Living the dream: Local businessman shares his exodus from Middle East to great American West

By on January 6, 2015
Touring his new country by way of Volkswagen bus, Jim Darwiche’s wanderlust brought him to Jackson Hole in 1977. PHOTO: JIM DARWICHE

Touring his new country by way of Volkswagen bus, Jim Darwiche’s wanderlust brought him to Jackson Hole in 1977. PHOTO: JIM DARWICHE

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The first thing you notice about Jim Darwiche is the smile. That smile is everywhere on the Town Square in all seasons. Darwiche is always walking about downtown, from one of his businesses to another, with a quick and ready smile. He’s just so blasted happy all the time. And why shouldn’t he be?

The next thing you’ll notice about Jim is the accent. It’s a dialect hard to pinpoint. The astute might catch a mix of staccato Arabic with a hint of French. He drops his pronouns a lot. But it takes just a short conversation with the 65-year-old to feel his energy. His vibrant outlook on life is infectious. He’s just happy to be here. Read on and find out why.

Planet Jackson Hole: You ain’t from around these parts are you?

Jim Darwiche: I was born in Lebanon in 1950. I grew up in a town called Nabatieh between a small village and a big city. There were very few kids to play with. We spent the days in the groves near us, 500-year-old olive groves with huge trees. All day long us kids would climb those trees and play under those trees. I loved that time.

Everybody around would act like your father. If you got caught smoking a cigarette your father would know about it before you got home. It was a fun life. It was a wonderful, healthy life.

I grew up in a small family. My mom and dad lost three little kids before me. They would live to about age three and they would pass away. They don’t know exactly why. So to say the least, I’m spoiled. I was loved very, very much. They didn’t think I would survive and live that long.

PJH: And your schooling?

JD: I went to school in the big city. I moved to Beirut when I was 14 years old. I moved for a better education and lived with my brother and his wife. Then I moved to a boarding school in Beirut.

It was a technical school based on the highest standard of school in France. It was not a typical education. Even the tests and the questions are totally different. They test your attitude, your intelligence, your IQ. I loved that school. To me, it relieved me of all the memorization of history and geography and stuff that I want to know nothing about. Literature was good, but science and math were my passion. I graduated in 1970 with an aeronautical engineering degree. At that time it was a very competitive field. From the whole country there would be like 1,200 people that would apply to this school. They picked 150. From those 150, they chose six kids to get into this class.

PJH: Coming to America?

JD: I was too young to commit to a job after graduation. I could have gotten a job right there and then at age 18. But I wanted to see the world and travel. I was looking for a place to go for education. I was looking at Paris, which was a little too costly. I thought of places in Third World countries where you can have an American education but money can go farther. I applied to go to Turkey and other places. Then my cousin, who lived in Cuba until Castro took over, said, “America, Jimmy.” He kept talking about America as a place where I could work and go to school. “It’s land of opportunity,” he said. So I applied through a Christian mission in Beirut, through the Kennedy Center, to come to America to study the English language (I spoke French as a second language to Arabic. But no English, really). Guess what? The response from other places was slow and I got a quick response from America. In no time I was on an airplane to Los Angeles.

PJH: What did you know of America before you came?

JD: I knew nothing about America. I knew only that I was going to a different part of the world. All I knew of America was there is opportunity. That was good enough.

So here I was, this kid who was spoiled all his life and came to America with very few things, very little money, but the love of my parents. This is very important: When kids leave home and they go out on their own, they become their parents. If you stay home with your parents, you argue with them and you tell them how wrong they are. But on your own, you fall back on everything they’ve ever taught you.

PJH: What were your first impressions of America? What do you remember most?

JD: I was shocked when I arrived in Los Angeles. Before I landed in LA, I met this guy on the airplane who lived in California all his life. He asked me what my name was and I said, “Jafaar.” He said, “Call yourself Jim, it will be a lot easier.” So I did. Though my legal name has not changed.

I went to ELS school in the worst neighborhood in Los Angeles. It was near MacArthur Park – Bonnie Brae and Third Street. All night long all we heard were sirens. We stayed in a hotel across the street from the school at a weekly rate. All I remember now was those sirens all night long, every night. I was trying to learn English and get a job and it was not easy. A couple of months later I moved into an apartment, got a job in a supermarket (Boys Markets, now Ralphs). I was a box boy. You know, everything I did, I enjoyed. I loved it. I took it like I owned the market from the first day. I had fun with it. I believe in hard work. Whenever they scheduled me, they scheduled less people because they knew I worked like two people [laughs].

