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Mar 30, 2024

Lights, Camera, Omelets

Barry Kaufman

Photography By

When she’s not filming with Hollywood A-listers, you’ll find Adi Aliu serving up smiles at Gringo’s Diner and living the American dream.

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Adi Aliu arrived in the United States at the age of 24. She didn’t speak a word of English. Coming here from her native Kosovo, she’d managed to land a job in housekeeping at the Marriott on Hilton Head Island. Like so many, she’d come here for the opportunity at a better life. Seeing how far she’s come since, it’s clear that she grabbed opportunity with both hands and never let go.

Start with her transition up to New York City, where she proved to be a natural fit for the modeling world. Blessed with a show-stopping classic beauty, her inescapable charm led to modeling gigs posing for names like Calvin Klein, Macy’s and American Eagle.

It’s a career that she kept at, even as another opportunity presented itself. She’d met chef Ariel Palma during her time at Marriott, and he asked her to return to the island to help him run Gringo’s Diner. By late 2014, the two of them were the diner’s new owners.

“When I came back down here, everything in my life became focused on the restaurant,” she said. That focus paid off, with Gringo’s Diner becoming one of the island’s most treasured spots for breakfast and lunch. It’s hard to say which is the bigger draw – the elegantly light and fluffy pancakes, the exquisitely juicy burger or the tremendous sense of community that the diner enjoys.

A Gringos Burger served with American cheese, pickles, and freshly cut French fries.

Yet even as she helped build her business into an island institution, she continued to pursue her modeling career. Naturally, she would turn down any gig that took her away from Gringo’s during the summer, when the crush of visitors turns all of Coligny Plaza into an open-air party, but during the off-season she’d be constantly on the move.  

“I’d do a photoshoot for Porsche in Atlanta, then a magazine shoot in Europe, then work with fashion designers in L.A…. I really enjoy it,” she said. “Then I come back here and get right behind the counter.”

It’s not only a remarkable success story of an immigrant in the land of opportunity, but also a remarkable feat simply to juggle two such very different careers. A few years ago, she decided to add one more hat by pursuing actor.

“I lost my mom in 2017, and she was my biggest inspiration,” said Aliu. “When I lost her, I literally felt like my life was over, like I didn’t want to do anything anymore. But she always told me I’d make a good actress.”

Adi Aliu is photographed at Gringos Diner, wearing a dress courtesy of Shop!

Aliu’s mother had provided one last burst of inspiration, and she began auditioning. She quickly found that motion picture cameras loved her just as much as a fashion photographer’s camera, with offers flying in for roles.

She spent eight months on “Fear the Walking Dead,” discovering camaraderie among grueling filming conditions. She shared scenes with the likes of Hugh Jackman, Liam Hemsworth, Glen Powell, Joe Jonas and Alicia Vikander. She got a high five from Michael Douglas and shared an orange with Stan Lee on the set of “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”

“Growing up in Kosovo, I never thought that one day I’d grow up, come here and work with all of these movie and TV stars,” she said, “But Gringo’s Diner is my baby. This got me where I am today, and without it I wouldn’t have been able to follow my dream.”  

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