By Paul Natinsky
The Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce will recognize real estate developer and restauranteur Zaid Elia as much for his knack for innovation as for his business expertise at the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce’s Awards Gala May 3, in West Bloomfield. The chamber will present Elia, 40, with the Businessperson of the Year Award at the Chamber’s 16th Annual Awards Gala.
After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in biology, Elia chose not to follow his father’s example of practicing medicine and earned a law degree from Wayne State University. He used his legal expertise to work in real estate development through opportunities that presented themselves on his mother’s side of the family.
“I practiced business and real estate law for a few years. In late 2006, I formed the Elia Group, LLC, which is a real estate development company. We develop and manage commercial retail shopping centers. We develop and purchase office buildings, mixed used buildings, all different types of real estate,” said Elia.
Shortly after hanging out his shingle, Elia found himself staring down the barrel of a recession, an especially rough time for the real estate and property development industry. Necessity being the mother of invention, Elia happened to run into the development agent for Subway sandwich restaurants in western Wayne County (which includes the entire county, except for Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park and the Grosse Pointes).
He jumped at the chance to diversify and was eager to manage franchises throughout the territory. There was one catch, the development agent had to own a franchise and show a profit running the business. Elia rolled up his sleeves and took his Subway shop to three months of 20 percent-plus profit. Today, he owns about a dozen Subway stores and is the development agent for about 100 stores in Wayne County, providing business support and operational expertise to franchisees.
Much like his expansion from real estate development into restaurant operations, Elia sort of fell into the fine dining arena by the peculiar requirements of a business deal. He ran into the owner of the Birmingham landmark restaurant and bar, 220 Merrill. He knew she was selling the building housing the business and he was interested in buying. The catch? Once again, he would have to run a restaurant business in which he had no experience—this time a high-end restaurant. He remodeled the place and reopened it with new flair.
“From there, I realized that this was my passion. I loved the hospitality business. It was exciting. It was a challenge. I was able to build strong teams and basically grow from there,” said Elia. He said he hires highly qualified people and trusts them to run the day-to-day operations of the restaurants, while he manages the larger aspects of the business.
“My business is two-fold; 50 percent of my business is real estate development, and 50 percent of my business is hospitality. My hospitality company is called The Iconic Collection,” said Elia. The fine dining and iconic venue side of Elia’s business now includes 220 Merrill, the Parc Restaurant in Detroit, the anachronistic press and police hangout, Detroit’s Anchor Bar and several other classic Detroit dining and drinking locations.
Further expansion is on the runway awaiting take-off. “We have a full schedule of new restaurants on the horizon,” said Elia. “We just purchased Cadillac Tower in Downtown Detroit. It’s a 425,000 square foot building that we’re redeveloping. I am purchasing 511 Woodward in Downtown Detroit, which we’re going to redevelop. The Cadillac Tower is probably going to be developed into a hotel and apartments. Currently, it’s an office building. We’re going to add retail on the first and second floor, hotel and apartments.”
Elia said his background in real estate and law has allowed him to understand the foundation of real estate and business. “I love the people side and operational side of retail. I have combined both of them to kind of make that winning combination of right location, right brand and provide the iconic experience I want to provide all of our guests,” he said.
The Elia Group employs 600 people. It started with one employee— who is still there—in 2006.
Elia is looking forward to the Chamber’s May 3 awards dinner.
“It is an honor to be recognized by the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce. I am proud to be part of an organization and a community with so many successful entrepreneurs,” he said.