A group of four Syrian refugees, a community kitchen and one volunteer’s vision is how Vancouver-based social enterprise Tayybeh was born. What started as a community pop-up dinner series in 2016 grew into a full-time catering company, which today employs eleven people and celebrates Middle Eastern culture through Syria’s most loved dishes.
While cooking up a storm is certainly Tayybeh’s speciality, it’s not the company’s only mission. Company Founder Nihal Elwan explains how the company came to be, the challenges it faced along the way, and how it’s flourishing more than ever in 2021.
Originally from Egypt, Elwan spent fifteen years working in international development, with a focus on women’s empowerment in the Middle East and Africa. With a professional background in supporting women’s freedom, alongside her own newcomer status – Elwan relocated with her family to the Lower Mainland in 2014 – it’s of little surprise that she felt a strong desire to help female Syrian refugees when they began to arrive in Vancouver the following year.
“Research tells us that newcomers fare better when they feel safe, have a source of income, and be part of the community”, Elwan explains. It was with these exact factors in mind that the idea for Tayybeh first began to form.
She secured a small neighbourhood grant from Vancouver Foundation and held a one-off pop-up dinner cooked by Syrian newcomer women. Tickets sold out in minutes, with all sales going to the newcomers, and diners wanted to know when the next event would be.
From there, the business continued to gain recognition, and the team found themselves catering on an increasingly larger scale. “Honestly, I had no idea I would ever find myself working in the food industry”, Elwan admits. “But in doing so, I have learned to appreciate the remarkable strength, ingenuity and perseverance of the Syrian women I have had the pleasure of working with.”
Like any business journey, though, the road hasn’t always been a smooth one. While incredibly talented in the kitchen, for the Syrian women who used to be home-makers, the concept of becoming the family breadwinner took time for them to get comfortable with. Like many other businesses in 2020, COVID-19 inevitably threw challenges at Tayybeh in ways they never could have anticipated.
For women who had escaped war and dire conditions in their home country, though, resilience was in their bones. “When the pandemic hit, I was so worried about what would become of us”, Elwan says. “But I found strength in our chefs who would shrug and say: We are Syrian, we have thick skin. We will be OK.”
This quality sealed the company’s fate, as the strong, all-women company continued to not just weather the COVID-19 storm, but to secure future success. Tayybeh expanded the distribution of its packaged products and launched a few more favourites – including their homestyle pita chips, hummus and zaatar. In an exciting move, the company has teamed up with meal program FreshPrep, and have just launched on UberEats.
Yet despite the swift business pivot and business collaborations, Tayybeh still works to support vulnerable communities. By working with Vancity and other nonprofits and neighbourhood houses, the company has provided over 5500 meals to those in need across the city. In Arabic, ‘tayybeh’ means kind, generous and delicious. The name is, of course, strikingly fitting for a company who embodies these very qualities.
The company has enjoyed some impressive successes, including recognition in the form of the City of Vancouver’s Excellence Award to the Voices of Muslim Women (VMW) Award, yet for Elwan, the measure of the company’s success lies in their customers’ appreciation. “Every positive review, referral or social media post raving about our food is worth all the success in the world”, she says.
“In the end, this is about amazing Syrian cuisine which deserves discovery and recognition. Syrian food is, at its core, family food that is meant to be shared with loved ones. We want our customers to feel embraced, because when our chefs cook for them, it’s exactly like cooking for family.
“Tayybeh offers everyone a unique taste of a truly masterful cuisine that is extremely versatile and adaptable, from vegan to gluten-free diets, as well as dairy-free and keto. We are thrilled to have put Syrian food on the map here in Canada. That alone is a worthy business success that makes our Syrian chefs immensely proud.”
Elwan’s advice for other early-stage BIPOC entrepreneurs is simple: to embrace your differences and ask others for advice. “Often as minorities in society, we feel our differences are either a liability or an impediment to our business. Wear your differences like a badge of honour, and don’t shy away from representing yourself as you’d like to be perceived.
“Seek the counsel and support of others in your community and beyond, and learn from those who have made it work. Too often, entrepreneurship is assumed to be a solitary and lonely endeavour, where you are judged on your individual accomplishments and criticized for your failures.
“The reality is the complete opposite. Success is the product of collective and collaborative efforts. You might be the visionary in your business, but it will take a village to envision it.”
Follow Tayybeh on Instagram at @tayybeh.syrian or check them out at tayybeh.com.