From Chef To Chauffeur: Building A Business Blend

Martin Romjue
Posted on June 26, 2019

A family business: Mohamed Ali Gismala (center) of Absolute American Transportation with his daughter, Natasha, and son, Neil. (photo: Absolute)

A family business: Mohamed Ali Gismala (center) of Absolute American Transportation with his daughter, Natasha, and son, Neil. (photo: Absolute)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Operator Mohamed Ali Gismala could easily check off all the steps to becoming an American entrepreneur over the last 30+ years: Immigrant, works every day, takes any client job, seeks more education, builds up family business, branches out, and achieves the American dream.

Gismala, owner of Absolute American Transportation in Charlotte, proves how chauffeured transportation operators can always diversify into other related businesses. In addition to his five vehicle luxury fleet, he draws on his experience as a chef, maître d, and former restaurant manager to run two food trucks that serve a variety of ethnic cuisine.

Service Sequence

Gismala worked in hospitality jobs until 1998 when he ventured into limousine service, running one sedan and four taxis while working as a sous chef for a hotel. He first chauffeured when the general manager allowed him to park his sedan in a spot in front of the hotel and take guests and customers to the airport.

In 2003, he left the hospitality field and drove his sedan full time as an independent operator for CLT Express Livery. A few years later, he added a second car driven by another independent operator. Since then, he’s always kept his fleet to no more than five vehicles. “I did not want to expand too much because of costs and expenses,” he says.

He now owns three Chevrolet Suburban SUVs, a Cadillac XTS sedan, and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. His son and daughter work as chauffeurs along with two-part time chauffeurs. With his wife working as a banker, he runs his business out of their home and does all the bookkeeping at his office — a laptop.

“I used to have [hired] drivers, but finding and keeping them is a big problem. To find good quality ones who are professional and well-dressed, on time, seasoned, and can take directions is tough.”

As to the name Absolute American Transportation, he chose it before the era of Google, SEO, websites, and all types of online search. “There was no Google, just Yellow Pages,” he says. “To be on top you had to have an A. Absolute American puts you on the top.”

In addition to providing chauffeured services, Gismala, a trained chef, indulges his culinary talents at his food truck business.

In addition to providing chauffeured services, Gismala, a trained chef, indulges his culinary talents at his food truck business.

Right Size Fleet

Gismala grew his clientele through word of mouth and connections at hotels. He also started coming to LCT shows to meet the bigger companies.

“We have the quality of cars, but not the quantity. I go to the big car providers and say, ‘I’m not a CLT Express, but give me the second tier or choice, like the middle of the night trips no one wants to take.’ We are always available and don’t turn down business.”

Gismala also works as an I/O-for-hire for many companies in the Charlotte region that call him at the last minute. His biggest affiliate partner is Blacklane, the international luxury chauffeured ride app that connects operators worldwide with clients. He also counts Carey, Music Express, Limos.com, OneWayLimo, and iCARS as affiliate partners.

He estimates 40% of his business comes from local clients direct and 60% from his many local, national, and global affiliate partners. Local businesses and corporations who hire his company include Deloitte, Wells Fargo, IBM, and NASCAR. He also handles wine tours and leisure runs.

Like many small operations, Gismala has figured out how to tap technology to help with phones and dispatch. He and his daughter handle most of it, with him available to answer phones 18 hours a day. “Very rarely do I miss a call and have to get back to them.” They also use Limo Anywhere as their dispatching and fleet tracking platform.

In a competitive market where airport transfers from downtown Charlotte to the airport can range from $20 to $150, Absolute sticks with a base rate of $65. “A lot of the drivers and cars are the same people and quality; just under different business names.”

Leveraging Connections

Gismala’s hospitality and restaurant background, both in Charlotte and abroad, has helped boost his business, since general managers and hosts at various hotels and big name steakhouses will recommend his service when clients ask for transportation.

“I go to conventions and listen to motivational speakers,” he says. “The principles are always the same, such as being before time instead of on-time. You try to over-deliver consistently and look for opportunities, not money.”

When he has a service failure or glitch, Gismala compensates the client with free rides. “You always look for future opportunities.”

One advantage a small operation like Absolute offers is clients can feel safe, secure, and confident in knowing and dealing with the owner directly. Gismala discreetly schedules and handles runs for high-profile clients. 

“It gives them peace of mind. They can live in the city and have a house on a nearby lake, so it’s important to keep their personal life and movements secure and handle them with discretion.”

Beyond Charlotte, the company serves clients in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Columbia, S.C., Augusta, Ga., and Greenville, S.C.

International Roots

Gismala first studied hotel and restaurant management in Mumbai, India, where he graduated in 1982. He then embarked on a sometimes harrowing four-year journey that eventually landed him in the U.S.

After graduation, the Sudan native returned to his home country for six months to work, but did not like the Sharia-imposed laws by the regime at the time. So he moved to Cairo, Egypt where he trained as a chef at Sheraton hotels. Between working stints there and in Baghdad, Iraq, he returned to India and married his college sweetheart.

The couple moved to Baghdad where Gismala became the maître d in charge of restaurants and bars at the Sheraton hotel. In 1984, during the height of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War, the missile fire between the two countries directly altered his career path.

“One missile landed in the middle of the La Meridian and Sheraton hotels and it was as big as a Boeing 737,” Gismala recalls. “The suction pulled all of the glass, linens, and everything into the Tigris River. My wife was traumatized and in a coma for two days. She said that was it and we needed to go somewhere else.”

The Gismalas planned to return to Cairo, but Mohamed happened to meet a hotel client from Texas who asked him if he thought of emigrating to the U.S.

“I said it was difficult to get a visa, but he offered to help me,” Gismala said. “He gave me a business card for the U.S. consulate general in Baghdad to apply for the visa and do the paperwork. An admin was waiting for me and asked if I brought my passports. Normally it takes about three to six months to get an approval for a visa to come to U.S. Seven minutes later she came back with our two passports and said, ‘Congratulations, the consular general has granted you the visa with 10-year access. You can leave every year and come back as a tourist. You are one of the lucky ones.’”

After a quick detour to Sudan for a few months and a stayover in Munich, Germany, Gismala landed in Long Island, N.Y. They lived with his wife’s uncle, a physics professor at Stoneybrook University, for two months, long enough to realize they did not like the winter snows. To escape the cold, they visited a friend in Charlotte, N.C. in March 1986.

“We came out of the airport where it was sunny and nice with people walking around in shorts,” Gismala recalled. “We had seen people shoveling snow on Long Island. Three weeks later we moved to Charlotte.”

Dual Roles

Tying into his work ethic and the growing trend among operators to take on other businesses, Gismala has invested in buying two food trucks. He places them all over town on weekdays near business hubs and construction sites.

On Fridays and Saturday nights in the summer season, he will deploy his food trucks to festivals and “food truck courts” that serve crowds.

Gismala varies the mobile menu among BBQ, South American, and Mexican dishes along with his specialties, Middle Eastern kabobs and Indian curry dishes. Of course, as a trained chef and restaurant manager, he also caters sandwiches.

“Some of the recipes are mine, and some are modified from people who wrote books about food. I supervise everything, including the cooking and food service on the trucks.” Gismala has hired cooks to man the trucks and uses a restaurant owned by a cousin to prepare much of the food.

The food trucks are a viable hedge against the disruption in the ground transportation market. “Uber has changed the whole paradigm of transportation,” he says. “You don’t know what will happen next. Many companies now use I/Os. I’m not rich, but I’m comfortable.”

Related Topics: entrepreneurship, North Carolina operators, operator profiles, small-fleet operators, startup

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