Christine Assouad was at her home in Beirut on the day of the port blast last August. She recalls the scary moment when her bookshelf nearly fell on her children, and when her door would not open properly. But it was nothing compared to what other people went through that day, she says.
The Lebanese entrepreneur, who has more than 25 years of experience in the food and beverage industry, realised with a sinking heart that the explosion would have far-reaching consequences on just about everything – from the culinary scene to the economy as a whole.
"At that point, the people of Lebanon were already dealing with the devaluation of the currency and Covid-19. The blast was just the final breaking point," she says.
Assouad struck upon an idea, albeit one that would work better if she moved out, which prompted a shift to Dubai later in the year and served as the inspiration for her latest initiative: Home in a Bite.
The idea was to bring popular Lebanese restaurants to the UAE for the first time as cloud kitchens. Assouad teamed up with cloud kitchen management company Kitopi and Deliveroo late last year, conceptualised the project and launched in March to a warm reception, she says.
“We wanted to support talented Lebanese restaurants that are currently going through a hard time,” says Assouad. “Through this programme, a percentage of the sales goes back to the restaurants in Lebanon and, hopefully, this will be enough to cover their payroll and expenses.”
Anis Harb, general manager of the Middle East division of Deliveroo, says that support for Lebanon is an ongoing process. "With this partnership, we hope to continuously create new opportunities for restaurateurs to not just survive but thrive during these challenging times," he says.
Meanwhile, Dubai residents will get access to a number of food concepts for the first time, while Lebanese expatriates unable to travel due to the pandemic can get a taste of home.
The restaurants part of the Home in a Bite concept include: Tarator, which dishes out Lebanese comfort food and street food favourites such as shawarma and falafel; Semsom, Assouad's own brand with recipes from her grandmother as well as dishes with a modern twist; Tawlet, known as much for its authentic cuisine as its profit-sharing schemes with farmers, cooks and producers; Cuisine d'Amour, a dessert parlour with a range of cookies and brownies; Ummi, which serves on-the-go homestyle dishes; Casper & Gambini, which has a range of sandwiches, poke bowls and salads; Deli Co On The Go, for a "modernised Arabic experience"; and Diet Center for healthy Levantine food.
“Each of these brands is telling a story through its food,” says Assouad. “They have a passion and love for everything that they do and are constantly trying to improve.”
In order to properly replicate the authentic flavours, a team from Kitopi flew to Lebanon where they were trained by the chefs behind the respective brands. “They had to be taught directly from the source to get the real essence of the food and the concept. With Tawlet, they were trained to make the dishes from ladies in Lebanese villages. The ladies would casually add ingredients, and the team would have to make them pause, and narrate exactly what they were doing,” Assouad says.
The reason for using a cloud kitchen concept was manifold. For starters, she believes that due to the pandemic, "the future of food is going to be a mix of delivery and retail. The other issues were time and scale. I thought about a standard franchise model, but by the time you find a location and get the team together, a year can pass you by".
By partnering with Kitopi and Deliveroo, she was able to shorten the timespan to three months. "We already have over 6,000 followers on Instagram, and have received a lot of support from companies.
"I’m blown away by how fast the process was – it’s all thanks to Dubai’s positive vibes and the amazing companies that came together to support Lebanese restaurants.”
Home in a Bite initially launched in Dubai Marina and has since expanded to Downtown Dubai. In the future, it aims to be accessible all across the city, then branch out to other emirates and other countries. For now, the next step is adding more brands, and Assouad is in the process of incorporating seven more Lebanese restaurants that will be added to the roster in June.
She says: “These are no normal brands – they have souls, stories behind them. In the coming months, I’m going to share more information on that through social media. And when people taste their food, there really is no going back.”