Inside the food industry

By Ashourina Slewo

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The Chaldean News hosted their fourth annual Entrepreneur Forum Tuesday, November 13 at Vinotecca in Birmingham. This year’s panel was geared towards the restaurant business with each panelist having involvement in the industry in one way or another.

The panelists include Zeanna Attisha the co-owner of Sahara Restaurant and Grill, John Jonna the owner of Vinotecca and Vineology, Serena Denha of the Donut Bar, and Zaid Elia of 220 Merrill, Parc, the Duke Cocktail Bar, and a number of Subway restaurants.

Each panelist is an entrepreneur in his or her own right and each has garnered a considerable amount of media attention over the years for their respective businesses. With several years of combined experience among the entrepreneurs, they pulled from their own experiences in the industry to offer insight and advice.

Hindsight is 20/20, knowing what they know now, the panelists discussed some of the things they would have done differently when they were starting out.

For Attisha, she wishes marketing had been broader in Sahara’s early days. “The thing that I brought to the light that I think was one of the mistakes was that we didn’t start advertising towards the American community in the beginning,” she explained. “Over the years, the American public became more and more interested in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.”

Opening the doors of Donut Bar at just 22 years old, Denha also found herself learning many valuable lessons throughout her journey.

“I think one of our biggest mistakes when we opened was that we just wanted to get opened that we were not prepared,” said Denha. “On the first day, we were closed by 10 a.m. That whole week it was closing at noon and we didn’t know what to expect. I think that was the biggest mistake we made.”

Each panelist has worked to expand or is working to expand their ventures. These expansions, however, are not snap decisions. With careful consideration, each move is carefully calculated.

With their third location in the works, Attisha noted that the opportunity to expand and become a franchise has arisen, but poses certain issues. “Everyone says ‘why don’t you just open 20 franchises and have them all over the place?’ Well, the problem with that is the recipes and the work that goes into our food,” she said. “We buy our own produce, we have our own butchers, we buy our own meat. That’s hard to replicate.”

“I’ve been trying to get Sahara to venture out and push organic and fresh food and really advertise that more,” Attisha said. “I think that’s why District Detroit and Olympia were interested in having a Mediterranean restaurant in Downtown.”

Having transitioned from a grocery store and gourmet foods to restaurants, Jonna provided insight regarding the transition and how his business philosophy translated from on industry to another.

“Transition to me, is an entrepreneurial quality and I think it’s based on vision,” said Jonna. “Transitioning from a grocery store to a gourmet store to a restaurant requires a giant leap of faith and, according to my daughter, giving up insecurity.”

The opening of Vinotecca’s Royal Oak location is the embodiment of letting go of insecurities and taking a leap of faith. Jonna recalls Vinotecca being jam packed its opening week with very little push from him. “This was 20 years ago, we did absolutely nothing. We got on our knees and prayed,” he said. “We had no idea who was going to show up. I believe the reason we were packed is because of word of mouth, we didn’t have so¬cial media. There was no way to con¬tact anybody and we couldn’t afford big marketing.”

On the other end, Elia believes transition is based on opportunity. If an opportunity presents itself, he must look at it from every angle and consider every possible outcome before putting his time and energy into it.

“We only have so much band¬width, we only have so many hours in the day and I can tell you the most valuable thing we have is time,” he said. “How we allocate our time and how we allocate it amongst the business we do and the relationships we have and the opportunities we see, to me, is the most important thing.”

In addition to the allocation of his time, Elia also distributes his level of involvement. “From my perspective, because I have a wide variety of businesses, the level of involvement has to change,” he explained. “I can’t walk into a restaurant and tell someone to do something. Simply because of the leadership level you have to dictate.”

As gratifying as his time in the restaurant business has been, Jonna does not encourage people to get involved in the industry. “In this industry, it is absolutely intensive. I don’t encourage too many people to go into it because it’s seriously hard work, especially if you’re a startup and trying to start a brand,” he explained. “When you’re just opening another McDonald’s, you just put the sign up and people walk in. When you’re building a brand, you’re taking a huge risk.”

When building a brand, leader¬ship is pivotal. A strong sense of leadership will give way to a more cohesive and enthusiastic operation. For someone like Elia whose level of involvement is spread across a number of stores, leadership takes a different form.

“My job is simply, from the leadership perspective, creating strong leaders who can lead under the vision I created and execute the plan we created together,” explained Elia. “My involvement requires delegation, making sure people are following up, are they executing our plans, and if they’re not, telling people what they sometimes don’t want to hear. That’s a tough part of the business.”

In the food industry, criticisms are a guaranteed aspect of the job. What one person enjoys, others will detest. When it comes to criticisms, Denha knows she can’t please everyone and instead of trying to change or conform to what others want, she takes a step back to recognize she creates a quality product, regardless a few opinions.

“I’ve learned you can’t please every¬body, especially in the food industry,” said Denha. “Joe Shmo will like my vanilla bean glaze and Jose will hate it, but I just can’t please everybody.”

This year’s Entrepreneur Forum was made possible by the following sponsors: Meijer, Walled Lake Schools, Bank of Ann Arbor, Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce and Wireless Vision.