It’s been more than 25 years since Arby’s franchisee Yonas Hagos and his family fled from a refugee camp in Sudan to start a new life in America. In that time, he’s overcome language barriers, the disadvantages of growing up poor and survived a near-death experience in the U.S. Army to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning his own business. And it all started in 1992, with a 14-hour flight to Chicago in pursuit of the American Dream.
“We got off the plane and I remember just looking around, amazed. I was 9 years old and it was my first time in America. The houses looked so big and the cars were moving so fast,” Hagos said. “I felt like we were living in this magical place.”
Hagos, his parents and four siblings moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Section 8 housing in Wheaton, Illinois. The five children shared two twin beds, and their parents worked any job they could find to keep food on the table.
“We grew up poor, but rich at heart,” Hagos said. “I saw the work ethic my parents had and that set the foundation for me to become the man I am today. When I turned 14, I had to have my parents sign a waiver so I could take my first job at a fast-food restaurant. I shoveled driveways, cut grass and did anything I could to make money. ”
Hagos supported himself by working in restaurants while attending high school and college. Then 9/11 happened, and his mindset completely changed.
“It was devastating. I wanted to give back to the country that had provided me and my family so many opportunities,” Hagos said. “I felt compelled to stop sitting around and go do something about what had happened. To me, the best way I could do that was by serving in the military.”
In 2002, Hagos enlisted in the U.S. Army, completing a tour in Germany and Kuwait. His final tour came in 2004, when he shipped off to Iraq and nearly lost his life.
On Easter morning, Hagos rode in a Howitzer (tank) as his unit traveled through a dangerous part of Baghdad. Suddenly, shots directed at his unit started firing and one of his comrades screamed “RPG” (rocket-propelled grenade). The RPG exploded against the side of the tank and his body immediately went motionless. Yonas’s unit found him lying in the wreckage without a pulse and labeled him “KIA” (Killed In Action). Nearly a minute passed before he miraculously woke up.
In indescribable pain, Yonas was rushed to the hospital by medics. He underwent numerous surgeries before being transported to Germany to begin his rehab. At the time, Hagos was told he’d only have 50 percent mobility. But following a grueling recovery process, he eventually achieved 95 percent mobility. For his sacrifice, Hagos was awarded the Purple Heart Medal, given to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded or killed while serving.
Granted a second chance at life, Hagos returned home and focused on fulfilling his lifelong dream of owning his own business.
“My parents instilled in me that I can become whatever I want in this world. I always wanted to become a businessman.” Yonas Hagos, Arby’s Franchisee
Hagos started a painting company to save up the money required to purchase his first franchised business, a 24-hour health and fitness club. In the years that followed, he opened up 17 Dunkin’ Donuts before expanding to include a childhood favorite: Arby’s.
“I was a huge fan of Arby’s growing up in Wheaton. One of my business friends was talking it up one day, so I stopped in for a sandwich and tried the Brisket. It was really good, and I realized that Arby’s has so much more to offer than great roast beef sandwiches,” Hagos said.
“I saw the potential for growing with Arby’s and flew to Atlanta to meet the leadership team. Once I sat down and talked with them about their vision for what Arby’s would become, it was just a no-brainer. I saw their excitement about growing the brand and wanted to be apart of it.”
Hagos opened his first Arby’s restaurant in 2019.
“My business wasn’t built overnight, but I think my story shows that if you stay at it, good things will come,” Hagos said.