Syrian refugee ‘squeaky cheese’ dreams come true as Hello-mi Rolls hit UK supermarkets

Razan Al Sous and her husband Raghid Sandouk expanded business after winning order for 400,000 to be sold nationwide

Razan Al Sous in her halloumi cheese factory which makes Yorkshire Dama Cheese in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire. Nicky Harley / The National
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It is just over a decade since two Syrian refugees fled the war and started a new life in Britain with a dream of creating a halloumi cheese empire.

But what started with just a basic ice-cream maker has now blossomed into a booming success with Razan Al Sous and her husband Raghid Sandouk, of Yorkshire Dama Cheese, winning a life-changing contract to supply one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains.

Three years ago The National visited the couple and toured their small premises nestled in the centre of the small West Yorkshire town of Sowerby Bridge.

Back then they only had a couple of staff and were selling their halloumi – which they branded the squeaky cheese – over the counter to the local community and, like many businesses, struggling to keep afloat during the Covid pandemic.

With people tightening their belts, the desire for halloumi was beginning to wane and the couple were facing an uncertain future.

It came just a year after devastating floods, caused by Storm Ciara in 2020, turned the town's roads into canals and destroyed all their equipment, forcing them to start from scratch.

“It just reminded us of how we lost everything in Syria. It was really heartbreaking. We kept saying to ourselves 'what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger',” Ms Al Sous told The National back then.

Today, that fighting spirit and determination is still evident, as Ms Al Sous proudly showed us their new-look factory – which has now increased hugely in size.

Whereas previously, just one employee was busily preparing and cutting the cheese, now there are 18 cheesemakers.

“I bet it looks a lot different now,” she said, beaming.

“When we got the contract to produce 400,000 cheese rolls, we knew we needed a new workspace area and room for all the staff. We changed things about a bit.

“My husband is an engineer and he made a new production line for the cheese so it is more economical and faster and we created a new space to make the rolls.”

She was right, the factory does look a lot different. The former area where halloumi is made remains, but their expansion into creating their new yoghurt and cheese roll products was not there before.

It was her husband's design of a faster production system which inadvertently led to the creation of Hello-Mi Rolls.

“My husband created a halloumi production line to increase our production and efficiency to reduce the time it takes to make the cheese but at the same time that created another problem, more by-products with whey protein – ricotta cheese,” she said.

“We used to give it away for free so it could be recycled and not wasted. I do not want to throw food away when people are starving. We kept thinking how can we change it, what can we do with it? Then we realised we could use it in rolls with halloumi.

“We did research and the trend for snacking in the UK is growing. Since the halloumi market is slowing down we needed to find another solution. We wanted to bring a healthy snack to the market and this product is easy to make and was the perfect answer.”

From fighting to keep afloat to suddenly winning a lucrative contract with supermarket chain Aldi, Ms Al Sous, 39, is still in disbelief at their change in fortunes.

“It’s a fairytale come true,” she said.

“We have come so close to quitting over the last through years, from struggling through devastating flooding to the impact of Covid and one of the hardest things has been the rise in energy prices. But we kept going believing we could build the business and to get this contract is life changing.”

Their life seems a far cry from the bombing and devastation they left behind in Syria.

When her husband’s factory was bombed in Damascus, the family took the decision to start a new life in the UK.

“We were living with explosions on a daily basis, we feared for our children and we knew we needed to take them somewhere safe,” she said.

From hearing tales of children being kidnapped to the fear of being caught in an explosion, the tipping point was when a bomb exploded where her husband would have parked his car for work at a petroleum factory and it was too close a call.

They both left behind careers in pharmaceuticals to start from scratch in the UK where their previous accomplishments were not recognised.

“When we left Syria we almost lost everything and had to settle into a new life with three young children,” she said.

“I began searching for a job but, despite having a pharmacy degree and a scientific background, my lack of references and work history in the UK made it extremely difficult. I had this idea to make Syrian cheese so I learnt how to do it from the internet and here we are today.”

Syrian husband and wife find new calling as cheesemakers in northern England

Syrian husband and wife find new calling as cheesemakers in northern England

With the simple idea of making halloumi-style cheese from cows' milk they launched a best-selling range of Levantine-flavoured cheeses. To date the innovative pair have now won more than 30 awards for their products and gained royal approval from Princess Anne.

Now, their factory produces 4,000 rolls a day and 240kg of cheese to meet demand.

“We knew we would have to work non-stop for six months to achieve Aldi’s order and we knew we needed to expand quickly and employ people to achieve it so we recruited 13 more people,” she said.

“We hired an amazing team and they are doing brilliantly.

“The product hit the supermarket shelves in April and it was crazy. We were finishing Ramadan and meeting the order was a big challenge for us. We made it though, we had to make 80,000 rolls.

“We are stocking 1,000 stores and most of the branches have sold out. We would have needed huge investment to make this happen and it would have taken years but the supermarket made it easy for us. We cannot thank them enough for this opportunity.”

The couple are hoping the supermarket will renew the contract and long term are looking to expand to new premises and would like to open a production line at a farm.

Already they have future plans to ship their product globally and have recently patented it in the US.

“When I think back to how far we have come it is like a dream, like I am looking at somebody else’s life,” Ms Al Sous said.

“It has not been easy but we just knew we could not give up. To get this contract to build the business to give our family a future means the world to us. I have so many more plans for the future and I believe we can do it.”

Updated: April 28, 2024, 4:00 AM