Sam Mustafa’s entrepreneurial journey is a unique one. Although he may not have taken the most conventional path, his story is a reminder that there are many ways to find passion and success, but some roads may have more twists and turns. Now Founder and CEO of Charleston Hospitality Group, award-winning Sam continues to find success even when the odds are stacked against him.
At 19, Sam was failing out of Southern Illinois University, shocking and disappointing his father back home in Jordan. At this point, his father told him that he could either come back home or find a way to support himself while he was finishing school. Sam made the decision to stay in America with ease, but soon realized that the actual support of himself was much more difficult than he had anticipated.
To provide for himself, Sam began to work jobs at McDonald’s, then Domino’s Pizza, and A&W Hot Dog & More, and the student center. In a period of five months, he was able to save up money, but also learn that he was not interested in working under someone else. This realization that he was interested in the restaurant business, but interested in doing it his way allowed Sam to clearly see the next step was opening his own restaurant. With the money he saved up, Sam started with a falafel cart business (Phenomenal Falafel) across the street from what would eventually become his first brick and mortar location, Sam’s Cafe.
After countless hours of sleepless nights, Sam was ready to put his restaurant expertise to use. The beginning of Sam’s restaurant career started in the small town of Carbondale, Illinois. The space Sam decided to rent out was quite small but was big enough to be the home of Sam’s first restaurant: Sam’s Cafe. With a few hundred dollars in his bank account and having recently just sold his only car, a Toyota Corolla SR5 for $2800. Sam decided to hire former inmate James Young as his first employee. Sam had faith in his skills and knew that he deserved another chance.
Sam has always been somebody who likes to take chances even when the outcome is uncertain. James was flourishing, but unfortunately, Sam’s Cafe was doing the opposite. His customers began to lessen and his worries began to heighten. Sam knew he had to do something to bring his cafe back to life. At the time, Sam had barely enough money to pay his restaurant’s rent. This is when Sam decided to purchase an $800 ad in the weekly student newspaper. Sam was hesitant to purchase this ad as it was going to cost him nearly all of his money. Little did Sam know, this advertisement would end up being the turning point in his career.
Sam’s Cafe began to flourish, and Sam was ecstatic. Although he was extremely pleased with the incline in business from his cafe, he was ready to take another leap of faith. His journey to success really took off when he began purchasing smaller restaurants and revamping them. After renovating dozens of restaurants, Sam was ready to start his next vision.
Charleston, South Carolina would be the place where Sam’s career would take off. After visiting Charleston for the first time on vacation, Sam immediately fell in love. The vibrant atmosphere, the beautiful weather, and most importantly the incredible culinary scene was what appealed to Sam. After touring the city with his girlfriend at the time, the thought of going back to frigid Illinois quickly became less appealing.
This is when Sam decided to pull the trigger and take another risk by moving to Charleston. Sam’s first few months in Charleston were far from glamorous. He spent countless hours working at Arby’s in North Charleston and selling insurance on the side to make ends meet. Although there were times where Sam felt hopeless, he often thought back to his success of Sam’s Cafe. Sam wanted to create something similar to his Carbondale restaurant but with a southern flare. The idea of a diner style restaurant that served delicious southern cuisine seemed to be exactly what the Holy City was missing. Sam decided to take another risk and put his money towards opening a restaurant of his own: Toast!
In January of 2005, Sam celebrated the grand opening of Toast. Charlestonians were loving his restaurant concept. Every weekend, families, couples, and even tourists would wait in line for a table at Toast. After seeing how successful Toast was, Sam had a realization: the Charleston culinary scene was lacking. Sam took this opportunity to open more restaurants in downtown Charleston.
Sam began planning restaurant concepts that he believed were missing in Charleston.
This is when Sam decided to establish his own hospitality business: Charleston Hospitality Group.
In 2008, Charleston Hospitality Group (CHG) was born. CHG is home to nearly a dozen bars and restaurants in the Charleston area. Sam and the CHG team put forth their best effort to ensure that Charleston’s visitors and residents have access to endless options for exceptional dining, unforgettable travel, and sizzling nightlife that fits their mood:
Eli’s Table, a high-end southern restaurant, became one of Sam’s most reputable restaurants. Following Eli’s Table, Sam launched Queology, a down and dirty barbeque joint with some of the best wings on the peninsula. Following Queology, Sam opened a handful of other restaurants including but not limited to Tabullis, John King Bar and Grill, and Honky Tonk Saloon. Sam’s restaurants quickly became a culinary empire.
