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From engineer to restauranteur
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood/jgreenwood@qconline.com
Aziz Talbi relaxes for a moment in his Bettendorf restaurant, Olive Tree Cafe. The restaurant is located at 2513 53rd Ave., Bettendorf. With him are some of his staff members.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood/jgreenwood@qconline.com
Aziz Talbi relaxes for a moment in his Bettendorf restaurant, Olive Tree Cafe. The restaurant is located at 2513 53rd Ave., Bettendorf.
While growing up in Mohammedia, Morrocco, about 20 minutes from Casablanca, Aziz Talbi always knew he wanted to be an engineer. What he didn't know was that he also wanted to be a restaurant owner.

"I always wanted to be an engineer. After pursuing that career for 25 years, an opportunity came up to own my own business, and I didn't hesitate," Mr. Talbi said.

The chance presented itself in April 2009, when he got a call about a building for lease on 53rd Avenue in Bettendorf. By November 2009, that building had become the Olive Tree Café, a Mediterranean restaurant he describes as "serving healthy and fresh cuisine. All food is made to order."

The café exudes a relaxing, low-key atmosphere. A large olive tree is painted on one wall and Mediterranean melodies play through the ceiling speakers.

Through renovations, the grand opening and the menu deliberations, Mr. Talbi continued to work as an electrical engineer for Deere & Co.

"I owned my own business and worked as an engineer for the last four years of my career," he said.

In December 2012, Mr. Talbi decided he "had to give up one for the potential of one" and left engineering to focus on his restaurant.

"I enjoyed what I did as an engineer, and at some point I may go back to it. ... But for now, it was too much to do both," he said. "Leaving allowed me to focus (on the restaurant) 100 percent. It required more of my time, especially as a new business."

Instead of designing and programming the electrical parts of combines, Mr. Talbi now spends most of his days helping in the kitchen, filling out paperwork and interacting with customers. Yet, he doesn't see much difference between the two.

"Whether it's a hard drive for a computer, a combine or a gyro, they all have to meet the customers' needs," he said.

Mr. Talbi's job starts at home in the morning with paperwork. From there, he sees "if there's any issues that need to be attended to, from catering to supplies."

And it's not just about resolving issues, it's about constant improvement, he said.

"Expanding the restaurant and the menu is my goal right now."

It's that idea that things constantly can be improved, perfected, that comes from his experience in engineering.

"Engineering and running a restaurant deal with quality, speed, efficiency and continuous improvement," he said.

In fact, Mr. Talbi said he believes his engineering training — not his food industry background — was the most valuable experience he had before opening his restaurant.

After leaving Morocco to attend Oklahoma State University in 1985, he "worked in various restaurants to pay my way through college. I was cooking, serving, busing, everything. ... But it didn't really prepare me for the job," he said.

His engineering experience — designing and developing new products — is what helped.

"Making a plan and working on what it's going to take to make those ideas come alive. And in the end, it's all about customer satisfaction," Mr. Talbi said.

Making customers happy is Mr. Talbi's favorite part of the job. With a smile, he walks to each table, asking how they're enjoying their meal.

"The greatest thing is the relationship I've built with my customers. We have a lot of repeat customers," he said. "It brings a lot of pride when I hear a customer speaking highly of our service."

Mr. Talbi not only enjoys taking care of customers but also his employees. Before opening the Olive Tree, Mr. Talbi had never had a managerial role. "I never managed people. I delegated."

Even now, he said, he only sees himself "as an owner. All of my employees have grown with me. We work as a team to ensure the customer is taken care of."

The restaurant is a family affair. His wife, Lou Ann Talbi, helps with the bookkeeping.

"She helps me quite a bit. I run things by her and get feedback," he said.

Though Mr. Talbi loves his job, he admits it involves hard work and patience.

"There has been a learning curve in running a restaurant," he said. "Sometimes, it takes time to turn things around, to come up with new menu items, do research, try things. It's a lot of research. I don't shy away from asking questions."

If he could do it all over again, Mr. Talbi said, "No regrets. I've enjoyed the decision."

And for those interested in changing career paths, he gives this advice, "Take risks, follow your passion."

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