Even the city’s most passionate diners may not immediately recognize Ahrif Sarumi’s name, but they know his business. Since December 2014, the pop-up series Aces of Taste has hosted over 30 dinners featuring some of Houston’s best chefs. Everyone from a pre-Riel Ryan Lachaine to Lucille’s Chris Williams and Fluff Bake Bar’s Rebecca Masson has had a turn leading the kitchen.
While Sarumi has become successful enough to contemplate a 10-year plan for Aces — more on that in a bit — the road to success hasn’t been smooth or straightforward. Figuring out the right path has taken some time.
After earning a journalism degree from the University of Iowa, Sarumi returned to his hometown of Chicago and began working for a national public relations firm. He quit after three months.
"I hated it. I got out of that," Sarumi recalls.
He then spent a couple years as an academic advisor for Kaplan University before deciding to move to Houston and earn a master's degree in higher education from the University of Houston. That’s when he first began to contemplate starting his own business.
"In the last semester, I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur," Sarumi says. "I didn’t know what that meant yet. I knew that I wanted to make an amalgamation of what I learned in journalism, marketing, psychology, and education; I just didn’t have what that was yet."
Like most small business owners, Sarumi had to decide how to make his mark.
"I just asked myself, 'what makes me genuinely happy?' That was really important to me when I moved here, to be happier," he says. "I knew I had to ask myself 'what am I good at?', 'what can I make money at?', and 'what will make me happy?' It was sort of a Venn diagram: whatever fit in those three things what was I was going to do."
Initially, he thought that being a freelance marketing consultant would satisfy those three needs. While working full-time as an academic advisor at the Art Institute of Houston, Sarumi started consulting for free and eventually earned a recommendation that led to a paying gig. After saving up about a year’s income, he quit his full-time job to build his business.
"I was making $17.50 an hour at my regular job," Sarumi states. "Success for me was, 'can I double my income by saying I want to work for $35 an hour'? When that person said yes, all I needed to do was get one more client, and I’d be working half the amount of time for the same amount of pay.'
While he eventually did earn more clients, he realized he wasn’t as happy as he wanted. The new career felt like too much of a job. After trying and failing to launch a couple of internet-based businesses, Sarumi had a realization that would ultimately lead to Aces of Taste.
"I realized people really enjoyed the events I put on for those businesses: the launch parties, the events around those ideas," he says. "They’d say, 'I want to come to your next event.' When I realized that, I thought maybe I shouldn’t try to be an internet entrepreneur. Maybe I should focus on events."
Sarumi says that he noticed how passionate people could be about food. Diners wanted new experiences that could deepen their understanding of not just what they were eating, but that also allowed them to connect with the people making their food. Chefs wanted a platform to engage with potential customers outside their restaurants. He created Aces of Taste to satisfy both groups.
"Up-and-coming chefs wanted to cook for people, wanted to try out their ideas," he says. "The veteran chefs we worked with, they were working toward bringing people back to their restaurants. We were a new way to give them exposure. We did video, photography, and social media that exposed them to a new clientele."
To entice customers in the beginning, Sarumi says he sent out 200 personalized emails to bloggers, influencers, and media members. Even if only 10 percent responded, he figured that would get him the necessary buzz to attract more people to the next event.
Aces also got a boost when Sarumi began working with hospitality industry veteran Abigail Diaz and social media guru Julie Julez. With Diaz providing logistical expertise to ensure each event went smoothly — no one likes a five-course dinner that takes four hours to serve — and Julez growing the Aces Instagram account to over 10,000 followers, the dinners quickly attracted a following.
Recently, Sarumi took the next step to grow Aces by signing a long-term lease on a space in East Downtown that will give the group a permanent home. Slated to open later this year, it will include both 2,000 square feet of event space for future pop-ups, and a 900-square-foot kitchen with enough room for both Aces of Taste-themed catering and a space for up-and-coming chefs to prep for their own pop-ups. Sarumi has partnered with chef Toya Terry, of Brenner’s on the Bayou and Holley’s, on the catering business.
"This is the longest job I’ve ever had," Sarumi says. "I have a pretty big vision for what Aces of Taste can become, and I’m still figuring it out ... I have a 10-year vision for what Aces of Taste might look like. This is the next exciting step: to have a big space, to offer catering, and to give up-and-coming chefs a place where they can create what they want."