The Middle East holds a certain mystery and intrigue for me. For this reason, I was inevitably attracted to the Lebanese Bakery in Imam Haron Road, Claremont. My family and I have, from time to time, enjoyed their delicious range of Mediterranean flatbreads. If you haven’t yet experienced them, check out their website https://www.lebanesebakery.co.za/ to find out more.
Yesterday, however, I visited the bakery not for its cuisine, but out of curiosity about the origins of the business, its current owner, and the vision that inspires him. There I sat down for a chat and cappuccino with the business owner, Khaled. He is a warm and engaging person. I figured he may also be an adventurous soul – and in this I was not disappointed.
The bakery was started in mid-2018 by Shawki, a medical doctor of Lebanese descent. However, within a year of starting the bakery, he left for Ireland to continue his passion for practising medicine. In that time he had become friends with Khaled, who was a regular customer of the Lebanese Bakery.
Khaled, now aged 57, is a qualified civil engineer whose career had taken him into business administration, and in particular the sale and marketing of engineering-related supplies. Khaled had moved to South Africa in 2014 to manage the South African operations of an Egyptian export business.
Shawki’s need to sell the business came at an opportune time for Khaled, who was contemplating what to do next with his life. He had feared that retirement, without something to keep him busy, would leave him feeling bored and frustrated. In the bakery, Khaled saw a mountain of opportunity.
The business was a year-old, so many of the inevitable hardships of starting up a new business had already been borne by the previous owner. In that time it had already built up a good reputation fulfilling a niche in the market – authentic Middle Eastern cuisine is hard to come by in Cape Town.
Apart from some challenges with parking, it is ideally located at a busy intersection of Imam Haron Road – perfectly situated to draw the attention of commuters idling at the robot. It also boasts a state-of-the-art bread oven which Shawki had imported from Lebanon. The oven has 800kg of sand beneath it to ensure the oven maintains its heat, and another 800 kg of rock salt above it, which absorbs moisture to ensure that the oven remains dry – a key factor in the production of the breads.
Khaled saw running the bakery as an opportunity to meet new people, and to enthuse them with his passion for Middle Eastern culture. So when Shawki said “I want to sell”, Khaled said, “Okay, I will buy”.
Khaled enjoys cooking – a pastime which reminds him of his late mother who was a great cook – but he is not a chef. Fortunately, within a month of taking over the business, he was introduced to Clara, a South African chef of German descent who had worked for a number of years in Egypt. She too has a passion for Middle Eastern cuisine. They both share the vision that the people they serve must experience their love for the food that they put into it.
Together, Khaled and Clara spent considerable time reworking the décor of the place, and expanding the offerings on the menu. They are planning towards further additions to the menu in due course – specifically more chicken and beef Lebanese dishes. The business also enjoys the benefit of a Syrian chef, who comes in twice a week, as well as a committed and friendly staff team.
An important goal which Khaled and Clara share is to make their customers feel comfortable and at home. An authentic falafel sandwich is not exactly fast food, but customers seem happy to wait knowing that the food is worth it. While waiting, customers make use of the internet, read magazines, chat and relax.
Although the business is still relatively new, it has some regular customers – including a gentleman who comes in on a daily basis for his falafel sandwich. As a halaal bakery, the bakery is popular among the Muslim community. It also attracts customers with Middle Eastern origin who partake in the food to be reminded of home, but the bakery’s location and good reviews have ensured that the customer-base is drawn from a diverse demographic.
When I asked Khaled about lessons for others wanting to start a small business, he acknowledged that he was very fortunate to have taken over a business which had already overcome the initial hurdles – and in particular one which met a niche market. From his years of business experience, Khaled says that market research is key before launching a new business venture. Is there really a demand for this business? What kind of customer are you targeting? Who is going to come to knock on your door?
He says that the first year or so of a new business is generally exceptionally hard – because nobody knows you yet. You have to be prepared to take a financial knock for a while to build the business, before you can start expecting to see profits. If you are not ready for this, you run the risk of failure. But once you’ve decided to go for it, it is important to persevere. If you can withstand the tough period and remain patient, Khaled maintains that you will succeed.
 At the time of writing this blog, Clara was on maternity leave, but is expected to be back in the bakery in the not too distant future.