FAIR LAWN, N.J. — If the Russians never invaded Afghanistan, Juicy Platters in Fair Lawn and Hackensack would never have come to be.
Founding owner Jaffar Wahdat, 37, has slept in the back of limousines and walked up and down highways handing out business cards.
He even locked himself in a Dunkin' Donuts office until sunrise studying the market — determined to land on his own two feet.
Now with two stores in Fair Lawn and Hackensack, Wahdat has undoubtedly done just that. But he says there is nowhere to go but up.
Juicy Platters plans on opening close to 100 more stores across the U.S. by 2019.
"If you want to make it, you have to hustle," said Wahdat, a father of two. "You have to do whatever it takes — even sleep in your car.
My family is the American Dream.
"We've worked so hard. We don't owe anyone anything. This is our country."
Grind is all Wahdat has ever known. He was just an infant when his family sacrificed a life of luxury in Afghanistan for a shot at freedom in the U.S. They landed first in Teaneck, nine of them crammed into a small apartment off Cedar Lane.
Wahdat's father — formerly a pharmaceutical importer — eventually saved up to purchase a larger but dilapidated house in Bergen County.
"We were shivering because there was no roof," he said. "He rebuilt it and was able to sell it so we could make some capital."
Wahdat saw how hard his father worked to provide for his family and was exposed to the true "American hustle" in the Bronx, where his uncles broke into the fried chicken industry.
He later enrolled in the physics program at NJIT but dropped out with three semesters to go. Instead he began pounding the pavement.
In the early 2000s, he earned his real estate license before running the night shift at Dunkin' Donuts. When his shift ended, he took online classes, determined to solve all of the store's retail issues.
Still, it wasn't enough.
"I was back to zero," Wahdat recalled. "I had no money, no job and my dad was out trying to support us."
Wahdat had business cards printed and went door to door up and down routes 4 and 17, seeking work — even if it was free labor for experience.
By the end of the year, he was working a valet job on Friday nights, driving a limousine in New York City on the weekdays and working whatever gig he could find in Bergen County with the remainder of his free time.
"I calculated a formula into Microsoft Excel which showed that in order to make revenue, I'd have to work another day," he said. "I wasn't a senior guy, though, and they wouldn't give me the higher-paying jobs.
I found a quiet spot where I parked my limo and slept three nights a week. That made me profitable — that was my first real hustle.
He eventually became the exclusive driver for celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, who he said was like a mentor to him. Wahdat figured he could fuse everything he'd learned over the course of his life together to open a place of his own.
He jumped on the opportunity around 2010 when he saw a "for rent" sign in the window of what later became the first Juicy Platters store in Fair Lawn.
With $15,000, and only four stools made from scraps from Home Depot, Wahdat opened up shop in August 2011.
"There's a whole other feeling when your back is against the wall," said Wahdat, who began serving his mom's traditional Middle Eastern recipes.
You have no choice but to make it.
It got to the point where customers would squat on the sidewalk and start eating. Wahdat purchased cheap benches from Amazon for his guests to sit on.
His landlord didn't like the traffic that Juicy Platters was causing in the parking lot, and offered to pay him to leave. Wahdat took over the lease for a failing ice cream shop down the block on Broadway. Overnight, he moved shop.
"Everything we have today is because of our guests," he said. "And they were happy. It was almost expected."
Two years later, Juicy Platters opened its second location on Pleasantview Avenue in Hackensack, and Wahdat says the business is finally ready to scale.
His dream is to retire his parents, but his fear is complacency.
"Being comfortable is the worst thing for humans," Wahdat said. "I take ice cold showers some days to get out of my comfort zone.
It's a constant struggle.
"I feel like we've just scratched the surface.
The vast opportunities of this great country is what makes me a proud citizen and gives me the chance to live the American Dream.
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