As featured in Abilene Living Magazine
The Esfandiary brothers, better known in the Big Country as “The Beehive” brothers, have had quite a journey from immigrants to restaurateurs. Their story truly emulates the American dream.
Known for their succulent, charred cuts of prime beef, juicy racks of lamb and quenching Long Island iced teas, The Beehive Saloon and Restaurant has earned a top spot among the elite steakhouses in the Lone Star State. Texas Monthly declared it the “best country steakhouse in Texas,” Texas Highways magazine has given it several nods and ask just about anyone on the street in the Albany area for a good place to chow down and they will point in the Beehive’s direction. Thirty-two years ago, Iranian brothers Ali and Nariman Esfandiary took a chance and set up shop at the Fort Griffin Merchandise Store and Restaurant and Beehive Saloon; known only as “The Beehive.” The brothers are known for their friendly, enthusiastic style and are often seen running food to tables, jotting down orders, or simply entertaining guests with tales. But perhaps the most enthralling story they have to tell is their own.
Raised in Rasht, Iran, Ali and Nariman are two of four children born to Jamshid and Rosa Esfandiary. Rosa was a Polish prisoner of war who was sent from a POW camp in Siberia to Iran after World War II. Ali and Nariman’s father, Jamshid, was a lieutenant in the Iranian Cavalry. Rosa and Jamshid collided when Jamshid was put in charge of the Polish refugees. Over the years, Jamshid became a wealthy military man and had close family ties to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Jamshid knew things were not going in the Shah’s favor. Becoming increasingly wary of the political unrest in Iran, Jamshid began looking for opportunities to escape. In 1968, when Ali was just 17-yearsold, his father sent him to America with only $600 in his pocket. Ali stayed with family friends in San Jose, California and began attending college. At night he worked illegally in restaurants or hotels; in the United States you are not permitted to work on a student visa. It wasn’t long until immigration caught on. With the threat of being deported, Ali fled to Kansas City, Missouri. Again he attended school and worked as inconspicuously as possible. Meanwhile, back in Iran, Jamshid continued to move his family out of the country. Nariman was next. Then Ali’s other brother, his sister, mother and finally his father. Jamshid fled Iran within a year of the Shah falling. The family settled in Kansas City and built a new life in America.
By now, Ali, still on the run, was attending school in Cahokia, Illinois and visiting Kansas City every weekend and summer break. It was during the summer one year, while working discreetly at the Holiday Inn near the International Airport of Kansas City, that Ali met his wife. Patty grew up 20 miles north of Kansas City and was still in high school when she first encountered Ali Esfandiary. In fact, their first date Patty thought she was actually dating Ali’s younger brother Nariman. “I was afraid because she is eight years younger than I am,” remembers Ali, speaking in a thick Middle Eastern accent. “She was 17; a high school student. So I sent my younger brother to go pick her up. When she came to my apartment, I told her, ‘You’re dating me, not my brother!’” The two sparked a weekend relationship, spending time together when Ali would travel back and forth from college. A year and a half in (according to Ali) Patty came to visit and Ali got an unsettling call from her parents. “Her mom started looking for her and called me and asked, ‘Is my daughter there?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am.’ She said, ‘Ali, we believe in marriage, not living together.’ This was on a Tuesday. She said, ‘How about this Friday?’” Ali laughs, adding that it was actually two weeks before they were wed.
The joining of Ali and Patty created a rift between Ali and his father. Ali’s father did not support his new marriage. He instead expected Ali to marry an Iranian girl. When his father learned of his union he sat Ali down, offered him money and an airline ticket to visit a relative in Paris, and urged him to go find a nice Iranian girl. “That was the first time in my life I told him no,” remembers Ali. In response his father disowned him. Ali soon graduated from college with a degree in airplane mechanical engineering. He and his young bride moved in with her parents, and Ali began working at a gas station while he waited for his green card. It was at the station one day that Ali hit the next crossroads in his life. Stressed about how he was going to afford the new baby growing steadily in Patty’s belly, Ali struck up a conversation with an Air Force officer. “I told him in this country having a baby is very expensive,” recalls Ali. “He said, ‘Join the Air Force; it only costs $16 to have a baby.’ I said, ‘I’m in!’”
The next week Ali enlisted. The Air Force sent Ali and Patty to Dyess Air Force Base to work on C-130s as a Life Support Specialist. Patty, however, didn’t stay long. Ali sent her back home to give birth near Kansas City. Patty believes it was a culture thing; to Ali, her medical care was a very private matter between her and her doctor. One day, Ali was working on a C-130 when he got an emergency call. “I picked up the phone and I go, ‘Dad? We haven’t talked in two years. What do you want now?’ He said, ‘I’m in the hospital.’ I said, ‘You’re sick? What’s wrong with you?’ He said ‘Nothing. I’m in the hospital with your wife. I want to be the first one to congratulate you; your wife had a baby and it’s a boy.’” Ali goes on to say his father, enamored by his grandson, allowed Ali and his family back into his house that day. After serving in the Air Force for four years and earning his American citizenship (and having two kids for only $32), Ali fulfilled his contract and got out of the military. He and Patty, along with their children, Stepon and Jessica, fiddled with a few jobs around the Big Country, finally stumbling upon the abandoned Fort Griffin Merchandise Restaurant and Beehive Saloon in Albany, Texas. “We didn’t even know where Albany was located,” recalls Patty. “After seeing it, I said we’ve just got to have it! It’s just too cute.” Nariman, who had also joined the Air Force and been a Crew Chief stationed at Dyess, jumped on board with the idea, and the three began working to acquire the eatery. “I walked up to the owner and said, ‘I’d like to buy your restaurant,’” tells Ali. “He named the price and I said, ‘Well, we have a problem. We have no credit, no money and no investors.’ He asked, ‘How can you buy my restaurant then?’ I said, ‘You give me $12,000 cash and I’ll open the restaurant back up.’” Naturally the man scoffed at the idea but Ali says after making a rack of lamb and proving his worth in the kitchen, the two shook hands and made a deal.
That was 32 years ago. As the brothers look back on their life and their journey from Iran to Abilene, they are amazed at how far they have come. Though at times the road was rocky (Patty remembers their home getting vandalized during the Iranian hostage controversy – even though Ali was in the U.S. Air Force at the time) the brothers say they are blessed. Ali and Nariman can never return to Iran, for fear of being hung, but the Big Country is their home now. Over the years the Esfandiary brothers have charmed their way into Albany and Abilene’s stomachs and hearts as the two live out their American dream. “This is greatest country in the world,” smiles Ali, “Land of opportunity!”