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Lebanon 2019 | TOURISM | INTERVIEW

Zaatar w Zeit is bringing traditional Lebanese cuisine to diners all over the world, from Canada to the Gulf.

Mahmoud Sobh
BIOGRAPHY
Mahmoud Souh graduated as a chemical and petroleum engineer from the University of Calgary, Canada. Souh started his professional career in 1993 working at Dow Chemical, Fluor Canada, and Shell Canada Ltd. on major petrochem and oil and gas projects. He joined British American Tobacco in 2004, where he served as Business Planning Director for Middle East and North Africa Area and later General Manager for Levant. During this period, he completed an executive MBA with INSEAD. His experience with Fortune 100 companies was gained in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Algeria, Egypt, GCC, UK, South Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean. In December 2016, he joined Zaatar W Zeit as General Manager.

How have you developed the brand through time?

We are extremely proud to celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2019. Most brands in the F&B industry do not have long lifespans, due to the constantly changing market and consumption trends. We first started with a simple concept to serve Manousheh, the Lebanese staple street food, in a way that conformed to best-in-class service and hygiene standards. We aimed to deliver the same product one would find in Lebanese bakeries but focusing on quality and experience to cater to a more sophisticated, young, and international crowd. Given our initial success, we began opening new branches and achieving success while maintaining our quality and consistency. We became a leading regional chain, whereby customers know what they are getting when they choose Zaatar w Zeit.

What is your geographical distribution, and how have you adapted your strategy to the different markets?

Currently, we operate around 80 branches worldwide. We have 24 branches in Lebanon and are about to open the 25th this year. Outside of Lebanon, we are present in six countries: the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Canada. Given Lebanon's limited growth vis-à-vis our ambition, we are now concentrating more on strengthening our presence abroad. This requires the development of relevant marketing and business development strategies to target the different markets. What we serve and represent in Lebanon is somewhat different from what we do abroad. In Lebanon, we have gradually distanced ourselves from traditional Lebanese cuisine to become relatable to the new generation, developing new products and adapting traditional Lebanese food to international trends. We want to offer something new instead of competing with traditional Lebanese bakeries and restaurants. Innovation is one of the main factors of our success; however, our expansion outside of Lebanon is not reflective of the diaspora. We aim to target promising markets that have an interest in Lebanese food. Therefore, our strategy for these markets is to serve more traditional Lebanese food than what we do in Lebanon itself.

What is the rationale behind opening the Canadian branch?

The Canadian market is extremely different from the Middle East. We want to enter the market cautiously to understand the Canadian consumer. Canada will serve as a testing ground for a potential expansion in other Western markets. Based on internal market research, Canada will cover 70% of what western consumers will want. We decided to open first in Vancouver to test the ground for further expansion as it has the least Arabic population. While cities in the eastern half of Canada have a larger Lebanese diaspora, we want to ensure our franchise model also works in the absence of an Arab population. We need to guarantee the franchise will work everywhere and not only for a specific group. We have had extensive discussions with several European and North American partners, and they were extremely excited by our Vancouver plans. Following the growing demand for Lebanese and ethnic cuisines in North America, I am confident we have enough grounds to establish ourselves as a modern Lebanese brand. Another component of our strategy that we will need to adapt is the speed of service. We will be located in downtown Vancouver, where there are many corporate offices, university students, and tourists. It will be crucial to enhance the grab-and-go section for people who want to eat on the go; this is also likely to be the case in the center of most Western cities. Finally, a big part of our design for the Canadian model will be sourcing local zero-kilometers raw materials. While this is often not possible in the Gulf, in Lebanon we try where possible to support local production and limit our contribution to pollution generated by transportation. Low carbon footprint food will be even more of our focus in Canada, where the government openly supports local businesses to practice this trend.