United foods of Lebanon

Bringing communities together through traditional meals

Tawlet’s flagship restaurant in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood (Photo credit: Greg Demarque)

On a typical Saturday morning at Souk El Tayeb’s farmers’ market, Umm Ali, a woman from a village in south Lebanon, sells her now famous saj sandwiches next to Raed, a farmer from north Lebanon who sells fruits and vegetables grown on his land. Meanwhile, at Tawlet in Mar Mikhael, a restaurant that employs female cooks from around the country, one can indulge in typical dishes originating from the Bekaa one day and the Chouf another.

The Souk El Tayeb organization, the brainchild of food activist and entrepreneur Kamal Mouzawak, truly brings together and celebrates the diversity of Lebanon’s rural regions.

Mouzawak, who was born in 1969, grew up during the Civil War when Lebanese were fighting and killing each other over sectarian differences and generations of children were raised knowing only their own area or region of origin.


Founder of the Souk El Tayeb organization Kamal Mouzawak

It is not surprising then that his ultimate goal for Souk El Tayeb is to find common ground among Lebanese, and use it to build “positive and constructive things” while also getting to know and celebrate the diversity among the country’s various regions.

“For me, Souk El Tayeb is just a human development project, nothing else. It’s not just about the food or hospitality or a farmers’ market, it’s about using them and other projects to tell the best of this land, the best of here and now,” says Mouzawak.

Not surprising either is his choice of food as the medium through which to achieve this vision, since Mouzawak believes that, for any given society, food is the one expression of its tradition that has been the best preserved and passed on through both time and space. He gives the example of how kibbeh (a Lebanese dish made with crushed wheat and ground beef) is now a national street food in Brazil, integrated into the local culture by the Lebanese diaspora that lives there.   

Mouzawak sees food as a “sincere and authentic” reflection of one’s identity and has developed a multi-tiered business centered on that belief.

[pullquote]It’s not just about the food or hospitality or a farmers’ market, it’s about using them and other projects to tell the best of this land[/pullquote]

Starting with a small scale farmers’ market struggling to find a consistent location, Souk El Tayeb is today a social enterprise which manages three farmers’ markets, organizes cultural events, carries out capacity development activities, runs a string of restaurants and guesthouses across Lebanon and has plans to branch out internationally in the works.   

The Delicious Market

It all began in late May 2004 when, at the first edition of The Garden Show (an annual exhibition of outdoor and nature objects), Mouzawak was asked to handle the food section. Mouzawak, who was a food writer at the time, gathered a handful of farmers and producers he had been in contact with and created a five day pop-up farmers’ market he called thimar el ard, meaning fruits of the land.

This event did so well it prompted Mouzawak to launch a weekly version of it, and thus Souk El Tayeb was born.

Souk El Tayeb was first held in 2004 at what was then a parking lot facing Ashrafieh’s Centre Sofil, but it moved to Saifi Village’s parking lot (with Solidere offering the space rent free) six months later when the original lot became a construction site. When construction started at Saifi’s lot as well, Solidere offered the market a space in Beirut Souks’ restaurants and cinema area, again free of charge, and it remains there to this day.

Why a souk?

As Mouzawak explains it, the market’s objective is to allow rural farmers and small scale producers to be in an urban setting where there is both a higher demand for their goods (as compared to rural areas where they are just one among many) and a higher purchasing power.

This kind of setting has the added advantage of allowing all the economic return to go directly to the producer, explains Mouzawak.


Fresh fruit and vegetables for sale at Souk El Tayeb

At the same time, a farmers’ market allows urban dwellers to interact with the producers and farmers and realize that food is more than what is found on a supermarket shelf. “This gives the farmers back their dignity because today, in many societies, the word farmer or peasant has a negative connotation. We want farmers to be proud of what they are doing so that maybe their children will continue doing the same and better,” says Mouzawak.

The mechanisms of a success story

Today, Souk El Tayeb is also held in the Gefinor Center’s courtyard every Wednesday and at The Village Dbayeh every Thursday, but the largest market remains Saturday’s edition in Beirut Souks.

Spring and fall are the market’s busiest seasons when Mouzawak says they have up to a 100 participants (between producers and farmers), but things slow down with the summer heat and winter rain, with the number of participants sometimes dropping to 50.    

