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When we met Sophia Sleiman

When we met Sophia Sleiman

We've been obsessing over Mantoushe's Lebanese fusion food lately, and were lucky enough to chat with the owner, Sophia Sleiman, who believes in real food - no nonsense!

Passionate dancer, personal trainer and food scientist - we were instantly intrigued...

"I don't eat to live.. I live to eat!  Food is an emotion, one that takes me back to Beirut"

I was born in Abu Dhabi and grew up in the UAE.  My mum has been here since she was 8, so my family was one of the first to move here from Lebanon!  Every summer, as a child, I'd go home to Lebanon to visit all my relatives who would also fly down there from London and Australia for a reunion.  We'd go sit down at a classic Lebanese restaurant with all the cousins, uncles and aunts, and all the mezzas and shawarmas would be lined up and we'd all just…eat!  Lebanese food is all about sharing platters and that vibe of the whole family bonding over a good meal is something I'll never forget.

I wanted to take Lebanese food and modernize it.  I wanted to create a place that not only retained the high quality of Lebanese food, but serve it in a way that had both the speed of fast food restaurants and the diversity of different cultures and flavoues so we can cater to everyone quickly.

I believe food is about how it makes you feel, and I want more people to think of Lebanese food as quality food, prepared with the same speed as fast food.  Lebanese food these days is generally all about fine dining with the posh table settings and platters full of grand mezzes.  I wanted to introduce Lebanese fusion to Dubai, which is why I started the concept of Mantoushe.

"I'm constantly being asked what Food Science is and what a Food Scientist does"

I went to Choueifat High School in Dubai, and then moved to Beirut for university. I majored in Food Sciences and Management at the American University of Beirut.  We take all the foundation nutrition and business courses and then delve and specialize into the microbiology of food, food processing, food safety and the science of food based on the foundation of both business and nutrition.  People that graduate with a Food Science degree can work for hotels or factories, work with the government as restaurant inspectors, or specialize into processing, manufacturing … or you could do what I did, and start a restaurant!

"Walking into Chipotle in New York City was a real eye opener..."

In 2013, I was on vacation in New York City and happened to walk into Chipotle, and just being in that restaurant made me incredibly happy because I could see ethically sourced food, obtained with fair trade, being cooked right in front of me.  When I visited Chipotle I could see a great team with an inspiring environment and I could see freshness and taste all natural real food!  A lot of restaurants all over the world have that, but what made Chipotle so amazing in my eyes was that they were able to achieve all that with such speedy service.

After I got back to Dubai and went back to work at the family venture capital, I'd order lunch and feel sleepy and lethargic after eating, and it had a lot to do with the way the food was being prepared.  I wouldn't have the energy to finish my day or go work out after work, which is why I started skipping lunches, which only made me more tired, weak and skinny!  People need to consider HOW they cook food.  Most meals today are cooked in a way that disregards its elements.  If protein is cooked at the wrong temperature it could damage it.  If you boil veggies, for instance, you could lose all soluble vitamins and minerals when you drain the water out.  There's a science behind food.  I believe that food is both – an art as well as a science.  You need to have the artistic passion to cook but you also need to have a scientific understanding about what you're cooking and how it should be cooked.

New York, bustling with life and energy, makes you feel like you can do anything!  That's what inspired me to start a concept that could introduce real food to people's lives and completely obliterate food comas.  It took us about 8 months to design Mantoushe's menu for this very reason, and we were very picky about what ingredients to use.  We use preservative and additive free natural ingredients and make everything we can in-house, from our bread to our own delicious ketchup!  I'd say Mantoushe fits in more with the "eat clean" trend as opposed to the "low cal" trend.

"Woah, you took a natche!"

Mantoushe comes from the Lebanese word "natche", meaning "bite".  Anything that's "mantoushe" is something that has a bite taken out of it.  So your wrap or salad could be mantoushe if you've taken a big, passionate bite out of it.  Ever eaten a sandwich with such excitement that the ingredients just spill out all over the place because you took such a ferocious bite out of it?!  That's a natche.  It's like "woah, you took a natche!"

In one of our first marketing campaigns, we put up a photo of the Mike Tyson bite, captioned "when was the last time you took a real bite?".  Because damn, he took a natche out of that poor guy's ear.  That's how we want people to feel about our food.  We want them to take a bite as if they're about to win a match.

I was trying to come up with a name similar to manaesh, which is Lebanese flat bread, and my brother suggested "Mantoushe" and I knew right then that it was the perfect name, and that's when we decided that our logo would be a wrap with a bite taken out of it, which I absolutely love.

