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.
When we’re putting together a menu, we first start out with this great creative, and then we ask ourselves, ‘Is it differentiated? Do we feel like it’s going to be a good experience?’ And then we layer on top of it all of this rigor around it financially. ‘Can it be sold at a price point that makes sense for us? Is the production aspect of it reasonable or will it take too much labor to put it together?’ Then, we crunch all the numbers around it and put a plan in place to test it, as in, ‘We’re gonna put it out there for this amount of time, and this is how we’re going to talk about it.’ And then we look at the types of numbers we need to start seeing for us to say that it’s conclusive and we should run it as a permanent program.
After we run it, we zero in on things that may need a little bit of fixing and we do this quick iterative process. Like, ‘Oh, we noticed that it’s taking longer to do this,’ or ‘This aspect isn’t that great.’ Then we look at the data. If we get data that tells us it’s going to become something, we back it up with things like promoting it, putting it in our newsletter, or working with our PR team to see if we can get the press to learn about it and drive awareness of it. It’s marrying the creative with the rigor of numbers and data. Luckily, Joe’s training is in economics, statistics, and French, so he embraces this quantitative layer that we put on top of what we do.”
Expect a Challenging Business Environment.
“I think the advantage of first-time entrepreneurs is that they don’t know how hard things are and how hard the climate is as well, especially when you’re opening in a city like San Francisco. It was like ten times harder than I’ve heard from the mentors I’ve had and connected with even before the front doors opened. And it’s hard in the sense that the regulatory aspects of the city are very unfriendly to small businesses. And I don’t know if this is true of just San Francisco. Also, the impact of how expensive it is to live in the city – how high that impact is on the actual labor pool that we have to dip into to power our operation. A big part of how I spend my time is figuring out how do I pay my labor team more but also how do I make it cheaper for them to come to work.
For example, how do I make sure that my staff does not pay a dime – they don’t waste money — coming to work? From trying to subsidize their commuting expenses to making sure that all of their meals are paid for when they come to Tawla, I want to do what I can to ensure that all the money we pay them goes into their pocket and isn’t spent on coming to work. And the hardest thing is that even when you try to find these loopholes and do things a little differently, you don’t get an easy time with the city. I’ve spent so much time lobbying around this and writing about it, trying to get other restaurants to be more active about it. It’s especially shocking coming from a market-driven industry like tech where the thinking is, ‘Oh, is there something smarter we can do?’ Everything aligns behind that because it’s market-driven. So the hardest adjustment for me to make is dealing with the constraints of that.”
Raise More Money Than You Think You Need.
“Make sure you have a lot more working capital than you expected to need. To get it started, you’re going to need a lot more money than you think you’ll require on reserve. It takes a little bit of time for earnings to kick in. Also, you’re going to have to fix things throughout your first year that you didn’t anticipate before opening. I don’t mean physically fix things that are broken, but, rather, ‘Oh, I thought this aspect was going to be like this, but now we’re going to need more people,’ or, ‘We designed the kitchen this way, but it’s ruining our operations so we need money to fix that.’”
Lean in to the Restaurant Community.
“Make a lot of friends in the industry. This one of those experiences where a traditional academic training does not prepare you. You need to accelerate your education by getting the fruits of other people’s experiences. Make friends who are experienced restaurateurs who have done it before you so you can kind of get a little bit of insight. Interestingly enough, I’ve connected with a lot of people in the industry who have a lot of experience and none of them really speak like, ‘Oh, we’ve got it figured out. This is the right way and there is no other right way.’ Because it’s so difficult, most of them say, ‘Okay, well this is what my experience has told me.’ A lot of it is you seeing the breadth of people’s experiences and, hopefully, you get to see a lot through that so that you are not as surprised and shocked every time something new comes up.
A lot of it is also moral support, too. I have a hard time finding that kind of support from people who have not done this before because they don’t understand how difficult it is and they can’t shed any light around what you can try or what you should consider. I feel like it’s important to connect with people who have done it before. I’ve become an expert at adopting mentors. People are so giving and generous with their time and with the information that they have. Which is amazing because you’d expect them to be a lot more competitive because margins are low, but that has not been my experience at all.
We’ve had so much help even from our neighbors. When we were opening up, we had to train our team on wine and our glasses hadn’t arrived. We didn’t have our dishwasher in pace, and the restaurant across the street would deliver glasses to us in the morning in the week leading up to the opening, and they’d say, ‘Oh, can you just have them ready for us by the time we open?’ Then they would pick them up from us. And they were dirty because we didn’t even have our dishwasher! So generous and amazing. We found that consistent across the board. And it pays off. When we’re busy and we can’t seat people, we call the restaurants around us and say, ‘Can we send people to you?’ It’s really healthy. The whole industry is so hard and to be cutthroat is the last thing you need.”
Photos courtesy of Postcard PR.