Then I went to Northrop School of Technology, which fit my education very well. It was the best aeronautical school in the country. It was designed and built by [Jack] Northrop to create an engineering degree that would serve the aeronautical industry. Meanwhile, I was moving up in the supermarket company. When I graduated from Northrop after four years, I was making more money in the grocery business and they wanted me to take over the store. I said, “No, no, I went for an education to be an engineer and that is my goal.” And that was my plan. To come, get an education, enjoy my time here in America and go back to Lebanon and live the easy life. And I did that. I went back to Lebanon in 1975 and worked for an airliner in Lebanon for nine months. Then the [Lebanese] Civil War started. I didn’t want to be caught in that. I felt like it didn’t mean a thing to me to be around. I left and came back to America.

PJH: America: the return.

JD: I came back to Los Angeles. It was a bad time for engineers. Awful. That’s when Boeing was saying, “Last guy to leave, turn the lights off.” So I worked in the Safeway supermarket system as a store manager for the biggest Safeway in the country on Third and Vermont. They had 250 employees. I also tried to do my own business and I didn’t do well.

PJH: What was the business?

JD: I tried to open a falafel shop. But nobody in LA knew what a falafel was. Then I came to Jackson for the first time in 1977. I had heard of Yellowstone Park. I had a Volkswagen Westfalia. I drove here. It was in the fall and there were not a lot of people here.

Something people should know about Lebanon that they may not know. Lebanon is a melting pot of people and cultures. It’s the crossroads for all trade routes in the Mediterranean area. It has a deep history more than 4,000 years old. Lebanese are raised for adventure. They are ready to go. Just like their ancestors, the Phoenicians, who sailed everywhere. To us Lebanese, that’s normal. I love to travel. You call me and say let’s go camping tomorrow and I will find a way to make it happen.

PJH: So your ancestral wanderlust drove you to Jackson Hole. Love at first sight?

JD: I drove to Jackson. I stayed in the same building that the Stage Stop Mall was in. There was a motel there, the Circle A Motel. I’ll never forget it. It was made out of twisted iron with a cowboy on a horse with the rope lassoing the letter A. It was right across from the old Teton Theatre. I rented a room for the week. It was very cheap, $29 or $49 for the whole week. I fell in love with the place in an instant. I woke up in the morning and saw four deer grazing on the grass outside of my window. That was my first introduction to wildlife.

Another thing I loved about this place. My faucet in the van needed fixing. So I went to the Vandewater Hardware store. Bless his soul, [Blake Carlyle] Vandewater worked on it for about a half an hour and he fixed it. I said, “How much do I owe you?” He said, “Nothing.” I said, “What do you mean, nothing? You worked half an hour. You worked hard on this.” He said, “I’ll catch you next time.” I said, “There is no next time.” I love the people here. I knew then and there that I would start a business here and I did.

PJH: Not another falafel shop? What were you thinking about doing?

JD: It wasn’t important what. I was ready to do anything – sandwich shop, T-shirts. Anything I set out to do I figure I will make it, you know? I had a connection in Indian jewelry. I thought that would do well here. The location I had in mind was rented. I visited Warren Erbe, a sweetheart of a man – one of those guys who was grouchy on the outside but wonderful inside. He was maybe one of only two or three real estate guys in town back then. We agreed to keep in touch and I went back to California. When I called him and said I was still only interested in that one location he said, “You know what? That guy backed out.” I said, “OK, save it for me.” I was back here and that summer, by June 1978, I was open for business in that location. It was a tiny little store, 12 by 12, across from the old Teton Theatre, next to Gaslight Alley. Crazy Horse Indian Jewelry.

By the end of 1978 I added a hotdog and hoagie shop in the back. It barely made money but I was young and it was fun.

PJH: But you weren’t exactly using your degree.

JD: Well, then I left for Seattle to work for the Boeing Corporation. I spent almost four years working for them. Again, when I worked for the Boeing Corporation I felt like I owned the company. I had a very interesting job. I worked in the planning department as an invention evaluator. Boeing had an employee policy that stated anyone who could find something to improve production or save money, they would give that employee 10 percent of what they saved in that first year. My job was to study and evaluate those ideas to see if they were valid or not. I kept moving up in Boeing and one day I listened to a speech made by the COO of the company. His advice was to keep moving. “If you don’t move, you don’t get nowhere,” he said. I loved it because that’s exactly me.

PJH: And move you did. Again.

