Bringing Middle Eastern Coffee Culture to Canada with Anas Alsaid
This week, I spoke with Anas Alsaid, the co-owner of Pistachio Sweetery Cafe here in Vancouver. Anas opened the cafe this summer with a friend and is excited to bring Middle Eastern & Mediterranean drinks, sweets and pastries to the city.
We chatted about how he is maintaining a full-time Engineering job at the same time, where his passion for the service industry comes from, and how he got to where he is now.
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In this conversation, we covered:
What were you doing before Pistachio? I know you're not coming to this immediately from another hospitality job.
Correct, so what I was doing—and actually what I'm still doing is working full-time as a structural engineer. Definitely nothing related to hospitality! I have an engineering background. It might sound crazy, but yeah I do still have my full-time job, and I run the coffee shop that I have. It's very challenging of course, but I believe with good time management it can be done.
So yeah, I am coming from an engineering background but I do have some previous experience in hospitality. We used to have a coffee shop back in Muscat, Oman, which gave me experience in the field. So I decided to open kind of the same concept here in Vancouver.
So then what made you want to open Pistachio?
So many different reasons. I would say first, passion. I do have a passion for the field. I've always wanted to do that, to open my own coffee shop. I would say that's number one.
The second thing is the opportunity. Because of COVID, there are many good locations that were available for rent. It was a good opportunity to take advantage of. I would say that maybe this is one of the few benefits of COVID, I didn't think I'd have the ability to find a good location like the one I found downtown.
The third most important thing I would say is the opportunity and the special idea that we have. Our coffee shop is not a typical coffee shop. It has a Mediterranean touch.
Vancouver is missing the Mediterranean sweets and dessert items, which I believe are very delicious. I wanted to bring this to Vancouver.
If anyone is familiar with the East Coast, Ontario, Québec, there are tons of these places out there. But, for some reason, there's not much here. Only a few places, one in Vancouver. And the majority are in the restaurant business, so like food items, lunches, dinners et cetera. I just wanted to focus on coffee, sweets, desserts, quick bites, and these types of things. I felt these, the passion, opportunity, and time was perfect for me to start that business.
I want to dig deeper into that passion. Where does it come from?
I guess it's a factor of so many things It's something that comes from my personality. I'm a social person that likes to talk to people, and meet new people.
Another thing to mention is I am partnered with someone. With a very close friend, my best friend. So we are doing this in partnership. So this is also teamwork. The management aspect, day-to-day tasks and routines all come into that passion. But I would say it's something you are just kind of born with.
I would say it's just something you really like. I would have to mention one thing though when you have that passion for something, you only look at the positive aspects. You don't pay too much attention to some of the downsides or negative stuff when you want to round up business. So it's a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing in that it gives you the power to do it but doesn't give you the full risk analysis. You need to have that balance between all these items, really.
So how do you balance that? Is it the engineer in you?
I would say yes honestly because part of engineering work is actually project management and risk management, and risk analysis. This actually helps me a lot. Some people might say engineering is completely different than hospitality, and it's true, but at the same time, you can use some of the skills you learned. Especially, I would say project management skills. These were very helpful for me when I started the business. Just balancing things, I would say, was the hardest thing to do.
My decision was based on that. I've always had the idea and it would always been in my head. I got the opportunity to do it now, or just delay it. I thought, ok, I might risk a few hundred thousand dollars towards the investment in the business, but it's better than having regret for the rest of my life. "I wish I'd done that", I just didn't want every time I walked into a coffee shop or something to think "Oh, I always had that idea in my head but I never did it."
So that was actually the conclusion of my decision. If for some reason that business was not successful, I would still be comfortable. Ok, I'd have lost a few thousand dollars but I don't want to live with regrets for the rest of my life. That was actually kind of what made me ok to just go with it.
To Open A Franchise Or His Own Independent
What was the process of opening the coffee shop like?
I got the opportunity through connections to have a franchise of one of the very popular coffee shops in Vancouver. Again, because of COVID, they had the opportunity to have one of the locations, like their franchise locations. I started going in that direction but when I went into the details, I just felt that it wasn't really what I'm looking for. Because with the franchise I can't be very creative. I cannot really have my own ideas. It's still a great opportunity for lots of people. But I just didn't really feel like this is what I was looking for.
