The stylish Tawla in San Francisco is much more than a restaurant. It’s an immersive cultural experience, bringing the authentic flavors and feel of the Eastern Mediterranean to Bay Area diners. Owner and first-time restaurateur Azhar Hashem hails from Jordan and is an engineer who previously worked in marketing at Google. Here, she discusses how her approach to building a successful business involves the intersection of creativity and critical thinking.
Stay Disciplined to Stay True to Your Vision.
“I got into the food business not because of a specific passion for restaurants, per se, but more for a restaurant being the vehicle for something a little bigger that I was hoping to do. Specifically, it was around the region the food is from and how people understand it or perceive it. And it’s a misunderstood region, a very loaded region. A lot of people associate it with and hear about it through a political lens. I started to think about this in terms of, ‘Is there a way that I can get people here in the United States to look at that region through a new lens, a lens that is more human and humanizing?’
There is nothing more humanizing than food, so I saw a restaurant as a great way to present that experience in a holistic way. Tied into that is a great attachment to the original vision and what I was trying to get out of that because the goal is just so much bigger than the restaurant itself. To accomplish it all, I had to be very disciplined to make sure I stayed true to the vision. In many ways, the restaurant became the vehicle for how we would present this, so we can tell this story and present this experience that is unique that you don’t really see in the U.S. All the variables that I could play with were other variables that were not the concept.”
Choose Your Partners Carefully and Give Relationships Time to Develop.
“When I was setting out to do this, I had few contingencies in place, and if they were to happen, then I would consider them a sign to move forward. One was to find a gifted chef who is very talented and has amazing experience, who was excited and malleable around doing a deep dive into a new cuisine. I’m an engineer by training, and I come from a very technical critical training, so I had to find somebody that was talented and had a great craft but could also meet me at that level and have these deep, critical-thinking type of conversations.
It’s incredible that I could find that in Joseph Magidow (Locanda Osteria & Bar). He was maybe the fourth person that I interviewed, and I knew I was done. He was really excited about doing something he’d never done before, loved the challenge, and was not intimidated by going into something that was new to him. He could connect brand-new things to what he’d done previously. It helped that he spent a year with my mom. She’s not a chef, but she is a spectacular cook, and he got a real feel for it and developed a great intuition working with her. Every day, I believe he is my biggest blessing, and the biggest joy working on this project has been collaborating with him. He’s open-minded. Brilliant. No ego. And I’ve learned so much from him. It’s amazing that I came across Joseph because I put an ad out there on Craig’s List and I found this guy.”
Use Data in Conjunction with Instinct to Iterate (and Reiterate).
“For the last eight years, I worked in marketing for Google and I really gravitated toward that sweet spot between creative and engineering – the type of creative that is grounded in analytics and critical thinking. And the whole idea of that is that the creative and the vision act as the inspiration for what we do, but the actual rigor and quant aspect of it is what makes sure it pushes toward excellence. That’s the tactic we take here at Tawla. [Read more…]