Web Exclusive | October 2015 | By Bruce Horovitz

Flexing Mediterranean Muscle

Already an industry vet in the Middle East, Christine Sfeir brings authentic Lebanese flavors to the U.S.
image used with permission.

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When Christine Sfeir stepped into a taxi in Washington D.C. seven years ago, the very last thing on her mind was opening a Lebanese restaurant in the United States.

When she stepped out, it was the only thing on her mind.

It was the taxi ride that changed everything. The driver was enthralled by the Mediterranean-style restaurants that Sfeir told him she operated in several Middle Eastern countries. As she described the food to him in some detail—the homemade hummus, tasty chicken tabbouleh, and luscious Lebanese meatballs—the driver finally stopped the car, turned around, and virtually begged her to open one in the States.

And she did, about four months ago in New York City across from New York University, but only after reams of research and months of menu planning. Among other things, she scoured the Middle East for special recipes and brought back some 1,500. She also studied the idiosyncrasies of the U.S. palate.

Now, two additional Semsom Eateries, which means “sesame” in Lebanese, are on tap in New York City, and after that, Washington D.C. About 20 locations will be open by 2020, she says, as the chain plans to grow in the U.S. via franchising.

“Most difficult is getting the food right and getting people to understand the concept.”

But the real story isn’t about Mediterranean cuisine making waves on domestic shores, but rather the woman behind this latest venture. Sfeir, 40, has twice been ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful Arab Women in the Middle East. She is CEO of Treats Holding, which manages the Semsom ventures in the U.S. and the Middle East; she’s also CEO of Meeting Point, which oversees some 30 Dunkin’ Donut locations throughout the Middle East.

Essentially, the same woman who dared to bring American coffee and doughnuts to the Middle East, is now bringing Middle Eastern fare to America.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Sfeir says. Her sister, Carine Assouad, runs the U.S. side of the business. “Taking Dunkin’ Donuts to the Middle East was an adventure, and now we’re reversing the adventure.”

Adventure, indeed. Where better to start the domestic adventure than in Big Apple? “I figured if I could make it there, I’d make it anywhere,” Sfeir says.

Not that it’s been simple. Sfeir and her sister had to learn the customs and palates of American consumers. Toughest of all, she says, was getting all the permits required for restaurants in New York City.

But she’s used to challenges. She’s got two preteen daughters; she was raised in Lebanon, where young women don’t normally run big companies; and, yes, she’s a self-described adrenaline junkie. She’s skydived more than 300 times, including over the North Pole. She has Bungee jumped. She has hang-glided. She has raced cars. And she has a pilot’s license and has done acrobatic flying.

Sfeir started running restaurants at age 22. In addition to Lebanon, she now has Semsom concepts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. But opening a new restaurant in the U.S. may be her toughest stunt of all.

“We knew it wouldn’t be simple, but we didn’t know it would be this difficult,” she says. “Most difficult is getting the food right and getting people to understand the concept.”

By getting it right, she means that many of the recipes have to taste like those she borrowed from her grandmother. The flavors have to be authentic and the food has to be mostly local.

At least one industry guru says that with its Mediterranean-style, Semsom should attract plenty of hard-to-reach Millennials. “These restaurants are definitely a trend,” says Janet Lowder, president of Restaurant Management Services in Los Angeles. “They’re perceived as good for you.”

Even then, it’s a new concept, and that’s nudged Sfeir to go out of her way to reach potential customers. “People want to see, sample, and taste before making a purchase,” she says. “That’s normal when something is new.”

Unlike in the Middle East, where the Semsom restaurants have waitresses who bring the food to the table, the U.S. locations are fast-casual concepts, where you order and fetch your own food, as part of a bid to appeal to Millennials.

The location by New York University has been embraced by the neighborhood, Sfeir says. At lunchtime, the restaurant serves 400 to 500 people in about 90 minutes. More than half of the customers are regulars, she adds.

One way to keep new customers and regulars happy is to constantly sample the food. Sfeir says that at any point, guests can sample anything on the menu.

New products will be introduced every three months. About 70 percent of the business is carryout, but the restaurant has 28 seats. The average ticket is $10 to $12 per person and first-year sales at the new location will likely top $2 million.

After the New York units open, Sfeir hopes to eventually open a store in the Washington D.C. market. On opening day, Sfeir vows, there will be specials for all taxi drivers—hoping to attract the very same taxi driver who first encouraged her to open in the U.S.

Even then, Lowder, the West Coast restaurant industry consultant, wants to see more than East Coast locations. “I liked what I saw,” she says. “When are they coming to California?”

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