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Pipes Pipes, Baby

I wanted to design Mantoushe with a very industrial vibe, like a factory, and I used Pinterest for inspiration.  New York inspired me when I saw all this exposed wiring and drop down lights, and I decided I wanted Mantoushe to have a very raw look and feel.  My dad's an engineer, and my family's been in the construction industry, so I've grown up going to site with him, and one of the most prolific things you see on site is pipes – pipes everywhere!  This is rather strange, but since I was a kid, I've absolutely loved the look of pipes.

That's the reason I wanted to use pipes for lights, pipes for walls and pipes for my counter!  These are all resalvaged pipes from an old construction yard that was sandpapered and bound together to make the counter.  What's most unique about the interiors, however, is how open the kitchen is.  It's absolute transparency, because customers now know what they want and they don't want to be lied to anymore.

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Launch

Mantoushe finally opened its doors in the summer of 2015 for the soft launch and since then we've relocated to a new branch within Jumeirah Lake Towers.  We're now expanding to another location, the new ENOC petrol pump on Sheikh Zayed Road, and hopefully there will be even more branches to come, so we can expand on dine-in and delivery customers!  This new branch is a billboard for everyone to see and recognize the brand, and I think petrol pumps need something healthy and fresh as opposed to the usual fast food.  This second branch is too small to deliver out of, so our JLT branch will serve as a central kitchen and all deliveries will be directed here.

2017 goals

I hope that this year, we have both branches of Mantoushe up and running before summer.  I hope to solidify a plan internally with partners to really take it to the next level.  The idea was inspired by New York City, so I'd love to take this concept back there someday, as well as expand around the GCC.  I want to introduce the incredible things we do here to the world, so I hope that 2017 is the year to set the plan to do that.

The power of multi-tasking

The restaurant industry is very challenging, irrespective of your gender.  The hours are long, and you have several customer transactions per day.  With each of these transactions, you're being judged, and potentially gaining or losing a customer, which is nerve wracking!

Being an entrepreneur is chaotic, because you're putting on several different hats a day. When you're building it, you're the contractor, the project manager, the mechanical, civil and electrical engineer.  You need to look at the drawings and understand them.  You need to be involved in legal since you're signing all the documents and setting up your trade license.  You need to be the HR Manager because you're recruiting people.  You need to be the Operations Manager because you're designing the menu.  Initially, you're the chef, the cashier, the interior designer – everything!

In Dubai, customers are so used to over-the-top service, the "I'll run a mile for you" type, which isn't the case in most places around the world.  I'm very diligent, meticulous and detail oriented as a person, which may have made me come across as aggressive to my team, especially during the construction phase.  I experienced emotional and physical stress with the launch, but I don't think my challenges had anything to do with my gender, since they had more to do with who I am as a person.  Perhaps coming on site in my little dress wasn't the best idea since I couldn't actually pick up things and get down and dirty, and perhaps carrying things around would've been easier, but its fine – I still did it!

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Favourites

I eat pretty much everything at Mantoushe.  I'm here every day and the wraps and salads are totally customizable and you can create your own, so I rarely have the same thing twice a week unless I'm obsessed with it!  I'm recently loving the Falafel Guac, which is a fusion of Lebanese and Mexican and contains falafel, tahini, tomatoes and guacamole!  It's amazing… I actually had that four times this week.

Since I'm also a certified personal trainer and dancer, I have to eat a certain way, and Mantoushe allows me to cater to that (grilled chicken and steak on my salads), while also giving me the flexibility to enjoy a cheat meal sometimes (3 words – Nutella Strawberry Wrap)!  We gave out free Nutella Strawberry Wraps on Deliveroo orders on Valentine's Day.  It really is the best way to spread love!

"No, I don't have one, I have so many!"

Says Sophia when, being International Women's Day, we asked if she has a strong female role model.  "I prefer to take inspiration from everywhere, since nobody is perfect in every aspect.  If I see a fitness blogger on Instagram that I admire, they would inspire me in that domain, and if I read an article about inspiring entrepreneurs with interesting opinions, they would inspire me in that field.  I try to maximize my learning from everywhere, based on what different people are good at."

"Dancing all day every day!"

That's what Soph would be doing if she wasn't running her own restaurant.  "A friend of mine dragged me to a class 5 years ago, because I was extremely unfit at the time.  I unexpectedly fell in love and now I'm there almost every evening, because dance is the world's most amazing thing to me.  I'd make even more time for dance if I could, although realistically I'd probably still be in venture capital.  Hopefully when Mantoushe is self-sustaining and up and running with its own expansion strategy, I can go back into investments and look into what more to expand on.  There are so many amazing ideas and amazing things that I can come up with that I want to invest in when I have more time, but dance is definitely something I want to make more time for too.  I only started dancing recently, at age 21, which is pretty late for a dancer to start dancing.  Better late than never though - I enjoy jazz, contemporary and hip hop!"

