Semsome.comThe Incredible Woman Behind Semsom: Christine Sfeir Julie August 10, 2015 Behind the Kitchen, Mediterranean From Lebanon to New York, Christine Sfeir is spreading her love of hummus and other Middle Eastern favorites across the world with Semsom, a Lebanese (with a twist!) eatery which just opened its first US location two months ago at the corner of Astor Place and Broadway. (And quickly became a favorite of mine!) As a mother of two, this female entrepreneur who brought Dunkin Donuts to the Middle East in 1998, has no plans of slowing down quite yet. I recently caught up with Christine Sfeir at Semsom to learn more about her business philosophy, how she balances it all, and where we can find her when she’s not traveling the world. How would you sum up Semsom in three words? Wholesome, Mediterranean flavors, and seasoned with love. This is our tag line if you want. It’s healthy food, that’s very tasty, and everything is made fresh right here in the store. We don’t have a fryer. We don’t use cans or anything processed. But it’s still very tasty. How has the transition been from the Middle East to the States? It’s been very challenging and very interesting, especially adjusting the format. From one side we needed to adjust the format so that it’s easier for New Yorkers to understand. In the Middle East we have waiter service, but for New York we thought it would be easier for our customers to first see the food, because a lot of it is new food that people here have probably never seen. And we’ve kept all the food the same, the hummus you see here is the same you’ll see in Lebanon. Just the format is different. What makes Semsom unique compared to other DIY eateries? The main difference is the flavor; most of the recipes are family recipes. We’re really trying to bring you a taste of what our food is all about. Chicken is chicken, but we’re using different spices that we use back home and this is what makes the difference in taste, and the response has been wonderful. People are enjoying the flavors, it’s working! And people are enjoying the discovery of new spices and foods and the regulars are asking for more items already! (ps. Every few months Semsom will feature new items!) Why New York specifically? For two reasons: First, New York is probably the most difficult market in the US and we wanted to start with the most difficult market, because the focus will be on the first few stores so we’d rather do it where it’s tough and see how it goes. And secondly, New York is very inspirational, in the US and all over the world. The process of opening has been difficult, just in terms of the paperwork and permits, etc., so I believe the next stores will be much easier, but the response here has already been amazing. The neighborhood has been especially welcoming. Every time we go into a new market, it’s the neighborhood that is the first test. If they make you feel part of the community, it’s a big plus. What is your business philosophy? I’m a passionate person, so if I’m not passionate I’m not good at it. And for me actually the story of Semsom started in DC. I was at the Women’s Business conference a few years back, and one of my Taxi drivers started to ask me about where I’m from and he was very curious about Lebanon and its’ food and when we arrived at my destination he told me that I had to open a Lebanese restaurant in the states. I thought it was a great idea and a year after the conversation our first Semsom opened in Beirut, but we always wanted to come back to the States and we’re excited to eventually open in DC! But back to my philosophy, you really have to enjoy what you’re doing no matter what. We spend so much time working, so if we do not enjoy it, then what is the point? How cool! Had you always been interested in food and the food industry? Yes actually, I studied food science first at Beirut and then at McGill and my first business experience was bringing Dunkin Donuts to Lebanon. A lot of people ask my why Dunkin? And it’s because I spent most of my years studying in coffee shops at school and when my parents asked me what I really enjoyed in Montreal, I answered coffee shops! So my dad said, why don’t you bring coffee shops to Lebanon? That was in 1997, when we didn’t have modern coffee shops or any of the big brands so this is how the first adventure started. And I love the Dunkin experience. We’re still the franchisees, and we’ve been doing it for 18 years. I love it because it makes you smile, even the donut smiles back when you bite into it. So it’s a very positive brand! How do you find a balance between work and family and personal life? This is obviously not easy, as I work in 6 markets, 2 continents, so not the easiest job to be a mom. I have 2 daughters and a wonderful husband and they are the most important part of my life. It’s very important to find the right husband who is very supportive of you. I am blessed to have an amazing husband. My family is my priority. So whenever they have a school event or a special occasion, I am there no matter what. My mother is also a huge help, she’s there in the afternoon when they come home from school, so I know they have the affection they need when I’m not there. The traveling is a challenge, which tends to disrupt the balance, but apart from the traveling it’s working out. How have you found being a female has affected your career, specifically in the Middle East? I think it’s been much easier because I am a woman and we don’t have as many female entrepreneurs, so I stand out. And especially in the Arab world, where woman do not work as much as in other parts of the world, for me it’s been a plus and never a minus. What advice would you give to female entrepreneurs? First, do something you love. You really need to be passionate about what you’re doing. Second, be surrounded by the right team because no one succeeds alone. Third, to focus on numbers, because not doing this tends be a huge problem for passionate people. I did this mistake when I started. I was driven by passion and achievements that you forget about business models, and such, in order to be profitable and to keep growing. And lastly, to try to do things differently and to not put glass ceilings, because it’s usually our fears that stop us, but just go for it! If you weren’t in this industry, what would you be doing? I love what I do so probably something similar. But I did go through an adrenaline junkie phase. I love to sky dive and fly planes, so probably something of that nature. I have around 500 jumps in a few countries, but that was a previous life, now the focus is on the kids and the family and business. But we love traveling, so whenever we have the opportunity to travel we go and discover the world. It really opens your mind to new places, people and food. What have been the greatest rewards of your career so far? What has been the most rewarding are the little things, not the major awards and big titles, it’s nice of course. But for me, it’s looking around Semsom and seeing smiles, and seeing people enjoying Lebanese meatballs. It’s seeing people enjoying foods that weren’t in their vocabulary two months ago. It’s absolutely amazing. There are small things everyday, which is wonderful because it means I don’t have to wait for one big thing in the future, I can enjoy the rewards right now. Through all of your travels, what’s the best thing you’ve eaten? I don’t know about the best thing, because what I think is best is trying new foods through my travels. We’re traveling to Norway as a family trip so I’m excited to try new things there. But I am addicted to hummus. And I believe we’ve perfected the recipe here. I could eat Hummus everyday. What’s next for you? Now the big focus is taking Semsom across the US, opening a new one in November, another one around March before expanding out of the Northeast. The sky is the limit. With so many countries and so many places, why not have Lebanese food all over the world? For more information on Semson check out their website – Thank you to Christine Sfeir for your time!