JD: It was at this time I met Safaa. I met her in Lebanon. I was there for Christmas at a family party and met her and it clicked. She came to Seattle and we were married there not long after I became a U.S. citizen in 1980. I was thinking about taking a job as an overseas rep for Boeing. After talking to some ladies whose husbands worked at Boeing doing overseas work, Safaa realized it would be a tough life for her if we did that. I also had good friend, John Love, say to me: “Jimmy, what the hell you doing in Seattle? Come back here.” I said, “OK, I’ve had enough sitting at a desk.” So we packed up for Jackson. Sadek was born in 1981. He was nine months old when we moved to Jackson for good.

PJH: Was Indian jewelry paying the bills?

JD: Well, I came back to Jackson in 1981 with an idea to start a chain called Pedro’s Mexican Food. I took the hotdogs and hoagies and enlarged the area and started Pedro’s in Jackson. When I was ready to open my second restaurant, conflicts started showing. I had a family now. I was thinking about Rexburg, but to go to Rexburg it was a long trip. Four hours a day and you might have to stay there, and with my family I thought, this is not going to work. That put an end to that idea.

You know, you sacrifice for the family a lot in business. The question has come up more than once in my business life. Even when we did A Touch of Class, I was approached by a guy who had a huge mall in Southern California (South Coast Plaza). He said, “Why don’t you open a store here? You’ll make a killing with what you have.” It didn’t take long, within 24 hours I had the answer: No, I want to be here in Jackson with my family.

PJH: What do you remember about Jackson in those early years?

JD: The mayor was Ralph Gill. Warren Erbe was one councilman. Paul Bruun was a councilman. I didn’t know much about politics. I didn’t care much about politics at that time.

I remember I was not accepted right away when I was here. Just to give you an example, I was with a friend and we went to the Lame Duck for lunch. When we were done eating I pulled out my checkbook for the $6 bill or whatever it was. I started writing a check and the lady looked at me and said, “Who the hell are you that you think I’m going to take your check?”

I don’t blame those people. The people who were here, who have lived here and have seen a lot of people come and go. It’s not possible to trust everybody. I have a lot of respect for those people. In fact, those people are the reason I came here and stayed here. I can see it now after 37 years. They are rough around the edges sometimes, but their quality, simplicity and clarity is remarkable. This place is beautiful between the scenery and the wildlife, but the people who settled this place and make it their home are what’s really special.

Jim Darwiche and his wife, Safaa, met at a Christmas party in Lebanon. PHOTO: JIM DARWICHE

Jim Darwiche and his wife, Safaa, met at a Christmas party in Lebanon. PHOTO: JIM DARWICHE

PJH: So you were living the Jackson Hole dream but not exactly the American dream?

JD: We worked very hard and I remember my wife said at the end of that first year, “We came back for that little money?” I was making a lot more money at Boeing. But it gave us opportunity to travel. So we would get in this Volkswagen camper van and drive to Canada, California, all over. Then I took a trip with my wife and Sadek to Africa. Safaa’s brother had a business in Africa so I stayed with him for four months on the Ivory Coast. It was then I saw how much of a struggle business people have there in Africa. Conditions are bad. You have to live with air conditioning everywhere because it’s so hot and humid. There is no good medical system. I learned a lot from that trip. I realized how much some people sacrifice to build their future.

I’ll never forget it, I was preaching to a friend of mine downtown and I said, “Look how lucky we are, the Square is air conditioned.” We are so lucky to be here. We have a credit system here. People are willing to lend you money. I came back from Africa with a new attitude. I was ready to open another business. I didn’t know what that business would be and I didn’t care. I just wanted to open a business.

PJH: That new business was A Touch of Class?

JD: Where Jack Dennis is, they were turning that upstairs into a mall. I had a friend in San Diego who had a crystal shop. You know, figurines and such. I got a $20,000 loan and started that shop upstairs and it was a struggle. The first year we did nothing but I did manage to pay back the loan. That business started growing little by little. We carried Swarovski crystal. After three years, we became the number one Swarovski store in North America in 1987.

It’s important to note that, to me, the community is a part of our success. It’s not direct sometimes. The business could survive just from the mail order we do, or from the tourists that come. But the community is always a part of it. It gives you that backbone and that support you need. The friendships, the nourishment, the schools for your kids. This is a beautiful place to be. The nature is beautiful and the tourist business is great, but the thing that makes this place truly special is the people who make up the community.

PJH: You’ve admitted you get restless after four or five years. What was next after A Touch of Class?

JD: After a Touch of Class, I got into real estate. I bought a lot on the golf course up north (JH Golf & Tennis) and built a house. I lived there for four or five years. Before that I rented a place like everybody else. You know, people always complain about housing being expensive. From day one when I got here people were saying that. Housing is no different than California or anywhere else. If you don’t make the income to afford your housing, yes, it becomes hard. And it’s limited here. I lived in a rental unit for years and then I realized the economy is moving. I figured it was time for me to build.