From an outsider’s perspective. Sam Mustafa is a prime example of the American Dream come to life. As an immigrant who flipped burgers to pay his way through school, Sam built his hospitality empire from the ground-up, but those multi-million dollar successes have come at a cost that highlights the many trials and tribulations that immigrant business owners face today. In all industries, but especially the hospitality industry, ploys for self-enrichment and financial gains, alongside thinly veiled racism have become increasingly prevalent.
Dealing with numerous legal issues and unsubstantiated claims have become a harsh reality for Sam. This immigrant, father, and local business owner has realized that the success of a business also often draws the unwanted attention of individuals seeking monetary gain, even if it’s at the cost of another man’s livelihood and reputation.
In 2012, Sam was arrested for alleged first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Sam battled this claim which had a strong lack of evidence to prove his guilt. Charges were dismissed after the plaintiff could not provide and come forth with any evidence to support the charges.
In 2018, Sam was arrested and charged with alleged third-degree assault and battery. In a similar situation, charges were dismissed after evidence surfaced lending insight in a possible scheme to blackmail for financial gain.
Most recently, Sam was sought on an assault and battery charge in a scenario where the video was turned over as evidence to law enforcement to prove his involvement was merely a case of protecting his business. Charges were dropped after evidence showed Sam was not the aggressor, but rather a victim within a ploy for slander and monetary gain.
Despite these near-constant attacks, Sam has remained steadfast; focused on his own business goals, and dedicated to giving back to the community in which he found his success.
With Charleston Hospitality Group evolving into a multi-million dollar culinary empire, Sam is committed to giving back. Sam has always been passionate about helping those who are in a position that he was once in and ensures that his company gives back to the Charleston Community. In the past, the CHG team has worked with the Dorchester 2 Educational Foundation, Invisible Illness, College of Charleston Bonner Program, Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, among others, and is an annual sponsor for one of Charleston’s biggest fundraisers, the Lowcountry Oyster Festival.
Although CHG has loved working with these charities over the years, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, their team knew that they could help in an even bigger way. In March of 2020, the CHG team launched their very own charitable initiative: Full Belly, Full Hearts (FBFH). The FBFH initiative aims to provide overworked hospitality, healthcare, and other frontline workers with hot meals for no cost.
Sam plans to continue and grow this initiative in the upcoming years.
Having recently been named one of the top 100 most influential CEOs in the country by Nation’s Restaurant News and having been presented the Patriot Award from the Secretary of Defense, Sam’s journey has been far from traditional. As a young man from Jordan, Sam often thinks back to the life he once lived. From Sam’s Cafe, to his hospitality empire, Sam is grateful of the success he has made for himself over the last couple of decades.
Today, Sam resides in Charleston with another residence in Miami Beach, FL. Sam and the rest of the CHG team has successfully launched their most popular restaurant concept: Toast! All Day as a national franchise with new corporate locations coming in Miami & Miami Beach, FL, and Savannah, GA. Sam is committed to bringing their charitable initiative to each city they expand into after seeing how many lives it has helped in Charleston.
Sam Mustafa, CEO of Charleston Hospitality Group shares his advice and tips for success.As the owner of Charleston Hospitality Group in Charleston, SC, I understand that when it comes to finding the perfect franchise to partner with in the Hospitality Industry, you are inundated with options. You can choose the big national name brands or opt for popular regional favorites. Last August, after years of preparation, I was able to franchise my restaurant concept, “Toast All Day” nationwide in 2020, a year when our industry crumbled. Since franchising in August 2020, we are on the lookout for the perfect franchise partners who believe in our vision and possess the same growth mindset.
Sam Mustafa, CEO of Charleston Hospitality Group shares his experience seeking bold new flavors amid post pandemic food shortages.
Catching up with Sam Mustafa, CEO of Charleston Hospitality Group in Jordan. Sam has traveled back home to Amman, Jordan seeking out new inspiration and bold worldly flavors in his quest to innovate his restaurant concepts during the current nationwide food and logistic shortages. Sam hopes to bring some of these ideas and new flavors back to his concepts in Charleston, Savannah and Miami to reinvigorate old traditions with a new world, post pandemic.