Breaking new grounds

One woman’s journey in F&B

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Entrepreneurship is about dreaming, and making those dreams come true. This has been my story for the past 20 years.

I started my Dunkin adventure at the age of 20, not thinking for a second that I would still be here 20 years later, still passionate and excited about the brand as if I had opened my first branch yesterday. For me, this is key: I love what we are doing, especially the fact that, with coffee and donuts, we are spreading happiness every morning in 35 branches across Lebanon. Making sure we are putting a smile on people’s faces has been my driving force for the past 20 years.

Semsom is another passion of mine. Inspired by a conversation I had 10 years ago with an American taxi driver who had no idea what Lebanese cuisine could offer, I was determined to spread the joys of our food to the world. I like to think that if he knew what we had achieved since, he would be really proud. We have opened branches in Beirut, Jeddah, Kuwait, Muscat, Dubai, and New York, and the best is yet to come.

I get a lot of questions about my New York experience. It has been very challenging, but very rewarding as well. The main difference with the MENA is that New Yorkers do not know what Lebanese cuisine is.

[pullquote]While our guests knew what hummus, shawarma, and falafel were, they did not associate them with Lebanese cuisine[/pullquote]

We purposefully did not open in areas with a high density of Lebanese because education has been our main mission. One challenge we faced was that while our guests knew what hummus, shawarma, and falafel were, they did not associate them with Lebanese cuisine. Another challenge is that most guests do not like to take risks, especially on their lunch. They have 30 minutes, and they have their favorite spots or numerous options, either on their block or through delivery, to choose from. The risk is not financial, as our meals are around $10, but it is more that they do not want to be disappointed with a meal. So we did a lot of sampling, office tours, and neighborhood parties to introduce them to Semsom because once they taste our hummus—which is made with my grandmother’s recipe—they are hooked and keep coming back: More than 20 percent of our guests visit more than once a week. But, the biggest challenge has been real estate: We had to visit more than 100 locations to finally get a lease. The main reason was that we compete with major global brands such as Pret A Manger, Chipotle, and Starbucks, so it was difficult to get a landlord to give us a space. We had to change all our cooking techniques to be workable at hoodless outlets. We knew going in that the first outlet would be challenging, but it was a way to get our foot in the door.

Overall, it was a challenging two-year learning curve to fully understand how the market worked. We are in a much better place now with three outlets, a pop-up store at Goldman Sachs, great catering deals with major brands, and two more stores in the pipeline. We will be ready as of 2018 to start expanding into other cities.

I have not yet discussed how being a woman factors into all of the above. Perhaps it is because I actually do not label myself a “woman entrepreneur,” but rather, simply, a passionate entrepreneur. It is a challenging world out there for all of us, women and men. The highs and lows are the same for both. And teaching this to young women entrepreneurs through mentoring has been one of the most rewarding experiences for me. I thrive in helping others flourish, in ensuring that they dare to dream, and more importantly, in guiding them to equip themselves with the tools to realize their dreams.

Christine Assouad is the franchisee of Dunkin Donuts in Lebanon and the owner of Semsom, a Lebanese eatery.