Posted on October 16, 2018
Jad Atallah is an electrical engineer. His best friend Charbel Kyrillos is a Lebanese chef. With Jad’s wife, Nancy, they started up Smart Gourmet and developed a cooking technique which extends the shelf life of gourmet meals for up to one year, with no preservatives. With this innovation, they make tasty and healthy authentic Lebanese cuisine available to fans of Lebanese fare around the world. Here is their story.
“I’m proud to be Lebanese,” Jad Atallah says. “I’m disappointed by the politics of the country, of course, but I’m proud of my origins. Jad’s pride for his country would swell even more during his frequent travels abroad for his entrepreneurial businesses. “I remember how excited people were when they heard I was Lebanese. The first thing they used to tell me is, Wow, Lebanese food is so good!” he recalls.
Jad would proudly invite colleagues and clients to Lebanese restaurants during his business trips. But for Jad, the meals were never up to par. “Every time, I ended up being so disappointed by the taste. I knew it was not authentic Lebanese cuisine.”
Reading about the success of Sabra, the biggest seller of hummus in the United States which was bought by PepsiCo for $1.2 billion, sparked a strong desire in Jad to introduce authentic Lebanese cuisine to the world. “Sabra’s hummus was taking the lead worldwide. I felt the need to show the world what real hummus is and what real Lebanese hummus and cuisine is,” he says.
Already, Jad had amassed experience in the specialty cuisine sector. Along with his best friend, Lebanese chef Charbel Kyrillos, Jad and his wife Nancy Mahfouz Atallah opened an Italian-French restaurant in Byblos ten years earlier. “The restaurant worked really well, so a few years later we decided to open a catering service in the region,” Jad says.
Soon after launching their boutique catering business, the trio planned a picnic in the mountains to celebrate their success. When they went shopping for ready-prepared items, they found only hummus and no other mezze items. But the hummus didn’t meet their standards. “That’s when I felt the urge to offer tasty and healthy Lebanese meals to retailers,” Jad points out. “Gourmet and healthy food should be available to all, not only to people who can afford to go to a restaurant.”
As typical in the catering business, the trio grappled with food waste, amounting to $5,000 – $10,000 each month. “After that picnic, we realized there was a big opportunity: if we could preserve food with no added preservatives and with a long shelf life, not only could we reduce waste, but we could also offer authentic and healthy Lebanese food to the world. We could make it available to Lebanese restaurants and to supermarkets worldwide,” Jad explains.
That’s how Smart Gourmet started, with the idea of reducing food waste and making healthy, preservative-free Lebanese meals accessible to all.
Jad Atallah (right) and Charbel Kyrillos (left).
“The challenge was to find a way to preserve – for a very long period of time, with no added preservatives – the authentic Lebanese meals we were cooking in our kitchen,” Jad stresses. The target was for three to twelve months of shelf life. Charbel Kyrillos considered the sous-vide (or vacuum sealed) technique and went to France for training. “The problem with the sous-vide technique is that it can cook only one ingredient at a time,” Jad points out. “So, we needed to improve this method to preserve an entire Lebanese meal with multiple ingredients.”
Between 2014 and 2015 the trio made more than 200 trials. “It was such delicate work,” Jad recalls. “We had to find the perfect cooking temperature for the sous-vide heating. Our objective was to make sure that the taste and health benefits (vitamins, nutrients) of the meals were preserved.”
What kept the trio motivated was that they were convinced that if they succeeded in their technique, it would save time, manpower and money. Instead of having 20 employees prepare a meal, two or three chefs could tackle the cooking, and everything could be stored. An industrial kitchen would no longer be needed. “We would just need a storage place and people to serve,” Jad points out. “Mastering the technique would allow us to branch out in Lebanon and throughout the world.”
“And we made it!” Jad exclaims. “We managed to develop the technology by mid-2015. Now we are able to preserve entire meals for up to a year with no added preservatives whatsoever, which allows us to ship worldwide.”
Once the trio had the prototype, they searched for global growth opportunities. “That’s when I saw a Berytech ad for its Agrytech program, which helps agri-food startups such as ours to grow,” Jad explains. “We applied, and we were shortlisted! Since joining Agrytech in 2017, we have transformed our catering business into a worldwide industrial company.”
“What pushed us to support Smart Gourmet is the very innovative technology they developed, which is quite a revolution in the industry,” says Ramy Boujawdeh, Deputy General Manager at Berytech. “We were also confident in the team: Jad is a serial entrepreneur, his wife is a great operational manager and Charbel is a very experienced cook, so we saw a great potential for Smart Gourmet to scale and grow quickly.”
And that’s what happened. After joining Berytech’s Agrytech program, Jad and his team started distributing their products domestically and abroad.
“Agrytech helped us promote in Lebanon and also got us exposed to sign our first distribution agreement in Dubai: our products are now available in close to 500 supermarkets there,” Jad explains. Next step is the Saudi, Omani, Qatari, and Kuwaiti markets.
“Agrytech also opened the door for us to enter the European market. They sent us to the Netherlands where we met a lot of people who tested our products and who are interested in investing in our company in order to build another facility,” Jad says.
“I believe that one of the reasons for the success of Smart Gourmet is that, even though they are very experienced, they are always hungry to learn, listen and experiment,” adds Ramy Boujawdeh. “They took the best from the expertise we provided at Agrytech. And that’s one of the most important qualities of an entrepreneur: to never stop growing and improving!”
Jad notes that Agrytech also helped him on a personal level, with his own career and growth. “I am a self-made entrepreneur, and Agrytech gave me the tools and guidelines to structure my process.”
Smart Gourmet’s plans for the future are ambitious. Aside from its existing facility in Lebanon, the company plans to build three more facilities over the next four years: one to cater to the GCC market, one to cater to the European market and one to cater to the United States and Canada.
Smart Gourmet is also in the process of negotiating with two major convenience chains in Germany and France to distribute its products.
Furthermore, another round of investment to finance the company’s expansion is in the pipeline. That will put Smart Gourmet on track to ship authentic, healthy Lebanese food around the globe.
“We will promote healthy eating worldwide,” says Charbel Kyrillos. “Eating well should be available to everyone. Good, healthy food should not be a luxury.”
“And people all around the world will finally experience the authentic taste of healthy Lebanese food!” concludes Jad.
To learn more about Smart Gourmet and their full product range, visit their website.