For Ali Saifi, an Iranian immigrant and owner of Pomegranate on Main in the former Surratt’s furniture store at 618 S. Main St., family is a constant theme in his life.
It’s evident in nearly every aspect of the restaurant celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, from the pewter tea service trays hand-crafted by his sister in Iran, to the loyalty many of his staff members of 10 years and running feel toward Saifi and the restaurant.
“They truly know they’re part of this family,” Saifi says of his staff. “I care for every single one of them.”
Saifi spends every lunch and many dinners at the restaurant, with the exception of Tuesday nights, when he and his wife, Nancy, and their two daughters and their husbands have a standing family dinner at home.
“It’s not an invitation. You don’t get a call; you just know that Tuesday you come here,” he says.
It’s this love and appreciation for family and a value system that dictates philanthropic giving that have motivated the former Shiraz, Iran, resident to embark on a project in his hometown that has the potential to change hundreds of lives through restoring orphaned teenagers with their biological families.
“You just got to chip in and help anyone you can, whether it’s in Greenville or another place,” Saifi says. “As humans, we’re all citizens of the world. It’s as simple as that. No politics, just help where you can.”
Orphaned children in Iran are often released from care at 14 or 15 years old. Those children are frequently given to an orphanage as babies because the family can’t afford to care for them, but the family is still living. When Saifi saw this firsthand three years ago while visiting his family, he immediately began looking for a way to help give these teens an alternative to the street lifestyle to which they will often succumb.
“They’re not babies. They’re not cute. Nobody wants them,” Saifi says. “Who wants a 14-year-old boy? I said, ‘I’ll take them.’”
The result is a service that will assess current teen orphans, locate their biological families, determine whether or not that is a viable living option, and then a trust fund set up will support the entire family and the child’s education through college.
“I want them to enjoy their New Year with their parents,” Saifi says. “I want them during their birthday to have a birthday cake, whether my organization pays for it or not, but I want his mother or father or aunt that’s taking care of him to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him at home rather than being at an institution.”
Saifi, who emigrated to the U.S. at 17 years old, and since 1980 has overseen the development of 400-plus Subway locations in South Carolina, has a history of giving back to the Greenville community.
He has served the community as a member of the board of directors for Goodwill Industries of Upper South Carolina Inc. and is the recipient of the first Goodwill Industries Champions Award presented in 2009. He was inducted into the 2009 Class of the Greenville Tech Entrepreneurs Forum.
Saifi says he doesn’t consider himself a restaurateur. Instead, he viewed opening Pomegranate in 2007 as a means of giving back to the community that had supported his efforts and given him opportunities he never would have had in Iran.
“It never was about money, because I was fine with the money and didn’t need the headache of a restaurant, but it’s been such a pleasure,” he says.
For years prior to Pomegranate’s opening, Saifi says that dinner guests in his home would suggest he open a restaurant and sell the authentic Persian cuisine he would serve.
“Our food, the flavor’s not enhanced by gravies and sauces, and we add no preservatives, and you can’t make Persian food old. It has to be made fresh,” Saifi says.
In terms of freshness, Saifi isn’t exaggerating. The hummus served at Pomegranate is made every two hours. The bread served with it is baked when a table is seated.
Very quickly Saifi learned it was also a way of introducing his customers to a culture that was important to him and one that many people didn’t understand.
“I never thought food would be the tool that did that,” he says of the process of bridging the cultural gap.
But Saifi says Persian food is much more accessible to an American palate than many other cuisines because it uses chicken, beef tenderloin, lamb, and salmon, just prepared with a different marinade or cooking preparation.
“There’s no thousand-year eggs,” Saifi joked.
He says customers very often ask him about Iran and about the culture, and are surprised to learn it’s different than what they perceive from watching the news.
“We’re all human beings. We’re all friends. Just our governments don’t seem to get along, which I can’t help that out,” he says.