Mouzawak explains the simple criteria for having a stand in Souk el Tayeb: “You only have the right to sell what you have planted or produced yourself. Otherwise, it has to have a mission such as promoting Lebanon’s tradition or showing people that they can reuse,” referring to how, for instance, second hand books are sometimes sold at Souk El Tayeb.

The participation fee is $25 for the day, which has not changed since the market’s beginnings, according to Mouzawak. This amount is used to pay for the Souk’s main costs: logistics (such as material dividers, tables and chairs), accounting and hired help.

As such, Souk El Tayeb, which is registered as an NGO, is financially self-sustainable, with its expenses covered through the fees paid by the participants.   

From feasts to Tawlet

Emboldened by the successful coming together of urban and rural manifested through Beirut’s Souk El Tayeb, Mouzawak decided to take his social project a step further by taking city dwellers to the farmers’ and producers’ villages.

“In 2007, we thought ‘why are we only bringing producers to urban areas? Why can’t we go to the rural areas of production from time to time and meet the producers in their own environment? This would make them proud of what they do by celebrating their work and giving recognition for what they stand for,’” says Mouzawak, explaining the launch of Food and Feast, an annual summer event that takes urbanites to area such as Hammena or Anfeh where they spend the day learning about the traditions of that village and lunching on foods specific to it.

These lunches were quite successful, recounts Mouzawak, and they sowed the seeds of a more permanent setup that would allow typical native rural foods to be enjoyed in the city: Tawlet.  

The farmer’s table in Mar Mikhael   

The first Tawlet was launched in 2009 in Mar Mikhael, a location chosen by Mouzawak – years before the area became trendy – largely for its low rental fees at the time.

The idea behind Tawlet is that each day a different woman cooks the food of her native village, with the help of villagers she brings with her and of Tawlet’s permanent chef (who oversees the kitchen’s logistics and helps the woman with the regular dishes).

The main objective of Tawlet is the empowerment of rural women by allowing them to generate income in a sustainable manner. Every woman who cooks at Tawlet is paid $100 for her day’s work, plus $50 for transportation costs. She is also reimbursed for all the ingredients she brought with her or used in the dishes prepared at home.

[pullquote]We want farmers to be proud of what they are doing so that maybe their children will continue doing the same and better[/pullquote]

Each woman works at Tawlet Beirut around once a month, but some of them also work with Souk El Tayeb at other locations or events.

With an average bill of $22, Christine Codsi, Mouzawak’s partner who joined the Souk El Tayeb team before the launch of the first Tawlet and whom he credits for “turning his personal initiative into an institution,” says the restaurant is barely breaking even and is sometimes serving only half its 70 person capacity.

Codsi says this is mainly due to Tawlet Beirut’s hefty expenses. “There are a lot of costs involved in the project, almost equivalent to $7,000 monthly for the chef, and the average [meal] check is low. We don’t want to increase [prices] because we still want people to come and enjoy the food,” she says, adding that operating a restaurant in Beirut is tough because people are always looking for something new.

The Tawlets of Lebanon

While there might be clouds over Tawlet Mar Mikhael, it’s sunny skies over the three other Tawlets in Ammiq, Deir El Qamar and the Biomass farm in Batroun.

Similar to the Beirut restaurant, the three other Tawlets support women from the respective local communities in which the restaurant operates by paying them to cook dishes typical to their area.

Tawlet Ammiq and Tawlet Biomass are seasonal outlets which are open only on weekends and feature an all-inclusive buffet with a price tag of $40 (for adults). Meanwhile, Tawlet Beit El Qamar is open year-round with a buffet on weekends and an à la carte menu during the week (average bill is $13).


Beit El Qamar is both a restaurant and a guesthouse

Boasting an average seating capacity of 190, the three restaurants have been fully booked every weekend this summer, with Tawlet Beit El Qamar busy on weekdays as well. Because the outlets are seasonal, salaries are lower than at Tawlet Beirut, while the average check is higher than at the Beirut branch, explains Codsi, making them a more profitable venture.

Partners in food

The first of these Tawlets was launched in summer 2012 in Ammiq, the wetlands area in west Bekaa, on land donated by the Skaff Estate and in partnership with the Arz El Chouf, which manages the project’s ecological activities.

Tawlet Ammiq was the pilot restaurant through which Mouzawak and Codsi tested the ins and outs of operating a restaurant outside of Beirut.

