Biting into a juicy triple-decker Fat Mo's burger, you wouldn't expect to learn that the all-American sandwich is actually the brainchild of two Iranian immigrants—Mohammad "Mo" and Shiva Karimy—any more than a young Shiva applying to medical school in Istanbul 25 years ago would have expected to become a first lady of hamburgers half a world away.
"You cannot predict this stuff," says Shiva, 45, who now runs Genie's Persian Palace in Franklin and oversees 14 franchised Fat Mo's stores. While Shiva credits husband Mo with creating a gut-busting 27-ounce burger made from beef seasoned like shish kabob, she has stepped up and taken the lead in the family business, especially since Mo, 10 years her senior, had some health troubles a few years ago.
Shiva and Mo met when she was beginning college. With a physician father and a mother who was the superintendent of 150 schools in Iran, she hoped to become a doctor. Instead, she met and fell in love with Mo, a rug trader from Hamadan, Iran, who was traveling through Istanbul on business. The couple moved to Vienna, where Mo was living, but as an auslander Shiva was unable to enroll in medical school. In 1986, political pressure drove the couple—and Mo's daughter—further from Iran, to Nashville, where a nephew was already settled.
To make ends meet, Mo held down three jobs, while Shiva worked and studied computers at Nashville Tech. The couple took a booth in a flea market on Murfreesboro Road and began selling ice cream. When they expanded to "fancy foods" such as chicken cordon bleu, people started to line up, and the landlord kicked the Karimys out because they were cutting into his snack-bar sales.
Next they opened a home-cooking restaurant in Antioch, and in 1989 they launched Fat Mo's in a defunct drive-through. They couldn't afford to change the sign, so they operated under the former tenant's name, Expressway, until customers nicknamed the burgers for Mo. "Fat Mo's is 100 percent Nashvillian," Shiva says.
At their peak, the Karimys had 21 Fat Mo franchises. Since then, seven stores have closed, and in 2006 the couple returned to their Iranian roots with Genie's Persian Palace. The understated buffet at the corner of Moores Lane and Franklin Road offers an astonishingly fresh homemade selection of fesenjans, khoreshts and kubidehs punctuated with Middle Eastern and European pastries, and it has a loyal following.
Despite the impact of the economic downturn, the longevity and popularity of the Karimys' businesses would appear to be the American dream fulfilled by anyone's standards—except Shiva's.
"You ask me if I have achieved the American dream?" she says. "Not yet, because I have not finished my education. I made sacrifices. I take care of my husband and my restaurants, and I raised my daughter. To a certain degree, yes, we have reached the American dream, but I am a perfectionist. I know that we can do more. We do not take our freedom for granted."
Photographed at Fat Mo's by Eric England
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