"It's okay to be down sometimes, that's what makes you human"

Looking back, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that it's going to be a rollercoaster, and bad days are inevitable.  That would've made it easier to cope with the negativity.  When I had bad days, weeks or even months, I'd just be down in the gutter and be really upset instead of being practical and realizing that it's going to get better.

In today's world, it's so easy to get sucked into the negative because of how competitive everything is, and how it seems like only the successful people make it to the public awareness.  It applies to everything!  When I'm on Instagram, I see gorgeous people everywhere, whereas in real life, you don't see drop-dead gorgeous people everywhere.  You don't see people at times when they're not looking or feeling their best, which creates a false perception about how everyone else is doing much better than you.  You read all these articles that are supposed to inspire you, but instead all they do is make you feel like they've made it and you haven't!  I wish I'd realized that was normal when I'd started, like I do now, so I wouldn't have been sucked into the negativity like I did back then.

Today, when I have a bad day and can't come to work, which doesn't happen often, I can say "today I'm going to crash and be depressed for the day" and then the next day I wake up and the sun will come up tomorrow and Annie was right, and I make it back to work!

If I'd just realized that it was going to be a rollercoaster and if I just put my hands up and enjoyed the ride instead of freaking out every time there were downs, things would've been a lot easier mentally, and I would've gotten out of my negative moods a lot quicker.

I'm not the most successful person out there, so I can't claim to have made it and give advice to other people, but what I do know based on my experiences is that it's okay to be down sometimes, it's inevitable, and you can pick yourself up the next day.

"They fed me all the time, which was amazing"

My family supported my passion for food from a young age.  I can't imagine what I would've done if I didn't have that support system.  My dad was the first investor in Mantoushe and backed me emotionally as well as financially and just made me feel like I really could do it.  I think we often underestimate how big a role our upbringing plays in the decisions we make growing up.

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"The mezza wrap was inspired by my father!"

Since I was a child, I've noticed the way my dad picks up a piece of bread and dips it in the hummus, tabbouleh and spicy potato before eating it.  I happened to be having lunch with my dad recently, and noticed him doing this.  It inspired me to add the mezze wrap to Mantoushe's menu!  It's pretty much a collection of five different mezzes thrown together in a wrap.  I'm proud to say it's a top seller now, since it's a healthy, vegetarian option.

"I've been trying to steal mum's recipe for years now, but she refuses to give it up!"

My mum makes a mean knefe!  A knefe is a Middle Eastern dessert which is a layer of cheese baked between one or two layers of crispy pastry threads and drizzled with sugar syrup.  It's scrumptious.  Making kenefe at home is pretty unusual since people usually order it from restaurants for special occasions.  She says she'll come and make it for the customers though, although I'm not sure how that would work once we have even more branches!  She's still got that secret but I'll try and pry it out of her someday…

"Real food - no nonsense!"

The great thing about the restaurant industry is that each day is different, and there are always new and exciting things happening.  Sometimes customers create their own wraps and salads that are so inspiring, I literally pick up the phone and tell them how much I love it, and ask if I can put it on our menu.  A lot of our wraps were inspired by customers, which creates a nice foodie community that I love.  One of our bestsellers, the Mr Draper wrap, was designed by a couple that founded a styling concept in Dubai, that shops for customers based on their style preferences.

Anything that's on our menu needs to pass two criteria – it needs to Lebanese fusion, and has to be real food, no nonsense!  We should really put that up as a sign on our door.  I've got a brilliant team of smart, dedicated, hard-working and kind people who are passionate about the concept and believe in what we're doing.  If I didn't trust my team, I'd be a failure.  We're open from 8am to midnight all week, so if I were to be here on my own to manage it, I'd go crazy.  The team allows me to create, think, work and help us make it who we are today.  I couldn't have done it on my own for sure.

What I love most about my job is how we're changing the way people think about Lebanese food by making it more exciting with daring mixes of flavors and fusing it with different countries.  The Mezze Wrap (different mezzes fused together), Falafa-Guac (falafel and guacamole) and Steakmous (steak, hummus, spicy potato, pine nuts, tomatoes and roasted garlic sauce) are all examples of the fusion of flavors we've been experimenting with.  I think Dubai, and the world in general, is changing in terms of wanting to eat real food as opposed to processed rubbish, and people are really starting to understand the value of making things fresh in-house and on order.

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