Christine Chebli, Co-Founder of Toum

Do you know what exactly Lebanese food is? Would you be able to distinguish a Greek Gyro with a Lebanese Shawarma? I certainly could not and know most people couldn’t either. There is ignorance on the different types of foods each Middle Eastern country has, putting them all under the same umbrella. But people like Christine, co-founder of Lebanese restaurant Toum, is trying to change that. “We are still teaching New Yorkers, who know all about food, really what Lebanese food is. They come and they say: Oh, I’ll have a gyro and what we serve is nothing similar to a gyro. So educating a customer is always challenging “.

But in order to educate consumers about Lebanese food, it needs to be served! Christine and her husband Rodrigue noticed there weren’t many Lebanese restaurants that cook good, authentic Lebanese food and decided to take a chance on what they’ve been cooking for many years. Rodrigue had been in the food industry since he could walk, and always dreamt about opening a Lebanese restaurant in NY. And Christine, on the other hand, had a financial background. She worked as an investment banker for eleven years before deciding to fully commit to the food industry. And after many thoughts given, Christine and Rodrigue opened the first Lebanese food truck in NYC in July 2012!

But let’s rewind a few years before that opening. Prior to their truck, Christine and Rodrigue launched a food booth in a friend’s open space in a festival in Little Eataly. They wanted to test the waters first, see if people would come and buy some of their food. At one point, Rodrigue decided to serve himself lunch and started creating a Lebanese style burger – a fine chopped beef with spices, onions and parsley. “He spread it on bread and grilled it, and while he was grilling it someone came up and said: “Ooh, what is that!? I want whatever he is preparing!” And it was love at first bite. Then one person after the other were asking for this burger that wasn’t even part of our menu!”.  After seeing many customers line up, it was official that a food truck was happening.

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Food trucks are part of the American landscape, with coffee carts and hot dog stands representing the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit. Food trucks are a great way to enter and test a market, without blowing a huge amount of capital. But while this concept may seem appealing to many people, the venture comes with a list of challenges specifically in the NYC area. Apparently, government officials in NY make it so much harder for food trucks to strive than in any other states like Florida, Denver and Atlanta. “The city is against you. You’re not allowed to park anywhere, you’ll get a ticket for parking every time, you’re not allowed to vend, and you’re not allowed to serve from a metered spot where all spots in Manhattan are metered. And say you paid the meter because you are commercial vehicle and served lunch. You now get two tickets: one for parking on a meter and one for vending. It is really hard”, says Christine. For food truck owners, this is part of their day-to-day. It is seen as their daily rent. Drivers even get their parking spots at 3:00am just to vend lunch from 11:00am to 3:00pm. And sometimes after staying up those long hours cops can come at noon, middle of the lunch rush hour, and tell you to leave. “If you are shut down at that time, you’re not finding a spot anywhere else in the city. You have traffic, you have food waste, you have staff that needs to get paid anyways and you just lost an entire day!”. It is frustrating given that it is not about the money, but the principle. Truck owners are doing nothing wrong, just selling food to hungry customers. They are not parking in front of a restaurant, or taking business from someone else. So if everyone is happy, why punish them? We rely on food trucks to nourish us at music festivals, cater our graduations and engagement parties and most importantly, broaden our lunch horizons. These truck owners continue to expose an “unaware group of eaters to new culinary opportunities”.

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Fast-forward to 2012 – a buzz kicked in when people would take lunch breaks and immediately follow the line of hungry customers waiting for their flavorful Shawarma. The quality and consistency of Toum is what kept customers happy and made them come back. The food, as Christine mentioned, was served as if it was for their kids. “If my kids wouldn’t eat it, then I will not serve it. We make sure the customer gets the same quality every time he/she orders from us. We never use lower quality product, even if it affects our margins. We are more concerned with the quality to make sure the taste is great with every order. The margins hurt, but the food truck must keep going”.

People started asking about corporate catering, weddings, events, birthday parties and more. “Lebanese food is not something you can find in every corner like Italian or Mexican food. After people coming to us and tasting our food, they asked about catering and that is when we started engaging with catering platforms like FoodtoEat. Never reducing its quality, Toum was taken to the next level. Ask anyone who runs a food truck what their ultimate goal is and most will tell you that it’s their dream to one day turn the truck into a full-fledged, brick-and-mortar restaurant. And so Christine quit the corporate America job to nurture “this baby full-time”. Having a food enthusiast and a business professional gave a lot of potential for Toum to follow the right direction to be a successful restaurant. It was the perfect combination to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The food side is all handled by Rodrigue and the business operations, development, marketing, social media and other non-food related decisions is Christine.

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They gave themselves a two year timeline to decide if they would continue working for Toum or if it was something they wanted to keep as a side job and go back into the corporate world. Fortunately, Toum Restaurant has been growing at a steady rate and continues to do so. As of now, training and having people visualize Toum as a restaurant instead of a food truck is the biggest challenge for both Christine and Rodrigue. “I would like for people to know that we’ve transitioned from a truck to a restaurant. But we are hoping that our social media push and marketing campaign is going to help do that. But also training is hard because people are set in their own ways and you can’t blame them. So allowing people to do things in their own technique but tweak to work for us is certainly our goal”.

It is really amazing to have a dream and see it come to life in your own hands. Your own blood, sweat and tears. “It was never my passion to be in the food industry; it was mostly Rodrigue. And I believed so much in his dream that I was sure it was going to turn out positively. When he creates food, he does it with such passion and so beautiful that everyone wants to eat. It just had to work”. Not having many Lebanese restaurants in NYC, it is a motivation for this power couple to continue showcasing their food that comes from their own hands, their own recipes. “Seeing the amazing feedback and the potential for the bigger picture is all the motivation we need. For me, I feel like we made it. Now, it’s only about consistency and further growth”.

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