On a recent Friday inside the University Partnership Center at St. Petersburg College, Shadi Fackih chatted with breakfast customers while sipping coffee near the front counter of Nature's Table.
He bragged about his mother, Jackie Fackih.
"She's a lioness,'' he said. "She believes in the American dream.''
He shared thoughts on the college's administration. "I think it's progressive.''
And he talked about fate. "It's amazing how this all happened. It's kismet.''
The 'it' he is referring to is how his family's business has expanded in the last year. In the last two months alone, Shadi and Jackie, along with his father, Nader, and brothers, Amer and Samer, opened two new Nature's Table franchises — at the UP Center as well as at the Health Education Center in Pinellas Park, bringing the family's number of Nature's Tables to five. They're all at SPC or health care facilities. The others are inside BayCare's Outpatient Center at Bardmoor, BayCare's corporate headquarters on Drew Street in Clearwater and the college's Downtown St. Petersburg Center on Third Street N.
"We are just getting started,'' said Shadi, 28, who received his law degree from Stetson in May.
Nature's Table, with its smoothies, protein bowls, paninis and salads, is a health-conscious business whose roots go back almost 35 years. Founded by Dick Larsen inside Melbourne Square Mall in 1983, the corporation has grown to include more than 65 tiny eateries at spots inside malls, hotels and less traditional settings such as Florida's Turnpike and the Indianapolis International Airport.
When executives at the corporate office select a franchisee, they pick individuals who recognize the value of nutrition and who also show "a passion, a love for business and drive,'' said Rich Wagner, the corporation's vice president. And although Nature's Table is not new to Tampa Bay (there are more than a dozen), the Fackihs' commitment has not gone unnoticed.
"They are exactly what we want,'' he said. "Their focus on customer service meets what our founder did with his own store. It could not be duplicated better.''
The Fackih family emigrated from Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, settling in Pinellas County, near relatives. Although it took several years of working different jobs, in 2004, Jackie and Nader bought their first Nature's Table franchise, a decision based on the family's values of healthy eating, promoting a lifestyle with no alcoholic beverages and the family-friendly schedule, according to Shadi.
To Jackie, keeping the family together was also a factor.
"Samer was getting older,'' said Jackie, 55. "He was 11, and I enjoyed cooking and I wanted to create something. I'm a person who cannot stay at home.''
In the early days, her sons would help after school.
"Shadi will take his bar and Samer is getting his business degree, but I think they can do this now is because of what they saw us do,'' she said. "They were here every day.''
In 2009, the family partnered with BayCare to open the corporate location. This time Amer, then 24, became manager.
And finally, in 2015, it was the baby's turn. Samer, now 25, approached his family about opening the downtown St. Petersburg College spot.
"Right away, people started telling us to do more,'' he said. "We just kept on pushing.''
In the spring, Samer visited the Seminole campus, dropping off information to the administration. The information made it into the hands of Joe Smith, the director of purchasing.
"He started calling me weekly, too,'' Smith said. "He really made sure we knew he wanted to (expand). So I went downtown, and I checked it out and was so impressed with the food and the customer service. Their enthusiasm … is really what did it.''
Meanwhile, Shadi was preparing for the Florida Bar exam.
"But there was something inside of me,'' he said. "I was struggling about taking it. I remember as we were talking to (Joe Smith) about expanding, one night I climbed in bed, and I prayed. I said, 'Let me know if I should take the bar.' The next morning, I looked at my phone, and the only message I had was from Joe. He said something like, congratulations, act now on the (new restaurants) or let us know. Kismet.''
Mark Strickland, the provost at SPC Seminole, was thrilled to welcome the new Nature's Table.
"We needed a good food choice for our students,'' he said. "And if we can play a part in educating these students in terms of food choices, it will help them in the long run."
Franchisees pay a fee of $30,000 per location. Along with that, there are costs for equipment and rent. For the two new SPC locations, the Fackihs are paying a total of $800 per month. Shadih admits they will not be seeing a high profit for their newest ventures anytime soon.
"Honestly, we see about 75 people a day at our St. Petersburg College locations. Our bread and butter right now comes from our Baycare locations,'' he said. "But we are getting our name out. We plan on opening several more in the coming year. I'd like to see us on every corner. I don't understand why there aren't more healthy fast food choices.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.