Nafees Alam

Growing up in Bangladesh, Nafees Alam’s familiarity with the United States was formed in watching television. When he came here for college at age 17 he found that the true vision of America was broadcast on an array of channels.   

“I watched a lot of TV when I was young and became very familiar with New York City so when I got to Arkansas, you can imagine my culture shock.  But all of the kinds of cities and towns in America are what make it a great country,” says Alam, the CEO of DRG Concepts in Dallas, TX. “Being in America was exciting.  It was also hard being away from home at that age. On the other side of the world where I come from, people stay with their parents until they are 24 or 25.”

To earn money while attending Arkansas State University, Alam worked part time in the computer science lab and school cafeteria as well as a restaurant.

Towards the end of his first year, Nafees really needed to pursue opportunities where financial assistance and scholarships were possible.  He started applying to other universities and was awarded a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Arlington.

This was an opportunity that opened up all kinds of horizons for success. Alam excelled at UTA in the College of Business and graduated right after 9/11.

“Following 9/11 things were kind of tough everywhere,” says Alam. “In order to work in this country, I needed a sponsor and it was difficult to get one at that point in time.”

Fortuitously, while visiting a friend in Atlanta, he met a senior vice president of Waffle House Inc. — a mentor who eventually sponsored him. Alam spent a few years with the company, gaining hands-on operational experience before returning to the Dallas area to try his hand at entrepreneurship.

“I fell in love with the American Dream,” says Alam. “I love this business, even though it can be very challenging. There is so much opportunity if you do it right.”

Alam then joined DRG Concepts and became an integral part of the leadership team in operations, working with DRG  Concepts President Mike Hoque at the innovative and inspired  parent company to Dallas Fish Market, Dallas Chop House, Wild Salsa, Chop House Burger and the soon to open DRG Italian brand, Oven and Cellar, in Downtown Dallas. Now in its tenth year, DRG will soon have nine locations in Dallas, Fort Worth, Euless, and Fairview, with more location announcements coming.

“Mike and I are both entrepreneurs at heart,” says Alam. “We always talked about doing a restaurant together — something that we can call our own, and something that will be outstanding and extraordinary in a community. It is exciting and so inspiring to be working with Mike to bring new ideas to the marketplace. He is a visionary leader and I am grateful for his mentorship.”

From the outset, DRG aimed to be a change agent for downtown Dallas, a catalyst for revitalization. “We saw a real opportunity in Downtown Dallas. Big brands and other restaurateurs were looking at buildings in the same area, but were walking away.”

Doing business in the Big D’s downtown can be challenging for restaurateurs. The ebbs and flows of traffic from a customer base of commuting office workers and a fledgling residential community can wreak havoc on the bottom line. Maintaining a top quality staff of managers and employees is equally problematic, but DRG Concepts maneuvered around these obstacles through its corporate culture, sound fiscal management and commitment to staff.

“We have had some real growing pains,” says Alam. “The economy has been so tough. We’ve had to stay slim and cut our fat everywhere we could, but I think it changed us all for the better.”

Gaining the attention of the local and national food media, DRG Concepts started to get noticed and the word spread.

“With Dallas Fish Market's opening, we started to get great press by such publications as The Dallas Morning News and Bon Appétit,” says Alam. “That gave us a little bit of a boost.  We began opening more, and were honored to earn and receive even more good reviews.”

DRG’s portfolio cuts a wide swath across the restaurant industry — with fast casual, casual and fine dining operations — all part of the eclectic mix of well received, destination brands.

“It is amazing to me that as a first generation immigrant I am now leading a company with 300 plus employees,” says Alam. “The American Dream is a living breathing thing. Even when I almost gave up hope, I still believed.”

Believing in the American Dream also provided the dedication for Alam to earn his MBA in entrepreneurship from the prestigious Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

Not surprisingly, Alam also takes great pleasure witnessing the next generation bring new talent and energy to the restaurant industry.

“A lot of young and very educated people are coming into the industry,” he says. “They are shaping things. We are attracting really good folks — people we can be proud of.”

Alam says because people helped him it’s his and his colleagues' duty to give back to the Dallas community. To that end, he works with groups such as The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, and Vogel Alcove, an organization that benefits homeless children.

He also created a DRG Concepts scholarship at the University of Texas at Arlington for students in business. “It is our obligation and honor to give back.  If I didn’t receive a scholarship, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The sky’s the limit if you have a good education.”

Now an American citizen, Alam is also married to Nadia Khan, who was born in Norman, Oklahoma after her parents emigrated from Bangladesh. Khan is a finance executive for Citigroup.

“Just look at the kindness of the people who live here,” says Alam. “Look at everything that goes on. This is the best country for me. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it is my experience that if you work hard and walk a straight line — one can go a really long way.”