I just didn't feel like I'd be happy with the opportunity.
Then, I started to look at "okay, I'll just do my own brand," and just started to look for places and locations, and this was the hardest thing, to be honest. When you look in downtown Vancouver, and you are a new business in Canada, lots of landlords—and by all means, they have the right to do so—they're just not comfortable with a new business. Someone that will be their first location. They will just be too picky about it, and at the same time, we didn't want to open outside downtown Vancouver because it is the hub. It's where everything is happening.
We're still looking into, thinking about having another location down the road in another city like Coquitlam, Burnaby, Surrey or something like that. But we just felt our first location should be in downtown Vancouver.
So finding the right location was very very challenging, to be honest. It did delay us, I would say 6 months at least. We would go and like the place and put in an offer, but then we just couldn't compete with someone with an existing location or experience.
Middle Eastern Coffee, Sweets & Culture
You mentioned that Mediterranean food is missing in Vancouver. Tell me why that was important for you to bring that to Vancouver.
I would say number one was the lack of competition. There are not lots of coffee shops that present the idea. We felt there is also a large community from the Middle East that is missing this thing. Another thing is we wanted to target as many people as we can.
We wanted to target a large audience so we have that as a main component. We're still doing the typical coffee drinks, the typical sweets. We still have cheesecakes, we still have croissants, we still have danishes. We still have all the press drinks, lattes, americanos, et cetera.
Basically, the essential stuff that everyone is looking for no matter what their background is. But we always wanted to have that additional touch.
We just felt because of my background we know that these desserts and sweets are very delicious and will be popular. Everyone will like it no matter what's their background. So that's why we decided to focus on that.
One last thing because of connections, this is very important for any successful business. You need to have good connections.
So I do, have good connections with a few pastry chefs with that background. That really helped us when we started the business.
You only opened a few months ago. How has it been educating your customers about your menu?
So far so good. It's very challenging for sure. We tried to focus on the popular stuff. I'll give you an example, baklava, even though it's something considered a Mediterranean dessert, lots of people are already familiar with it. I think it is because Vancouver is kind of a multi-cultural city, just like Canada, I would say. So this made it very easy for us and in general. We found our customers are eager to learn and try new stuff. And actually very knowledgeable about lots of the items. I was surprised actually, I wanted to give more explanation!
Like, one of our very popular ones is konafa. I thought a lot of people wouldn't know it. I was surprised that no, actually the majority are already familiar with it and they were actually looking for a place to try it.
We actually have these small notes because it's easy for me as a business owner, or for my partner to explain these items to customers. But it is very challenging for our staff, our baristas. That was a little hard but we tried to make it like a procedure or guideline. We tried to give proper training. If you choose the right staff things will be easy. That's another thing that was also very challenging. Just the whole recruiting aspect. But again, I think like if we have chosen amazing staff. That also made it very easy to educate everyone about our desserts and specialty items.
That experience that you have with the coffee shop in Maskat, Oman. What are the similarities and differences that you see between running a coffee shop somewhere like Maskat versus Vancouver?
There are lots. The concept itself is similar. I would say the raw ingredients are different because it's just easier to find what you want in the Middle East, like as ingredients versus here in Vancouver. This was very different and challenging. Like there, for example, everything is easy to export and import. Here in Vancouver, it was very hard, especially in Vancouver I would say because we were missing the main components to make our dessert items.
But the concept itself is similar, like just serving teas, coffees, specialty drinks and specialty foods to your customers. The interaction with the customer is similar everywhere. Good food or bad food is the same everywhere.
What are the differences in the coffee culture between Muskat and Vancouver?
That's one of the big challenges I am facing here. For example, coffee culture is more of a grab-and-go, especially early in the morning, so it's more practical. It's more "I want to enjoy my cup of coffee, but I also want to do it while I am working or first thing in the morning." We don't sell lots of coffee in the afternoon, which is not what I want.
