The Urban Turban
Spicing Up Cary
Story by Julianne Winkler Smith
Photos by Blaine Butler
“An electrical engineer walks into a bankrupt neighborhood restaurant…” No, this isn’t the opening line of one of those jokes (which are usually in pretty bad taste). Rather, it’s the beginning of a compelling story of Cary resident and restaurateur, Asad Abbasi, owner of The Urban Turban. And, you can rest assured; this story involves very good taste, indeed.
American Dream (x2)
You know when you are having a dream and you wake up to acknowledge how great it was…then you fall back asleep and experience yet another awesome dream? Well, this is a fitting analogy to Asad’s adventures since immigrating to the US from Pakistan.
“I came here in 1973 and earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering,” explains Asad. “I worked in telecommunications in California, and then the job moved us to RTP in 1996.” His American Dream was vivid and real – a beautiful wife, two bright kids, and a great job in a wonderful community. But when his company went through significant downsizing in 2002, Asad was laid off. Although initially a rude awakening, he would soon walk right into another dream waiting to be realized: entrepreneurship.
Asad would frequent a small commercial area adjacent to his neighborhood. One day he saw the residing sandwich shop was out of business, and that it was becoming a Mediterranean bistro – and the new owners happened to be in the building. So, Asad did what any other job-hunting electrical engineer would do: he walked in and told those guys that he’d like to go into business with them. “Of course, I just walked in from off the street,” Asad recalls, “so even after speaking with me, they weren’t convinced I was the right partner.”
But then, Asad invited them to his home for dinner. “After tasting my food,” says Asad, “they were impressed with my cooking and welcomed me into the business.” This location operated as Baba Ghannouj for about seven years – Asad becoming sole owner after the first three. Then in 2010, the bistro was relaunched as The Urban Turban.
Spicing Things Up
The name, however, was not the only thing that Asad changed. “I wanted to introduce more spicy food,” he explains, “so I changed the menu to include Middle Eastern and South Asian food, and spicy vegetables.” In fact, there are 20 vegetable dishes he rotates throughout the menu. “It’s fusion food – with lots of flavor and diverse spices.”
So how did the name “The Urban Turban” come to be? According to Asad, “It was a family creation, really. We were sitting around the dinner table talking about name options. When my wife tossed out that name, we all knew it was the right one.”
Although Asad’s family doesn’t work at the bistro, in a way they surround him every day. Asad’s daughter created the bistro’s logo, and his son did the website and the menu layout. His son, an architect by trade, also influenced the bistro’s atmosphere through his stunning photography that hangs on walls. “The photos are from my hometown,” explains Asad, “They give a taste of how beautiful the region and the people are.” Each exquisite photo reflects the stunning architecture, bustling community, and individual lives of the people. “Every photo has a story.”
Long Hours. Hard Work. No Regrets.
Asad doesn’t have to say much to make evident his passion for the bistro. You just have to observe him. “I work seven days a week,” he asserts. In fact, Asad does the majority of the shopping and food purchases. He is focused on his bistro for 10-12 hours per day. (Asad also runs an RTP-based lunch restaurant called Falafel 54. He is at that location for about four hours midday amid running The Urban Turban. But that’s another story!)
Although most ethnic restaurants in the area last only a couple of years, The Urban Turban continues to thrive. Asad emphasizes that the keys to this success are simple: treat people nicely, use locally grown produce, and maintain amazing diverse flavors – lots and lots of flavors.
“In Corporate America,” Asad explains, “there’s always a chance of being downsized. But as a business owner, I have more control over my life – I love that.” Once he became a restaurateur, he never looked back. “Even though the days are long, I have no regrets.”
So what did happen with that engineer who walked into the restaurant? Well, why don’t you walk in to The Urban Turban and find out for yourself.