mention to you, previously, that I was interest in real estate back in 2010. And I took a real estate course in New York, and I passed the test but of course I went back to old faithful. I stayed in the restaurant business because as long as I put in the work it was guaranteed for me.
Joseph: At what point did you feel like, “Okay, this could actually be something I want to pursue more seriously.”
Youssef: It wasn’t like a solid plan for me. It was like, “Okay, I’ll give this a try.” It wasn’t like, I was going to do it all with all my heart and my focus. I’m used to providing. I’m used to going out, doing A, B, C and D, and bring home whatever I’m able to provide with. And now, I’m put in a situation where—or so I thought—that I’ve got to chase people to get things done. Boy, was I wrong.
Joseph: In late 2020, I get that you weren’t fully committed to this. You weren’t 100% sold on the idea of going into real estate but you go ahead, and you train to become a real estate sales person. Can you walk me through some of the steps you too to make this more formalized in your life?
Youssef: You have to register for 90 hours, I believe it is, of real estate courses. I registered but I refused to do it online. What happened was I had to wait until October 2020 to actually walk into a classroom due to COVID. When the classes opened, I went in and started the course. I met some great people and then the wheel started turning. After talking to people in the industry, seeing what they do, and seeing their success, and seeing that this is just putting in the leg work. If you put in the leg work, this is what you can get. It’s mostly a people business. I started to get that fire in me again. I took the courses seriously and I studied. I even went to the extreme. Nevada was still locked down and I couldn’t imagine finishing my course in November and having to wait until January or February to take the test. I said, “I’m going to drive to Utah. I’m going to get this thing out of the way.” I’ve got the knowledge, and I know I can do it. So, I drove to Utah. I took the test and passed it. I came back and started interviewing brokerages.
Joseph: And now, you’re at Scofield Realty. I guess you’ve only been in this for a few weeks. What has it been like for you to make this transition into becoming a realtor?
Youssef: I signed in with Scofield on December 14th. Even though I’ve only been legally licensed for about 3 weeks now. Kerby, the owner and the broker of Scofield, doesn’t want you to waste time. So, as soon as I signed on, I jumped into the bootcamp there. The bootcamp was basically for new realtors to be more familiar with the transactions, the paperwork and the process and everything. So, I jumped right into the bootcamp. I got a great mentor, Mikey. He’s a great guy. I’m in this thing to learn from the ground up. And I know I’m going to make mistakes along the way but you know what, that’s life. People make mistakes and that’s how they learn. And they get no after no after no. That what makes it so much better when you get that yes.
Joseph: What are you most excited about right now, Youssef, as you look ahead to your career here as a realtor? What are you also most concerned about?
Youssef: I’m definitely excited about this new career change. This is something that I never saw coming. I didn’t see myself being excited about being involved in another career, especially at 40 years old. I was just like, “What am I going to do?” I’m just excited to keep meeting new people that I can help with this monumental decision that they’re making in their lives. It’s just such a great feeling to walk people through this process. My main concerns are things that I wouldn’t be able to control—things that just come out of left field. Those are the things I try not to worry about, to be honest with you. As far as my career is concerned, I’m really not concerned because I know my work ethic. When I love doing something, I do it with 110% every day, all day. It’s funny because if you would ask me that question if I was in the restaurant business, I would have rattled off like 10 or 20 different concerns. Maybe I’m just too early in this career to really know the pitfalls off it but, if I wake up every day and I just do my best and keep doing the right thing, I really shouldn’t be too worried.
Joseph: The last thing I want to talk about, before we wrap up, Youssef, is this topic of going into a field that you previously knew very little about and is quite a radical departure from what you were doing before. Can you put into words what the predominant emotional hurdle was that you had to get over in order to move on from your time at Wafa’s?
Youssef: Pride—definitely. I was very proud of what I did—what we did, not just me. My mother and I, my brothers when they were there. I also had a sister. I was very proud of her when she showed up and she helped when she saw how busy we were. For me, it was a different type of pride. I was like, “I own one of the best Lebanese restaurants in all New York City.” It was that type of pride. I guess that’s why it was so hard to let go of it. That’s what was the best thing about this journey for me. I learned how to humble myself. I’ve learned a lot along my journey. I’m just glad I landed on my feet.
Joseph: What do you think is one of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned along the way during your career change journey?
Youssef: I felt like even though it was 11 and a half years for me over there, it felt like 20 years because of how much work had to be accomplished on a daily basis. It only took me opening my eyes and looking at it to realize that there’s a much easier way to live and work. As far as changing careers, it’s very scary but, it can be done. I really hope that people that are on the fence about it—even if I just convince one person to give a shot to something else, they’ve had their eye on, I feel like this chat of ours would be extremely successful. It’s scary and it’s hard. It’s so many different emotions that go through a person from finances to fear, to pride, to sadness, to anger, to resentment. There’s so much going on when changing a career because that’s just the way it is. I guess I got too comfortable. We get too comfortable doing the same thing in and out.
Jospeh: Speaking of changing careers, can you tell me a little bit more about what Scofield Realty has been doing to grow their team? I understand that they offer a special program to people who are interested in learning more about real estate.
Youssef: Scofield Realty is own by Kerby Scofield and his wife. He’s giving scholarships out to people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. He’s giving them a scholarship to basically, go to real estate school, start their training and then he’ll have a position waiting for that individual at his brokerage. I really respect that. Honestly, I’m really proud to be a part of that team.
Joseph: That’s great to hear. It sounds like a great program and a very generous offer to those who have been either laid off during the pandemic or making a career change during this time.
Joseph: Thank you, Youssef, for telling us more about your former life as a restaurant owner, your transition, and what you had to do to move on to something new. Best of luck with your new career as a realtor and also with your new life there in Las Vegas.
Youssef: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.