By James Feichtner
In the competitive world of the restaurant business, starting a new eatery can be a difficult and risky task, especially when you’ve already carried a successful restaurant for nearly two decades. But for former owners of Bella Vita at Geist, Henri and Shelly Najem, the idea of starting a new restaurant in Fishers was the ideal transformation.
“Over the last 20 years; it was just time for a change of pace for us,” Henri Najem said. “We owned Bella Vita at Geist. The original Bella Vita back in 1998 was a Fishers location. It was at Fall Creek (road) and Brook School (road), so we’re not real new to the Fishers area.”
The Geist couple has just opened Flamme Burger, a casual restaurant located in the Nickel Plate District utilizing a custom made wood fire grill and specializing in freshly made burgers, chicken sandwiches and salads.
Getting to their current position as veterans in the industry didn’t happen overnight. The Najems owned their first restaurant, Paisano’s, nearly 20 years ago at 71st Street and Ind. 37. As a small, 100-seat Italian restaurant, Henri was able to utilize his cooking background in Italian food he learned since discovering his passion for cooking at his uncle’s own Italian restaurant.
“I’ll never forget the day,” Henri said. “I was 12 at the time. It was a Saturday morning. (My uncle) was back there doing the meatballs and the sauce and preparing his daily, signature items and he asked me if I wanted to learn and that’s where the passion started. I really loved it.”
For Shelly, her exposure to the restaurant world came when “she married into it.”
“We’ve been in the business almost since we were married,” Henri said.
Formerly working in retail modeling and fashion merchandising, Shelly was able to apply her experience to the culinary world Henri was heavily involved in.
“When we met he was in the restaurant business,” Shelly said. “I think in business there’s no big secret. You take care of the customers and serve the best ingredients. Whether it’s retail or owning a restaurant, it’s the same thing in every business. It’s doing the best you can and serving the best product.”
After owning the Bella Vita for almost 20 years, the Najems said what they would miss the most was the people.
“For most people that come into a restaurant; they’re a customer. For Henri and (me), it was like (family),” Shelly said. “It was like opening up your home. They’re like our guests and they became friends. That was really neat.”
“I loved the relationships that we built with the neighborhood,” Henri said. “I watched kids grow up. That was a neat thing; a lot of families.”
Aside from taking the relationships from Bella Vita with them, Henri said he also carried his passion for fresh ingredients and his confidence over as well.
“For me it’s all about fresh ingredients and the quality and consistency of it. That’s what I feel I’ve brought with me. I have confidence now.”
Another endeavor the Najems kept with them in their transition is there charitable spirit.
“That’s the reason why we were successful is we gave back,” Shelly said. “We do all kinds of fundraisers. Riley Children’s Hospital had a big 200 people (event) upstairs of Bella Vita. We donated the food for that. All the way back when hurricane Katrina hit; I used to work with Red Cross and when they needed help we had a fundraiser for them.”
Flamme Burger’s most recent charitable event went towards Third Phase food bank and shelter in Noblesville. The event raised $800, which the Najems matched. Flamme Burger’s website also allows customers to donate to Third Phase.
“We found out how underfunded Third Phase was and that it’s a part of Hamilton County so that’s a part of us, so it’s important for us to tie ourselves with them and help increase the awareness and help them with funding. Whatever we can do,” Henri said.
The Najem’s selflessness is especially apparent during Christmas when the couple refuses to buy each other gifts.
“We obviously aren’t really in need of anything, so we don’t buy each other anything for Christmas,” Shelly said. “We take what we would spend on each other for Christmas and we buy food and take it down to the St.Vincent de Paul.”
About the Najems
Lives in: Geist since 1999
Family: Gabriella, 14, Alec, 17, and Nicholas, 23.
Hobbies: “We do like to boat. I absolutely love the water. It’s relaxing for us.” – Henri
“Our family. If we’re not here we’re with our family. It’s just being with them.” – Shelly
Favorite aspects of Geist: “It’s like its own small community. That’s what I like about it.” – Henri “It’s like being on vacation. We love Fishers out here but it’s just traffic. Out there you see the water and it’s like being on vacation.” – Shelly