OLEAN — Mian Rafi is running his new eatery with a personal touch.
During one of the first days of Rafi’s Food Hub being open, he personally greeted customers as they walked inside from West State Street, as well as asked a few seated customers for their thoughts on the menu.
He even abruptly walked away from an interview with the Olean Times Herald to open the door for a customer who was on crutches.
They’re the kind of things he’s been unable to do the last eight months since a fire destroyed his last culinary endeavor, a mobile food cart.
“I missed it. I missed it because I love the restaurant business, love people, love to engage people,” said Rafi, pausing a moment before adding, “I love hungry people.”
The longtime figure in the city’s restaurant scene and Rafi family patriarch this week officially opened Rafi’s Food Hub, which prides itself on serving American and Mediterranean dishes — from cheeseburgers to chicken curry — at affordable prices in a fast-casual setting.
It’s been months in the making after the former Rafi’s Food Cart caught fire back in December. The blaze left the cart, which was located in the East State Wine and Spirits parking lot, a total loss and even damaged a neighboring home.
It’s believed to have been caused by the cart’s propane tank.
“After that I was just debating: Would I go with a food truck or open a restaurant?” Rafi said Friday afternoon at Rafi’s Food Hub. “I just got scared from propane. I didn’t want to deal with it.”
Rafi, 63, said he then found space available at the former Olean Lock and Key locksmith storefront at 1112 W. State St., adjacent to the Press Box bar, and has been getting it ready since February. The eatery officially opened Wednesday.
Like Rafi’s Food Cart before it, Rafi’s Food Hub serves similar dishes but in a much different fashion than Rafi’s children’s many restaurants throughout the city. His son Adnan owns Mirchi Bar-N-Grill, his other two sons Ashi and Hus run Brothers Bistro, while his daughter Amber Rafi-Sultan and son-in-law Aamir Sultan operate Rafi’s Platter.
“We got some nice and clean seating, too — you’re just going to get the food in a Styrofoam container instead,” Rafi said.
Rafi likes to mention everything on the menu — from the jumbo hotdog to the chicken marsala — is $10 or fewer. Noting Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food can often be expensive, Rafi said he’s trying to make sure everyone can afford to eat his restaurant.
“Here, two people can eat for $20,” he said. “Family of four can come here and eat for $30.”
Rafi’s Food Hub will also offer catering services.
“I’ve been doing catering all my life,” Rafi said. “I’ve catered a lot of big parties for about 2,000 people. I traveled through five states catering.”
Rafi, a Pakistan native, arrived in the U.S. in 1981 and came to Olean in 1985. His first job was at the Old Library Restaurant. He eventually opened his own restaurant on North Barry Street, Mian Rafi’s International Cuisine, which was open until 2006.
Rafi is the self-described “first chef to bring foreign food to Olean,” saying that before him no one else was serving dishes like curry, souvlaki or gyro in the city.
“I had to educate my customers how to eat Pakistani food,” he recalled. “We would serve Pakistani food and they would just eat it with a fork. Bread would just sit there. Rice would just sit there. Our food, you’re supposed to eat with the bread or rice.”
After Mian Rafi’s International Cuisine, Rafi returned to Pakistan, where he remarried. He and his wife, Huma Rafi, have two daughters: Mariam, 8, and Rafia, 4. He said raising his youngest children gives him “purpose.”
Despite his many travels, Rafi considers Olean his hometown, noting it’s “been so good” to him.
“I appreciate from the bottom of my heart Olean and the community for supporting me for the last almost 35 years,” he said.