Before Coming To America, Winstead's Owner Nabil Haddad Was Baghdad's Burger Tycoon | KCUR

Before Coming To America, Winstead's Owner Nabil Haddad Was Baghdad's Burger Tycoon

Feb 6, 2017

"'In America,' he told me, 'In America, we sell hamburgers.'"

But Nabil Haddad didn't have a clue what a hamburger was. It was 1958, and Haddad was looking for a job. 

Earlier that year, tensions started escalating between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. Haddad's father sent him to Baghdad, Iraq, for refuge. Seven days after Haddad arrived, the Iraqi Revolution broke out.

"There was a lot of killing, dragging colonels and generals in the streets naked ... It was atrocious," Haddad says.

Haddad immediately lost the job he had just gotten at a publishing company — as a foreigner, he was no longer allowed to work for an Iraqi company. His former boss recommended he open a media stand. 

So, Haddad set up shop near the embassies. He sold magazines, books and newspapers to British, French and American embassy employees, who were fervent consumers. It was one such consumer — a man from Texas — who approached Haddad one day with another idea: Burgers.

Haddad rented a Coca-Cola shack near a bus station and started making hamburgers, just as the man taught him. He would close up his media stand every afternoon, and open up his burger shack every night. Pretty soon, Haddad's hamburgers were selling out. 

"By the time I was 19 years old, I became a tycoon," Haddad remembers.

And by the age of 20, he was arrested by the Iraqi Army for espionage.

"I said, 'You're out of your mind! You're crazy,'" Haddad recalls anxiously explaining himself to two men in suits.

Haddad says every Saturday, the Army would hang 12 spies. That week, they told him, he was number 12.

Sitting in prison, awaiting his fate, Haddad pulled all of the money out of his pocket — he figured it was more than the prison guard could make in two months. He gave the guard the money, and a phone number.

The plan worked.

The next day,  a family friend came and bailed Haddad out of jail. Back at work the next day, Haddad told one of his regular customers, an embassy employee from Kansas, the whole story. He told her he was stuck — he couldn't stay here or go back to Lebanon.

"Would you like to go to America?" she asked him.

"I don't know anything about America," Haddad told her.

Credit Courtesy of Nabil Haddad

But, soon, he would learn — and quickly, at that. The next day, Haddad was sailing across the Mediterranean Sea on the start of his journey to America.

He made his new home in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he met his wife, Peggy, and started going by "Bill."

Since he was studying full-time at Colorado State to be an engineer, his money was quickly dwindling. That's when he saw a 'Help Wanted' sign at the local McDonald's. 

But it was the 1960s, he was brown-skinned, and had a heavy accent. The manager hardly considered him. That is, until he showed up on the seventh day in a row trying to get a job.

"I went there and I said, 'Sir, you're not going to hire me, and I don't blame you,'" Haddad says. "'I'll work for you for free for two weeks. You like me, hire me. You don't, no hard feelings.'" 

The next day Haddad was in uniform, reporting for duty. Things didn't exactly go as well as he might have imagined being a burger guy. Haddad remembers his manager throwing him on the burger line.

Credit Courtesy of Nabil Haddad

"Put six buns on!" the manager yelled.

Haddad didn't know what a bun was — for him, this was "bread." 

"Never mind, put six patties on!" the manager tried again.

Once again Haddad had trouble. Back in Baghdad, it was "meat."

The manager reassigned Haddad to bathroom duty. Haddad remembers walking down the narrow hall to the bathroom. He opened the door and was immediately greeted by a mirror.

"I come from a middle-class family, we had two servants. Here I am in America, trying to be an engineer," Haddad remembers thinking. "I'm looking at that mirror, and I say, 'What is happening to me?'"

But, he picked up the brush, dipped it in the wash bucket, and scrubbed that bathroom floor to ceiling. His manager was pleased. After seven days, Haddad was officially hired for $0.80 an hour. It was less than the high school kids were making, he says, but it was a job.

Credit Courtesy of Nabil Haddad

He never looked back. Haddad worked hard every day, and quickly climbed the ladder at McDonald's. And, around this time, McDonald's was rapidly expanding as Ray Kroc was transforming the original family-run business into a massive, international chain.

By 1968, Haddad was running a McDonald's in Kansas City, Kansas. Soon, one location became four, and Haddad became a millionaire. It didn't change much about his work ethic, though. Haddad says customers would come in, and find him mopping the floors.

"'A guy like you,' they'd tell me, 'I can get you a job at City Hall tomorrow,'" Haddad says. "I owned the place!"

Credit Courtesy of Nabil Haddad

But he never wanted to sit at a desk. He loved the fast pace, the work and the people he found in the industry.

In the early 1980s, he sold his franchises for around $5 million to pursue his own restaurant ventures. Soon, his McDonald's stocks plummeted from $62 per share, to $28 per share. Within 10 months of selling his franchises, Haddad was bankrupt.

"Before I lost all that money, I was already a millionaire again," Haddad says, "because I got into Winstead's."

In a last-ditch effort reminiscent of the one he made when getting that first job at McDonald's many years prior, and when he gave his money to that Iraqi guard, Haddad spent the last of his money ... on a duck dinner.

One Sunday, he met a few men at church who were also looking for work. His entrepreneurial spirit lead him to believe there might be an opportunity in connecting with these men. He invited the men, their wives and their friends over for a duck dinner. 

That's how Haddad first found out about Winstead's, the beloved, Kansas City-based burger chain founded in the late 1930s, predating the first McDonald's. One of the friends that came to dinner that night was preparing to buy the local chain and tear it down.

Haddad's love for good old meat patties must have kicked in, again, because he took another big risk, and started working for the failing chain in its final months. He took on the business like a new project, started tallying money in the cash registers every day, even counting the pickles in the pickle jars. But he did more than that. 

"If you're the boss, you serve the people under you," Haddad says. "You don't boss them, you work toward their success."

According to Haddad, he improved conditions and increased profits so much, that the business couldn't be torn down. Pretty soon Winstead's was expanding. Today, Haddad owns all nine Kansas City locations.

Once again, Haddad found himself at the center of a booming burger franchise.

When Haddad looks back on his experiences, abandoning his engineering degree, and turning down all the offers he says he got during his time at McDonald's, he doesn't feel any regret.

"When I first came to McDonald's, I wasn't looking for looking for rewards, just a good job," Haddad says. 

What he got instead, was a lifelong career. The burger tycoon of Baghdad didn't know he'd become the burger tycoon of Kansas City. 

Nabil Haddad shared his life story — which he chronicled in a memoir in 2015 — on KCUR's Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her by email at andreat@kcur.org, or follow her on Twitter @adtudhope.