Meet the company that changed the way a country looks at its food

Anjali Oberoi | I would not be doing justice to Souk El Tayeb if I pitched this piece simply as a case study of a successful food business. Not even if I mentioned that this business flourished in such a small and unstable market as Lebanon, which has seemed on the brink of collapse for the past 50 years.

You see, what I find the most fascinating about Souk el Tayeb is that, by all accounts, it is both patient zero and the undisputed leader of Lebanon’s sustainable food trend gone viral. Since its creation in 2004, Souk el Tayeb has revived Lebanon’s farmers’ market, introduced Lebanese people to farm-to-table, and pretty much saved the country’s previously moribund rural culinary heritage. 

In all fairness, the Lebanese, who rarely skip a beat drummed in San Francisco, New York or Paris, would have sooner or later joined the good food movement. But overlooking Souk el Tayeb’s role in ushering this movement into the country and shaping its development would be like dismissing Tartine Bakery’s contribution to the return of good bread in America.

The Souk el Tayeb farmers' market of Beirut

When Christine Codsi, my interviewee and Souk el Tayeb’s Managing Partner, joined in 2008, the organization had already made a name for itself delivering on an audacious bet: convincing Lebanese farmers to sell directly to customers at a weekly market in one of the poshest neighborhoods of Beirut. The project was the brainchild of Souk el Tayeb’s founder, Kamal Mouzawak, whom Noma’s Rene Redzepi once described as “one of the great culinary minds of our time”, thus saying nothing specific, yet most of what you might be able to pin down about Kamal. By my account, Kamal is the archetype of the visionary entrepreneur, whose organizational oversights are largely offset by bold creativeness and flair for what will work.

“Souk el Tayeb had plenty of projects, but it was all very messy. Initially, I came for three months to help set up a strategy”, says Christine. Back then, she was on a temporary leave from a management consulting job, pondering a career change. Listening to her story reminds me of a few pieces I read about the importance of having a cofounder, and how to choose a cofounder (If that’s a topic of interest I would recommend Jeff Bussang’s piece in Inc, Ken Lin’s piece also in Inc, and Mangalindan’s report on Paul Graham’s contribution at the LAUNCH Festival 2014). 

Kamal Mouzawak and Christine Codsi

Christine and Kamal are the perfect illustration of the proverbial partnership that produces something greater than the sum of its part. Like Tawlet for example, Souk el Tayeb’s farm-to-table operation, which was launched in 2009 with an original feature: every day the chef is a different farmer, who brings in recipes from her region’s culinary heritage. “In the beginning, our main difficulty was to implement an idea that was operationally unprecedented. One woman-chef a day, one menu a day, and bringing the chef every day from a different region of Lebanon… and neither of us was a restaurant person! How do we make this look professional without losing the spirit of home-cooked food and without missing our goal to shed light on the women behind that food?”. The challenge was not just logistical. As a financial benchmark, Christine tells me that their food and labor costs amount to about 40% of their revenues, thus 1.5 to 2 times what a classic restaurant would incur. The story of Tawlet, which is now a chain of 5 restaurants spread across Lebanon, adds up to a compelling case for the marriage of Kamal’s ingenuity and Christine’s methodicalness.… that and perhaps two more things: Souk el Tayeb’s loyalty to its mission, and its calm pragmatic approach to business growth. 

Tawlet-Beirut, where Lebanese farm-to-table was born

Christine reminds me that Souk el Tayeb’s motto is “Make food, not war”. While this twist on the 1960’s anti-Vietnam war slogan knows no shortage of claimants, it is unlikely to find a more fitting context than Lebanon, where inter-community tension spikes are routine. For Souk el Tayeb, making food not war has meant gathering people from different communities around the protection of a common heritage. 

I draw insight from this. As consultants to many startups, we at Bernoulli Finance have often witnessed companies struggle with keeping a strategic focus. One of the mantras of entrepreneurship is to be flexible, which, wrongly interpreted, can lead to scattering resources, pursuing too many opportunities, and ultimately losing direction. While you will find companies that have achieved success only after completely redefining themselves - sometimes a few times over -  these are hardly the norm. The road to growth generally comes with a clear vision of your corporate values. This is more than just a marketing point about building a strong brand. Defining who you are is a powerful yardstick that will help you filter out what is simply not for you. 

This does not preclude revising your plans on a regular basis and taking up new opportunities that you hadn’t imagined six months earlier. Today, Souk el Tayeb operates two (soon three) farmers’ markets, five restaurants, four bed and breakfasts, and a UNHCR-sponsored capacity building program benefitting Palestinian and Syrian refugees. “The organization looks nothing like what we had planned in 2007” says Christine. But these unplanned activities aggregated rather naturally through the years because each fit right in with Souk el Tayeb’s values.

Palestinian and Syrian refugee women participating in Souk el Tayeb's capacity building program, sponsored by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)

In a 2016 interview with Guy Raz’s on How I Built This, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard summarized his entrepreneurial style this way: “If I get an idea, I immediately take a step forward, and see how that feels. If it feels good, I take another step. If it feels bad, I step back”. I discern a similar pattern in Souk el Tayeb’s approach to growth through the years. And there is something powerful about it. It is altogether centered on values, yet agnostic about what’s possible under those values, and utterly pragmatic about growth. 

Also, this might be the most sensible approach to novelty in the food industry. Disruptions in food consumption habits are rare. Think about how long it took for Americans to like sushi vs. say the iPhone or Toms Shoes. Food startups should keep that fact in mind. While it does not place a limit on growth figures, it does highlight that the dynamics to create momentum are different in the food industry. And, that’s where I sum up my main lesson from Souk el Tayeb’s story: if you want to do something new with food, do it slow, do it right, and be yourself.