This is different from back in the Middle East. People will drink coffee any time, even at 8:00 pm. The reason is that the coffee in general is very high in caffeine in North America versus what we do in our store. We have Arabic coffee, we have Turkish coffee, which is basically—people just do it late in the evening as a social thing. They just drink it while having another dessert while chatting with friends and stuff.
But Turkish coffee doesn't have as much caffeine as an americano or espresso et cetera. So that's a, I would say a challenging, thing.
And just culture as you mentioned here is not to have coffee after 3:00 or 4:00 pm. I did introduce it so we have that option but it's still not that popular just yet. Especially on weekdays.
That's why for example, you've seen lots of the coffee shops out there, especially in downtown Vancouver, close at 5:00 or 6:00 pm. So one of the things I do is we still open in the mornings for anyone who wants to have that coffee in the morning, but I also close late. We close at 9:00 pm on weekdays and I feel not many coffee shops close that late downtown. And we close actually at 10:00 pm on weekends. Saturdays, Fridays.
That's one of the things that we started. We kind of focus on it because if people walk by and see your place is already open, and they just went for dinner and wanted somewhere to chill and chat, and just sit and talk. So they will just have that option. There's not a lot of competition out there. Most of the places that open late are bars or restaurants. Not everyone wants to drink or have dinner. Even if they go out for dinner they just want somewhere else.
For the first time since I moved to Vancouver, I am looking forward to winter, as soon as possible, because winter will be a great season for us. People want to stay indoors so they will look for places like ours.
How does the whole local community of Vancouver fit into Pistachio's story? Because you are bringing in the Syrian and Middle Eastern culture to your shop for everyone else to see and learn from? How Does that impact the things you do?
One of the things we have in our plan, and we are going to do very soon, is to start having some of the events in our cafe. One of the events we're hosting soon is--I'm not sure if you're familiar with the old instrument, it's one of the instruments in the Mediterranean--we are having that event in October. Just one singer will play. The people will just enjoy listening to music, eating desserts and drinking coffee. That's one of the things we think are really missing in Vancouver.
We'll probably do at, if not a weekly basis, I would say at least bi-weekly. I'm also trying to think of what else we can bring other than music to the community, but we start with music because music is the language that everyone can understand.
Running A Business With A Friend
You own Pistachio with a friend. What's that like?
First of all, it's like anyone you should be very careful that it's not just any friend that you open a business with. I think because I'm a social person I do have a few close friends here in Vancouver.
But there was just that person, my business partner, that was the only one I would say both of us were really a good fit to run the business together because we have the same personality. We have the same idea. We have the same concept. So we were sharing so many things.
Of course, we have our differences, everyone has a different option than others so the important thing is to set a plan and divide the tasks among each other.
Let's be honest, someone will be the boss in that field, for example for the marketing aspect, he will be the boss. For the recruiting aspects, I will be the boss. You are 50/50 in everything. You need to divide your tasks and your responsibilities. We're working with each other, we're helping each other, but you need to divide that. Let's say you have 10 major tasks or responsibilities to run a coffee shop. You need to divide them by 5 each for example. Each one will have the final word on it. That's how you can actually move forward.
Again, it was not easy at the beginning. We learned from our mistakes. We have our differences but we just see them as lessons learned, and move on. I would say lately we're doing a very good job with each other.
Advice For Other Coffee Shop Owners
If you were to give a piece of advice to someone that wants to start their own coffee shop, what would that be?
I can give very few pieces of important advice. I would say you need to be very patient. You need to wait for the right opportunity. If you have a stable income that you can keep that will be really helpful because, at the beginning, I would say the first 6 months, will be very challenging and very hard. Don't expect results within the first 6 months to even a year.
I would say the number one key thing is just to focus on location, location, location. If you reach those, if you're looking to buy a house and you read the real estate advertisements, the first three words they will mention location location location. They focus on location and it's the same with a coffee shop. Location is everything. If you have a good location you will have a successful business.
If you don't have a good location, no matter how hard you will work it will be very challenging to make that coffee shop successful.
Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for Restaurants, helping them gain and retains their loyal customer base.