LAFAYETTE, La. (AL) – Acadiana was, quite literally, built by immigrants, gathering much of its culture and economy from erstwhile citizens of foreign nations. This tradition continues today. Khalil Al-Refaey and Silvia Bertolazzi are just two examples of individuals who have immigrated from abroad with entrepreneurial spirits to start their own thriving businesses.
Olympus Greek & Lebanese Restaurant
Khalil Al-Refaey is the owner and operator of Olympus Greek & Lebanese Restaurant on Center Street in New Iberia. At just 25, Refaey is the living embodiment of hard work and determination having built the restaurant up from nothing. He runs it with help from his twin brother, who works as an experienced Mediterranean chef.
Refaey is originally from Iraq and fled to the United States at just six years old after his father, an underground journalist, was targeted for assassination by the regime of Saddam Hussein, the former president of Iraq.
After Refaey and his family first came to America they bounced around much of the country before finally settling in Lafayette, where Refaey has spent much of his life.
After high school, he opened his first business at 19 with a small sandwich shop in Lafayette. Refaey maintained the shop for a full year before having to close it and return to waiting tables, but the idea of owning his own business never left him and the set back only emboldened him further.
“I always wanted to open a restaurant because I was, myself, a waiter for about three or four years at a local restaurant in Lafayette,” says Refaey. “And I love being around people and meeting new people.”
That’s when Refaey decided to work with his brother to open up a Greek and Lebanese restaurant in New Iberia, which at the time it was sorely lacking.
“The majority of people that love Greek & Lebanese here, they have to drive 20 – 30 minutes to Lafayette just to eat it,” says Refaey. “So we decided to bring Greek and Lebanese to New Iberia.”
Thus, Olympus Greek & Lebanese Restaurant in New Iberia was born to much fanfare. However, Refaey admits that getting it off the ground wasn’t easy.
“It’s really not easy,” says Refaey. “But with the help of my brother and the support of the customers we got through it. There are very, very nice people here. And when we opened, they were very supportive also. Of course, without them we would not be here.”
Refaey says one of the biggest benefits of owning his own restaurant is the chance to meet new people.
“I love to come here and see new faces and meet new people,” he says. “And for the most of the part, I like when people encourage me, especially the customers.”
Asked what his overall goal is as an entrepreneur, Refaey says, “I want to expand and open probably one more in New Iberia. I also want to do a drive thru, because I notice probably 65 percent of our sales are takeout. That’s my goal.”
Refaey says that he wants himself and his business to be an example to others his age to show that owning a successful business is well within their reach if they’re willing to go after it.
“It’s an accomplishment. I feel proud of myself and I feel good about myself,” he says. “I want the people around my age to see that if I could do it then they could do it.”
Asked what advice he may have for millennials who might be trying to open up their own business, Refaey says, “I’d say don’t be scared, first of all. If you have it in you just do it. And be fair. When you’re fair, it gets you a long way with others. And you respect others, whether they are your employees or whether they’re customers.”
Carpe Diem! Gelato-Espresso Bar
Silvia Bertolazzi is the owner and operator of Carpe Diem! Gelato-Espresso Bar on Jefferson Street in Downtown Lafayette, which has been a staple of the Downtown area since it opened in the summer of 2011.
In addition to its array of authentic Italian espressos, Carpe Diem’s main attraction is its gelato, which is a popular Italian frozen dessert not unlike traditional ice cream that includes ingredients like milk and sugar and are often combined with fruit, chocolate, liquor, spices or nuts.
But unlike ice cream, gelato often does not contain cream and has substantially less fat than ice cream, making it a healthy, high quality gourmet delicacy.
Originally from Merano, Italy, Bertolazzi came to America in 1992 after living in France, which is where she met her ex-husband, an American, whom she eventually followed to Louisiana and settled in Lafayette where she attended UL Lafayette.
“When I first moved here, I went through a culture shock,” she says. “Lafayette, Louisiana and the U.S. all together are very different from where I grew up, and it took some time to get used to the differences. But very soon I fell in love with Lafayette and the people. I’m very proud to call it my home away from home.”
Bertolazzi says the idea to open a gelato-espresso bar in Lafayette came to her when she had an epiphany while strolling downtown one morning with her partner, Erik Graveson.
“My love and passion for gelato, and the Italian culture associated with it, made me open Carpe Diem,” she says. “I grew up in Italy where gelato is not a luxury, it’s a way of life. We eat gelato every day, sometimes more than once.”
Before Carpe Diem, Bertolazzi worked as a pet groomer for a local veterinarian for 10 years and had never owned her own business, but she didn’t let that stop her.
“When you have a dream, and you just know deep down that this is what you’re supposed to be doing, nothing can stop you,” she adds. “Carpe Diem went from a dream to reality in no time. Passion makes things happen.”
Bertolazzi says she thinks what makes Carpe Diem such a successful business is because of her passion to see her dream come alive along with just a pinch of magic.
“I wanted good quality products, but I also wanted to create a place where positive energy was present and alive,” she says. “Carpe Diem is magic. Some amazing things have happened here. It is a place where everyone is welcome: people of all ages from all walks of life. It is a meeting place for artists, musicians, writers and dreamers.”
Above all, Bertolazzi says that she is grateful for being a daughter of two worlds.
“I feel very fortunate to have adopted two cultures,” she says. “Acadiana has always welcomed me and cherished the fact that I was from another country. I am truly living the American Dream. In Italy, it is not as easy to open your own business. Here everything is a possibility, and dreamers have a chance to live out their dream.”
Bertolazzi says that her goal for Carpe Diem is for it to exist well beyond her lifetime to become more than just a fixture in Downtown Lafayette’s ever changing flux of restaurants and cafés.
“My goal for Carpe is for it to survive for centuries, and have many special moments created here,” she says. “I don’t care about making it a franchise. I care about keeping this little place–that is my dream and my life–open and keeping it magical, every day, by making people’s life better and sweeter.”
Bertolazzi also encourages her customers to take the café’s namesake to heart whenever and wherever they can.
“As our name says, ‘Carpe Diem’ is all about seizing the day and living in the moment, and that is a philosophy that I have adopted a long time ago,” she says. “The past is gone and the future doesn’t exist yet, so let’s make the best out of this very moment, and eat gelato while we’re at it.”
[This article was originally published in the March 2017 edition of Acadiana Lifestyle and appeared on AcadianaLifestyle.com.]