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March 8, 2023

The Roots of Flavour: Exploring Culinary Traditions with Zina Abboud




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Camila Ugarte

Communications & Marketing Intern

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. To celebrate this occasion, we met up with an ambitious female entrepreneur from our WorldStartup community to get to know more about her entrepreneurial journey. Her name is Zina Abboud.

Zina is the co-founder of the startup ‘Syrian Roots’, commonly known as ‘Leaves by Roots’. Zina and her co-founder, Rami Masri, seek to reduce income inequality, unite cultures and people and improve the food system through their business. Building a network and ecosystem that is advantageous to individuals and the community is crucial in order to appreciate diversity and tell a story.

Leaves by Roots offers Mediterranean cuisine through tasty and environmentally friendly meals. In April, you will be able to taste their meals for yourself, as they will be opening a shop in Almere Central Station, with plans to expand to other train stations in the coming years. But what story does Leaves by Roots want to tell? They tell a story of passion for food, inclusivity, new beginnings, giving back, and aspiring further.

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I am Zina Abboud, a lady from Syria.

A chapter of new beginnings

I am very happy that I followed my passion.

Co-founding a food chain was not an initiative Zina had envisioned for her future. She graduated from Aleppo University with a degree in Business Management and began her marketing career for the next 11 years. Zina didn't really discover her passion for cuisine until she moved to the Netherlands in 2015. She realized that through food, it would become simpler and quicker for her to acclimate to Dutch society. Yet Zina was confronted with a challenging decision: continue working as a marketer or start a new business in the Netherlands, where she had no prior connections and knew neither the language nor the culture. She took a leap of faith and launched her own catering business.

For eight years, Zina dedicated her time to growing her catering business. The difficulty: Zina was a lone wolf. Still, she persevered and saw her company succeed to the point where she published her own cookbook on Syrian cuisine in 2018. It was so successful that the Dutch PM Mark Rutte invited her to The Hague for an award ceremony in honour of her book, she was repeatedly invited to cook for the Royal Dutch Family, and she recently won two important awards: the ‘Viva400 award - category Zaken wonders’ and the ‘Beste newcomer 2023 - category founders.’

Fast forward to 2021, the idea of Leaves by Roots was lingering in co-founder Rami Masri’s mind. The original idea was: ‘a Syrian food chain run by newcomers’. When Rami originally asked Zina whether she wanted to work with him on this project, Zina said no. Yet, the idea of introducing Syrian cuisine in an international setting and having the restaurant chain run by newcomers like herself persisted in her mind. This initiative would give talented chefs the opportunity to prove themselves. Soon after, Rami got a call from Zina saying, "I am in”. That day, Leaves by Roots set off on its adventure.

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Ready, set, go!

“It is exciting times for Leaves by Roots,” says Zina. Their team, consisting of 12 members, was assembled only last year due to the pandemic. All members come from various backgrounds but are united by a common passion: their love for food. Together, they will help Zina and Rami bring to the Dutch table the original taste of Mediterranean cuisine.

We are at a point where we can say, ‘We are ready!'

If you spot Leaves by Roots at Almere Central Station, you will notice that the menu, the decorations, and the atmosphere, are all a fusion of Dutch and Syrian culture. You might wonder, why a mix and not a fully Syrian version? “In the Netherlands, there is no difference between you and me. The Netherlands is about unity and inclusivity,” explains Zina, and that is what Leaves by Roots wants to portray to its audience.

“Every day, we set goals, and if we succeed with one goal, we are satisfied,” explains Zina. Within the next three years, Leaves by Roots plans to open five additional stores at train stations in other Dutch cities. The long-term objective is to hand over ownership of these businesses to their present staff members, who are also newcomers to the Netherlands. With this in mind, co-founders Rami and Zina are fulfilling their vision of giving an opportunity to talented individuals. The present staff is receiving practical shop management training so that they are prepared to take over when the time comes.

Care for the people and the planet

Leaves by Roots pursues an impact-driven goal rather than a profit-driven one. ‘Care for the people’ and ‘Care for the environment’ are the company's two guiding principles. By offering a workplace for newcomers and assisting local farmers wherever possible rather than purchasing from supermarkets, Leaves by Roots successfully incorporates the human element. They have a ‘zero-plastic’ policy, meaning that all of their packagings are made of cardboard, which demonstrates their concern for the environment.

“It is not only about promoting Syrian Roots, but also about helping people in need who are back in Syria,” explains Zina. Their most recent campaign, known as ‘the 10,000 meals challenge’ consists of selling 10 '000 meals within 2 months, where 100% of the profits will go to individuals impacted by the recent earthquake in Syria. By visiting their website, you may learn more about this initiative and how you can contribute.

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In the Netherlands, there is no difference between you and me. The Netherlands is about unity and inclusivity.

Wisdom from experience

Several lessons were gained along the way as Leaves by Roots grew to where they are now:

1. Know your target audience

The initial plan for Leaves by Roots was to have a completely vegetarian menu. However, before taking the decision to open a shop in Almere, both Rami and Zina began researching the city’s potential. They realized that the Netherlands as a whole can be considered a cultural hub where various nationalities thrive and coexist. They would have lost out on a sizable customer segment if they had advertised a vegetarian-only menu.

2. Keep on learning. Take that course!

“You cannot say, ‘I know everything,’” says Zina. If you find yourself in a new setting with a business idea, study your new environment. Even after working for many years in the food industry, Zina continues to further her culinary education by enrolling in classes from a range of cuisines. There is no limit to education, every new skill you acquire expands your knowledge.

3. You can’t do everything by yourself

Despite the grand successes she achieved, Zina’s involvement in the 'one-person team' taught her that one shouldn't attempt to accomplish everything on their own. The quality of the task is always higher when there is teamwork. Zina's decision to participate in Leaves by Roots was significantly influenced by this insight.

We want to have meals that everybody can enjoy. This project is for everybody, not just for us.

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