Customer Spotlight: Soufi's
As a young entrepreneur and owner-operator of a successful business staying true to its cultural roots, we had to sit down with Soufi’s Jala. We caught up with her on a busy Tuesday afternoon to talk Syrian food, culture, and what it takes to open a thriving business in Toronto’s food space.
How did you first get into the restaurant business?
[Jala] I moved to Canada about 6 years ago with the rest of my family immigrating here about 2 years ago. Once my mom, dad, and two brothers got here, they decided they wanted to open a restaurant. We all sort of noticed when we got here that there was a lack of authentic Middle Eastern, and specifically Syrian food.
So you noticed a golden opportunity and took it!
[J] Well, there were a lot of Middle Eastern, Lebanese, and Israeli restaurants, but not many that were doing it well, and not any Syrian-specific locations. This gave us a chance to fill a niche and share with the city our culture’s two national specialties: Knaffeh (knafeh, kanafeh, kunafa, kanafeh, or kunefe), and Mana’eesh (manakish, manakeesh, manaish, or a single man'ooshe).
Sounds interesting, what are they?
[J] Knaffeh is like a hot, sweet dessert that’s a layer of halloumi cheese topped with crunchy phyllo pastry, which is then baked and drizzled with orange blossom syrup.
[J] Mana’eesh is a popular snack back home - it’s baked with a variety of different fillings like cheese, thyme, spinach, or ground meat to name a few. Both of these are really popular back home, though fairly unknown in Toronto, and are eaten at any time of day as a grab-and-go snack or part of a meal. That’s why we decided to focus on these two specialties. I really like to cook and bake as well, which allowed me to expand on these traditional recipes to come up with the two vegan versions of the knaffeh.
Wow you made these up yourself?! What’s in them?
[J] The ‘Banoffeh’ has bananas covered in a sweet vegan coconut tahini caramel, then topped with walnuts. Then I made a cashew cheese version that has a cashew cheese filling instead of halloumi, which we make in-house from scratch.
[We tried their cashew cheese knaffeh due to dietary restrictions, and spinach mana’eesh for a quick snack. The knaffeh was crispy, warm, cheesy, and delicious, and tastes like a hug from mom on a cold winter day. This vegan version has all the added nutritional benefits of cashews without any of the negative effects of dairy!]
What other aspects of the business are you involved in?
[J] I also do the PR and marketing for the business, and we were just featured in a New York Times article in January, which was pretty exciting! As an extension of that I was also involved in a panel at University of Toronto which involved an editor from the NYT and a few other reporters, as well as myself and two other Syrian-run restaurateurs. Also Toronto Life magazine just featured us in the top 20 new restaurants in Toronto last week!
You probably see a nice influx in foot traffic each time a new publication comes out right?
[J] Definitely, every time a new article or interview is published we see a good amount of new customers. We actually still get people coming in weeks and months later saying they were either at the panel, or they read the article, which is really nice.
Your space is quite nicely designed, what was your thought process behind this?
[J] The design is about 50/50. Half comes from a branding and marketing team that I outsourced to help us with designing a logo, menu, and business cards, then half from Syrian artists and family members. For example this painting over here is by a Syrian artist, former OCAD student, and good friend of mine, but these posters over here were from the marketing team. We actually had a lot of my grandmother's antiques shipped from Syria to Jordan then here, so a lot of the little trinkets you see around are from my grandmother’s house. I also ask friends to bring stuff back for me when they go home to visit. We really wanted to represent the Syrian culture well, with art, music, and atmosphere, so we’re always playing Middle Eastern music.
My last question is, how has ChefHero made your ordering process easier?
[J] It’s been really great to be honest, I have no complaints. We’ve been with you guys for about 8-9 months now, I remember we placed our first order about a week before we even opened. The customer service is really great, the response rate whenever we have any questions is awesome. It’s made things really easy for us because it’s nice to have a platform that combines all our different suppliers in one place, and the next-day delivery is also great!