I built that house and I mortgaged it maybe 10 times. Every time I saw a real estate opportunity I mortgaged the house, got some cash and bought it. I built six units for employee housing in 1987-88 on Milward. They are beautiful units. A lot of people have rented them and enjoyed them.

PJH: You still have them?

JD: Yes. In fact, people in real estate don’t like me. They say, “Jimmy buys, he does not sell [laughs].” I did buy a couple commercial properties. You want to do the right thing with whatever you do. We are not the people who are going to be making a dollar and leaving this place. We are here to stay. We are not going anywhere. We love this place. I left a home in Lebanon that was destroyed by the Civil War and this is the home I choose to be in. I have traveled the world and I know I could live anywhere. It’s not a second home for us. This is our first home.

PJH: And now you are about to open Jackson’s newest hotel.

JD: Right now I’m developing the hotel and it’s really exciting. It’s almost eight years in the planning and process. I’m proud to say we do have a beautiful project. The hotel is LEED certified. It has advanced, state-of-the-art systems that have never been used before in this valley including a very hi-tech HVAC system that conserves energy. Also, 95 percent of the lights are LED. Our parking system has a lot of innovation. We hired a brilliant decorator out of Vermont that brought a mix of the old and the new. Hopefully we’ll make the payments. It will be open for the summer season. Maybe by May.

PJH: You’ve dabbled in politics with a term on the Board of County Commissioners and a failed run for state congress.

Jim Darwiche has planted entrepreneurial roots in Jackson Hole that will culminate in the opening of Hotel Jackson this spring. PHOTO: JIM DARWICHE

Jim Darwiche has planted entrepreneurial roots in Jackson Hole that will culminate in the opening of Hotel Jackson this spring. PHOTO: JIM DARWICHE

JD: There are people who may think, “Oh that Jim Darwiche is a politician.” Politics is less than three percent of my life. It’s not much. Politics started for me when I saw that I had plenty. I’m doing well, I thought, so it’s time to give back and serve. Never in my mind did I come here to benefit and walk away and use it somewhere else. It’s a two-way street. I came here and got a lot from America and now I feel I have a lot to offer America. I have culture, experience, education. They are not mine. Everything America has to offer is mine. What I have isn’t mine. It’s also for America, for my community.

PJH: Founding the Farmers Market was also a labor of love?

JD: The Farmers Market was very interesting. It was a time when people started coming to Jackson and, if you stepped back and examined the community, you would see circles, niches. One of them is the arts. One is wildlife. One is health. One is conservation. One is rodeo and agricultural community. These niches are nothing more than divisions in a way. We are sometimes a community where the right hand is not connected to the left hand.

People who have money who came here and somehow, through their connections and their passions, they joined one of those groups. For a good donation of $50,000 they just bought their important position within a circle or group, but they never mingle with or notice other groups. There was no connection.

I was in some kind of seminar at the library and one old-timer there said, “Community is gone. There is no community left.” It touched my heart. It broke my heart. He is right, I thought, but I’m not going to let it go. I wanted something – I didn’t know what that would be – that would bring everybody together. I thought a Farmers Market could do that but the obstacles were huge. I mean, we grow nothing here. The weather is not supportive. Even my neighbor said, “You’re out of your mind. It will never work.” Well, I’m stubborn enough that I thought it would.

It was a fight. Even the mayor at that time – and I shouldn’t say this – but nobody gave me a chance or any help. But I did formulate the Farmers Market. And I have been very protective of the Farmers Market. A lot of people who criticize it say, “Aw, Jimmy is hogging the Farmers Market.” What they don’t understand is that it is very easy to damage something in this place. It’s easier to tear down than it is to build up.

I was part of another organization before. It was called the Historic Downtown Business Association. That did not survive long after I left it. I was the cofounder with Rick Hollingsworth – a great guy – and we turned it over to others after six months. We thought we had a beautiful organization. Down to the ground it went in no time. So that’s why I became very protective of the Farmers Market.

The purpose of the Farmers Market is to bring everyone together. I wanted to make sure I saw the newcomer and the old-timer, the rich and the poor, the guy who’s for environment or the person who is for rodeo. The Farmers Market is a place for everybody. To do that you have to make sure the committee is that. You have to make sure you truly reflect that. It’s a very fine balance. Luckily, the Farmers Market did survive and it’s healthy and it’s a place to be.

PJH: What’s next? Four or five years after the hotel opens, you’ll be restless again.

JD: Who knows? I’m too young. I haven’t spent half of my life yet.

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