The subsequent restaurants (Tawlet Beit El Qamar in 2015 and Tawlet Biomass in summer 2016) were developed under what Mouzawak likes to call a “social franchise,” whereby Tawlet is approached to set up the restaurant, carry out the hiring, train the cooks and offer all kinds of support (save for the daily operations) in exchange for a franchise fee, which is basically a percentage of sales, explains Codsi. Tawlet makes no financial investments in these franchises.

Mouzawak prefers this model of business for his outlets outside of Beirut, explaining that partnership and empowerment of the local community is the essence of Souk El Tayeb, and so setting up such restaurants on their own as outsiders would defy that spirit. “We partner with people from the region who have ownership. If I go in by myself, through rent and without a partnership, it would be like colonizing. It’s the locals that have to do it. If they know how to do it alone then good for them; if they need help, we’re here to help them by bringing the knowhow and brand that will help us both create a better project,” explains Mouzawak, adding that this model will be followed with Tawlet Saida, which is scheduled to be launched in summer 2017 in partnership with local MP Bahia Hariri.

Spending the night

The Tawlet restaurants outside Beirut are designed to be more than just a place for a quick bite, with small corners here and there encouraging guests to linger over coffee or indulge in a post meal siesta.

For those who want an even fuller experience of the areas where Tawlet is based, Mouzawak developed guest houses called Beit, with the goal of having customers rediscover and engage with lesser known areas across Lebanon. “Many Lebanese used to have mountain homes where they spent their summer holidays. Today this happens less because people don’t have time, energy or even maybe money, so if you can’t do it for the whole summer at least do it for a weekend or in an environment which is more hospitable and personal,” says Mouzawak, explaining that these guesthouses also feed into his goal of creating dialogue between rural and urban communities.

[pullquote]We partner with people from the region who have ownership. If I go in by myself, through rent and without a partnership, it would be like colonizing.[/pullquote]

Similar to the Tawlet model, the first guesthouse, Beit Douma (six rooms), was developed in summer 2016 as a pilot project owned by Codsi and Mouzawak’s company. Meanwhile, Beit El Qamar (seven rooms) and Beit Ammiq (three rooms) are franchises, along with Beit Zafta (an area adjacent to Nabatieh, south Lebanon), which is set to open in late 2017.

The Beit Douma guesthouse

The Beit Douma guesthouse

The guesthouses are open all year, but are busiest in the summer when waiting lists grow long and room rates reach $200 per night. Rates drop to as low as $100 during off-peak months and special offers are designed to entice guests.

A successful social enterprise

Despite the diversity of operations, Mouzawak explains that all his activities are under the umbrella of Souk El Tayeb, and have a common vision of bringing the rural and urban together through food.

Practically, the farmers’ market and capacity development program are NGOs, while Tawlet Beirut, Tawlet Ammiq and Beit Douma are owned by the SAL company set up by Mouzawak and Codsi in order to facilitate financial issues related to running a business. The other Tawlets and Beits have a franchisor-franchisee relationship with Tawlet. Operational issues such as accounting, human resource development and marketing are handled by one main office.

It is a vision that has resonated well not only with the Lebanese and foreigners living in Lebanon, but also at an international level. After a successful pop-up Tawlet in Parisian concept store, Merci, Mouzawak will be launching a Tawlet Paris toward the end of 2017 that will celebrate the different traditions and cuisines that make up the French demographic.

One of the factors contributing to Souk El Tayeb’s success is its simplicity and authenticity, which has a certain appeal in today’s fast paced world. “It works because people still have a heart and at some point, beyond all the fakeness we are surrounded by, people have a grandmother they remember, who used to cook well, or an uncle who produced from his own land,” says Mouzawak.

Another reason it works is because it is a social enterprise that supports local communities, while also offering high quality products. Mouzawak explains that at one point being a charitable organization was enough to get financial support, but not anymore. “The only solution today is [a] social business where we are socially and environmentally responsible, but at the same time generate income. Everyone has a product or service to sell; [if] you come here to Tawlet, you are not eating for free. If you go to Douma in the summer, it’s not cheap. But the money will not go only to me and my partners to get richer; it has to be socially and environmentally responsible at the same time,” explains Mouzawak.

From employing women from rural villages when hiring a full time chef would have been cheaper and easier, to their choices of heating methods (gas) in the guesthouses, Souk El Tayeb strives to make the best socially and environmentally conscious choices, while at the same time maintaining a good quality product.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail