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A Glowbal romance for West Vancouver couple
One summer, Shannon Bosa got a job as a hostess at the Joe Fortes restaurant in downtown Vancouver. On a particularly crazy Saturday night, a visiting chef from Toronto dropped by.
“I remember him walking in,” she says, almost 15 years later. “The restaurant went silent….”
It’s time to hit pause on this tale of love at first sight. If a romance writer had her way, it would read like this: Man walks into restaurant. Woman’s heart stops. They make eye contact across a crowded room and instantly know they’ve just met their destiny. They walk out of the restaurant arm in arm.
Although this story does indeed end up with a very happy ending, true life is often a bit more complicated than that...
The man who walked into Joe Fortes that night was Emad Yacoub. He and Shannon have been married for 12 years. They are each other’s best friend, have two young children who they both adore and together have built a Vancouver restaurant dynasty — Glowbal Grill, Coast, Sanafir, Italian Kitchen, Trattoria, Society and Black + Blue. As Shannon tells the story of their life together, she says that one of the things that makes them work as a couple is “we had a drama-filled courtship and a peaceful marriage — we dispelled a lot of the demons at the beginning.”
So, to get back to that love-at-first-sight moment, throughout the evening Shannon would steal glances in Emad’s direction. There was, she knew, a chemistry between them.
Alas, however, there was no time to experiment with where it would lead. After his dinner, he left and soon was on a flight back to his job at the King Edward Hotel. She left on a holiday with her boyfriend and when he proposed, she worried that saying no would end the vacation so she said yes. Hey, she says, she was only 22. She also wasn’t expecting Emad to come back to Vancouver. When he did, it was like “Oh, wow. Okay, here we go…”
Shannon is from a successful Italian family that helped build this city. Emad is from Cairo and was on his way to becoming a police officer when Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. His mother was afraid for his future so, unbeknownst to Emad, one of his brothers arranged that Emad would not be accepted into the police academy.
Eventually Emad immigrated to Canada, landing in Toronto. He was hired in a kitchen where it was his job — his only job — to squeeze the oranges to make orange juice. Every day he made it his goal to be faster at squeezing those oranges, eventually taking a six-hour-a-day job and turning it into one that took only an hour and a half. With all that extra time on his hand, he could watch what the chefs were doing. They noticed and asked him to help, thus starting his apprenticeship at some of Toronto’s best restaurants.
Now would be another good time to dip into that the romance novel: compelled by memories of the beautiful blond woman he’d met at Joe Fortes, Emad returns to Vancouver and becomes a chef at Joe Fortes so they can be together. They decide to marry their passion for each other and passion for food by opening their own restaurant.
But here’s the reality check: Emad does return to work in Vancouver at Joe Fortes but when he and Shannon leave, he goes to Toronto, where he opens a restaurant called Brownstone, with a brother and she moves to L.A. for a job with Aramark. It’s a year before she moves to Toronto and they can finally start their life together. They marry and open their first 40-seat fine dining restaurant, Solo, right next to Brownstone.
Emad takes over the telling of this part of the story: “You learn from your mistakes. A restaurant is like your baby. You don’t know how it will turn out but you hope it will turn out all right. We were confused about the concept [behind Solo.] We never embraced it and kept on message.”
Going Solo taught him one important thing: “Don’t try to do it all. Just have three or four dishes that are incredible.”
At the same time, Shannon was missing her family and friends back in Vancouver. It was time to make a move home.
As they have discovered, Emad has a knack of being able to conceptualize a restaurant as soon as he walks into the space. He sees the design, can taste the menu, knows the type of crowd that will one day be sitting at the tables. That’s what happened with the restaurant that launched Glowbal Group. He was in Yaletown and chanced upon the Century Grill and fell in love with the space. At the time, Yaletown was little more than brick walls and beams. Blue Water Café had just opened, one of only four restaurants in an area that had more vacancies than tenants. Glowbal was born in the Century Grill space.
“Our friends thought we were crazy,” Shannon says. “They said, ‘Yaletown is finished; Yaletown is dead.”
From Glowbal, the Glowbal collection started to form. Shannon says, “We said we’d stop at three and then we decided to open the Italian Kitchen. And then…
“He finds these spots, and you can’t say no to him when it’s something that makes sense. When he tells me something, I know he’s already thought it through for a week.”
With two young children, aged five and seven, to raise, Shannon is not as directly involved with the restaurants as she used to be. She recognizes that when people do see her, it tends to be at social or charity functions that the restaurants host. She loves to dress up for those occasions so people think she leads a life of glamour and glitz but, in reality, “I’d rather be in jammies in bed watching movies with my kids.” With such a ritzy public image, the television show Real Housewives of Vancouver relentlessly tried to persuade her to be one of the cast members but she steadfastly refused.
Now the Yacoubs are thinking about what to do next. They get a buzz when they open a new restaurant but they also have to reconcile that they can’t be doing it all themselves.
“I miss the days when we could make an impact on everyone walking in the door and touching every table and making the connections,” Shannon says.
Emad adds, “I have spent all my life chasing a dream of wanting to do good for me, for the people around me, my partners, my family. But there’s always that doubt. When you’re pushing your way to the top and when you get there, there’s always someone shooting at you. I still see myself as a young kid opening the door and saying, ‘Let me look after you.’”
Maybe it’s time for a different kind of business challenge. Or maybe Emad right now is walking into a building that gives him inspiration for another restaurant.
They’re ready for anything because they have each other. Emad says, “Shannon will keep me straight. She’s the one — she’s the class in the relationship, she’s the beauty in the relationship.” Shannon says her husband is the smartest person she knows, and it’s uncanny how well he knows her. “We have a nice balance,” she says. “We can’t pull mind games on each other.”