His mother’s concern for his future in war-torn Lebanon brought him to the United States, where he went on to attend LSU. Hard work at a Baton Rouge chain restaurant made him a rising star within the chain. Business acumen made him the owner of restaurants, hotels and condos in New Orleans and across seven states.
And this year, the Krewe of Argus made him king of its annual parade on Mardi Gras morning.
“It’s been just a ton of fun. It’s been a ball,” said Elie Khoury, who will reign as King Argus XXXIII in the popular Metairie parade, which will roll down the traditional Veterans Memorial Boulevard route at 10 a.m. with the theme "Argus Loves the Beatles."
Khoury, a real estate developer and restaurant owner, was crowned Feb. 3 along with Queen Robin Marie Chailland at the Argus Galaxy Ball.
Khoury has ridden in a parade before, in Endymion, but his three children — Elliot, 16, Elise, 8, and John, 6 — are getting ready for their first ride.
“All three of them are so fired up, it’s like someone gave them a million bucks,” he said. “They’re prepared to make the crowds happy. I told them, ‘We’re not going to be judged by how we look but by what we’re going to throw.' ”
Khoury’s real estate development firm, KFK Group, has led many local redevelopment projects including the St. Elizabeth Condominiums, located in novelist Anne Rice’s former residence on Napoleon Avenue; the 1205 St. Charles Condominiums; the St. Joseph Condominiums; and the $70 million redevelopment of the former Krauss department store on Canal Street.
As a franchisee of the InterContinental Hotel Group and Starwood Hotels & Resorts, KFK owns the 326-room Westin Hotel in downtown Dallas, two full-service Holiday Inn hotels in the New Orleans area and four boutique hotels in the French Quarter.
Through his Southeast Restaurant Group, Khoury, 55, owns and operates 36 franchise and independent restaurants — including Taco Bell, TGI Fridays and Newk's Eatery outlets and, locally, the Marigny Brasserie on Frenchmen Street — in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida.
His origins were far more humble.
Khoury was born in Beirut and lived there until he was 17. As a high school student during the Lebanese civil war, conditions in his homeland worsened, and one day he came home to find his mother had packed him two suitcases.
“She said, ‘You are leaving; you are not staying here. I’m not going to lose you,’ ” he recalled, sitting in his office last week in the former Krauss building. “There was a break in the fighting, and she took me to the airport.”
Armed with $1,500 and his two bags, Khoury was off to Baton Rouge, where his sister — 18 years his senior and whom he hadn’t seen in ages — lived with her husband.
“It was a tough time in Lebanon at the time, and I needed to go to school,” he said. “But it was an adventure for me. I was 17 and I was ready to conquer the world.”
Khoury lived with his sister and enrolled at LSU, eventually majoring in petroleum engineering. But he put himself through college working at a local Sizzler steakhouse, washing dishes and busing tables before being promoted to night manager and then manager.
During that period, Khoury and his friends made it a point to drive to New Orleans to see parades such as Rex, Zulu, Endymion and Bacchus.
In his fourth year at LSU, the local Sizzler restaurants were being converted to Cuco’s Mexican Cafés, and Khoury’s bosses asked him if he would be available to open the second location.
“My mom almost had a heart attack, but they said, ‘Well, just come open the second one. Let’s see how this thing goes, and you can always go back (to school) and finish,’ Khoury said. “So I opened a second one and everything went great, so we kept opening them, and I never went back.”
Now fully ensconced in the restaurant business at age 22, Khoury, naturally, moved to a city famous for its restaurants.
“I loved Baton Rouge, I loved LSU, but New Orleans just ended up being home for us,” he said.
He worked his way up in the chain and ultimately became president of the company, which owned 40 restaurants at one point. He left it in 1998 and became a full-time real estate developer, but he ended up getting back into the restaurant business after Hurricane Katrina.
“Katrina taught me to be more diversified,” he said.
As KFK opened one new development after another, Khoury found he always had a new condo project somewhere on a parade route — on Napoleon, St. Charles and St. Joseph near Lee Circle.
“We always were on a parade route,” he said. “And I love the fact that (with Argus) we’re rolling down Veterans. Right there at ground zero, we own a TGI Fridays.”
“I’ve always liked Argus,” he continued. “It’s a great family parade, and on a good day we’ll have a bunch of families and a few hundred thousand people show up.”
Khoury’s wife, Daniela, worked with the designer on Khoury’s crown and scepter, a Phoenician-themed design to honor his homeland that features many-oared ships on the side, a phoenix on the front and the Hamsa — a hand-shaped figure — on the back, to ward off evil spirits.
Khoury said he and his family were especially eager for the annual meeting of King Argus and King Zulu, which took place on Lundi Gras.
The entire affair — the coronation, the ball, the build-up to the parade — has been an affair to remember.
“I didn’t know it was going to be so involved,” he said. “These guys are on the ball. You have deadlines, it’s a long process and the whole krewe works really hard, especially the captains.”