Local champions make communities better Business owners consider customers like family members

On Nov. 4, Arts on the Ave (AOTA) debuted the Champions of Alberta Avenue project, which includes photography, written profiles, and a short film. Visit artsontheave.org for more information on the project.

In the meantime, continue to look here for condensed profiles of these local champions, written by Shirley Serviss.

Improving quality of life is key to Nolan Drugs

Welcome is inscribed on the glass in numerous languages at the entrance to Nolan Drugs at 8731 118 Avenue. It speaks to the diversity of the Avenue as well as the owners’ attitude.

Brothers Zaher and Mohib Samnani bought the store 17 years ago, carrying on the tradition of the original owners. The Nolan brothers started the drugstore over 60 years ago. 

Brothers Zaher and Mohib Samnani have owned Nolan Drugs for 17 years. | Kaye Ly

Born and raised in Kenya, Zaher and Mohib came to Alberta in the late 1980s and studied at the University of Alberta. They both graduated with pharmacy degrees and worked in different drug stores before becoming the third owners of Nolan Drugs.

Owning a business on Alberta Avenue when it was a much rougher neighbourhood didn’t deter them. “We see people as individuals who need support and help whatever their socio-economic situation,” Mohib said.

Their upbringing as Ismaili Muslims made adjusting to life in Canada relatively easy. “We were raised with a cosmopolitan ethic to accept differences and embrace them,” Mohib said. “Our faith teaches us there is a level of generosity, kindness, service and giving back to society that is expected of us.”

The Samnani brothers, owners of Nolan Drugs, want to ensure their clients have a good quality of life. | Kaye Ly

Progressing as a business within a community has driven some of the innovations they’ve implemented. They were the first in Alberta to offer a fully automated verification system along with an industry-leading medication management system that provides a full client profile simply by scanning the barcode on a pouched medication.

When the brothers bought the store, it had fewer than six employees. Two years ago they moved to their present location, a spacious venue for their staff of nearly three dozen with two counseling rooms for medication reviews. They pride themselves on personalizing their care to meet client needs and offer after-hours on-call services for emergency prescriptions, home consultations, and free prescription delivery.

“We deliver medication all over the city and to Wetaskiwin, Camrose, Sherwood Park, and Spruce Grove,” Mohib said.

Their motivation is to ensure their clients have a good quality of life. They must be doing something right. They still have at least one of the original customers. Another octogenarian client made them chocolates every Christmas until his death last year.

Community connections vital to Donair Express

When customers who came to Donair Express as teens return with their children or grandchildren, it makes the hard work of running a restaurant worthwhile.

Samir Bleibel and his brothers bought the business at 8523 118 Avenue from a relative in 1989.  The four brothers had followed another brother to Edmonton from Lebanon in 1987.

Although French is the second language of Lebanon, the brothers had attended an English school, so language wasn’t a problem in their new country. “It gave us an advantage,” Samir said. “However, it was a totally new style of living. You have to build your connections and get used to a different political system.”

At Donair Express, the Bleibel family uses their own recipes to spice the meat and make the donairs. | Kaye Ly

The brothers worked together in the shop for three or four years. Younger brother Radwan took on the management until 2010, when he moved on to other pursuits. Now Samir is cutting down on the import business he started in 1993 to put more of his energy into Donair Express. He’s grateful they have been blessed with long-term employees. Edel Kilson has worked there for nearly seven years and is more like family, Samir said.

Donair Express has the distinction of being one of the few shops in the city to make their own donairs. They offer both beef and chicken, mix the meat with spices, and build it on the spit based on their own recipes. “We have high standards of quality in the meat,” Samir said. “We also offer shawarma, which is more Lebanese than donairs. “

Samir Bleibel (pictured) said long-time customers bring children and grandchildren to Donair Express. | Kaye Ly

Samir has noticed demographic changes with more professionals and families moving in. The friendliness and community support has always been important, particularly as he sees the third generation of customers in the shop.

“It’s not a customer-business relationship; it’s more of a friendship or family,” he said. “I’m staying here because of the people.”

Optimum Auto puts faith into practice

Optimum Auto Service bills itself as “Your Trustworthy Mechanic” and lives up to that promise.

Owner Basit Alqubaisi said customers come to the shop based on trust. “I look at each customer as gaining a new friend, not in terms of the dollars their business will bring.”

Alqubaisi came to Edmonton from Jordan as a student in 1996. When his father’s fortunes changed and he could no longer afford to continue in school, he worked as a labourer, but quickly realized he’d never get ahead that way. He’d always liked cars and had worked on them as a hobby since he was young, so he apprenticed as a mechanic.

Optimum Auto owner Basit Alqubaisi (right), speaks with a customer (left). | Kaye Ly

He was a journeyman, with a wife and five-month-old child, when he lost his job at an auto dealership. He took a course on micro business, borrowed money from his in-laws, bought used equipment, and started his business, renting one of the bays in the building he now owns at 8416 118 Avenue. Expansion didn’t happen overnight, but as other tenants moved out of the building, Optimum Auto took over more and more space and added more mechanics. By 2013, Alqubaisi bought the building.

Optimum Auto started on 118 Avenue because there was space for rent and it was cheap at the time. “There was a prostitute on every corner,” Alqubaisi explained, but it is close to downtown, the north side, the arena, and is busy during the day. The city helped with the revitalization. “The demographic is changing. There are all races here now.”

Because he’s suffered from discrimination, Alqubaisi won’t tolerate it. “I hire males or females of all nationalities, as long as they’re willing to work.” Staff are not considered expendable. “I care about each staff member and we work as a family.”

Alqubaisi feels he owes Canada a lot. “I’ve been treated far better than I would have been in my own country where you have to know somebody to get anywhere,” he said. “Home is where you find peace and love. My wife and kids and friends are here. This is home.”

Featured Image: Samir Bleibel (left) with long time employee Edel Kilson (middle) at Donair Express. | Kaye Ly

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