From Lebanon with love
The story behind Wellington’s Alamir Bakery is one of dedication to tradition, to an amazing bond that stretches back to the Middle East, and a shared family love for the business. You may not be familiar with the name Alamir Bakery, but Wellingtonians have been loving its pita breads and chips, hummus and falafel bites […]
The story behind Wellington’s Alamir Bakery is one of dedication to tradition, to an amazing bond that stretches back to the Middle East, and a shared family love for the business.
You may not be familiar with the name Alamir Bakery, but Wellingtonians have been loving its pita breads and chips, hummus and falafel bites for 27 years. Today its Delicious Lebanese Snack Company products can be found at 100-plus Foodstuff supermarkets, 100-plus Countdowns and more than 100 restaurants, cafes and other retailers throughout the country. Clients include all Pita Pit stores, with the exception of Auckland (they’re currently working on that!)
But it’s the back story behind the brand that truly captures the imagination – a story that began when Jamil and Waafa Dia immigrated to Wellington from war-torn Lebanon in 1990.
To cut a long story short, two years after arriving in this country, and despite gaining experience in a number of jobs (in Jamil’s case including a stint as driver for the Iranian Embassy) it was Waafa’s skills in the kitchen that led to this once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity.
In 1992 the couple launched The Delicious Lebanese Snack Company making small batches of hummus and falafel in a small commercial kitchen at the back of their Miramar house, and supplying local supermarkets, restaurants and cafés.
Today the business is known as Alamir Bakery and, despite its nationwide success, is still a truly family affair. Five members are all directors and still involved – Ali Dia, who originally trained as a builder, is one of the four owner operators; younger brother Eassa handles online orders and deliveries, while older brother Abrahim works in all aspects of the business alongside another older brother, Hassan.
And while Jamil has now retired from the business, Waafa is still very much involved and all the recipes are hers.
“Even when we come up with a new recipe, we seek our mother’s input,” explains Ali. “Our mother is the best cook we know. She makes the best food we have ever tasted. You can ask anyone who has tried her food, they’ll agree.”
Today, as always, Alamir Bakery’s point of difference revolves around authentic, raw and natural ingredients such as chickpeas and tahini, and recipes that can be traced back to Biblical times. Only two out of the 25 products they produce contain preservatives.
With growth has come added responsibilities. There are now 24 employees and output has increased considerably – for example each week they process over six tons of raw ingredients..
Until recently they delivered products direct to supermarkets, but have now partnered with a distribution company – simplifying the delivery process considerably.
So has growth ever been hindered by the business’s family ownership and contribution?
Ali laughs at the suggestion. “We have had our fair share of arguments like any family but we have been through a lot and that has made us stronger together. It also helps that we all love food.
“Anyone that works in a family business would have to agree that you come across “handbrakes” almost every single day. Sometimes it’s a good thing, it gives you additional time to think things through before going ahead with them.
“Marketing has been a weak point in the past; but after my brothers and I took over the business we were able to start addressing a lot of the areas that were not a focus earlier.”
“When the hard work needs to be done, at any hour day or night, I can count on my brothers to be there.” – Ali.
As for family ownership, Ali says the aim of everyone is always to resolve issues rather than create more. “Like good friends we always have each other’s backs at the end of the day and when the hard work needs to be done, at any hour day or night, I can count on my brothers to be there.”
Does he believe, with hindsight, that they might have missed some growth opportunities and could have done things differently?
“Of course you can always look back and say [we] could have done this earlier or that better, but these are lessons learnt for the next project,” says Ali. “Perhaps we could have benefited from a professional who could see things from a different viewpoint – but it is hard to find the right person and trust in taking a step like that. It could have made a positive impact though.”
Getting through Covid
During New Zealand’s first covid lockdown, it was the uncertainty that worried the family the most – worrying about family, the business, and the world in general.
“It was difficult continuing to run production lines with comparatively smaller orders,” says Ali. “We were lucky to be deemed an essential business and able to continue supplying supermarkets, although production was down 45 to 60 percent at times.”
The online store continued operating too and they were still able to deliver products to homes.
Through it all, Ali and his three brothers have been grateful for the support, love and advice from their parents and extended family.
“My Mum’s continuous love, dedication and support has been hugely motivational and she is a role model to all of us,” says Ali. “My Dad once said to me ‘use every opportunity to learn, if you have been given a task don’t just complete the task but understand it’.
Regular contact with family in Lebanon is important. “Especially with covid and everything else going on at the moment, it’s good to check in,” says Ali. “We have an amazing number of uncles and aunties and with that comes many cousins, so there is a lot of family there.
“In 2018 our whole family managed to go to back to Lebanon together – that was the best trip! We can’t wait to be able to have another trip like that when things return to normal.”
Meanwhile, plans to export product have had to be put on hold, again thanks to covid.
“Before covid we had sent our first international order to New Caledonia, with further interest from overseas markets and an airline for on-board meals,” says Ali.
Looking ahead, the plan is to work more on brand awareness and promoting product authenticity. Ali’s advice for other businesses is simple; “If you really believe you have a good product stick to it, but also market it well, so people know who you are and what your product is all about.”
Alamir Bakery will certainly be putting that advice into practice in 2021.
Photo: (L-R) Zane James (Ali’s son), Ali, Eassa, Hassan, Wafaa and Abrahim. Story by NZBusiness editor Glenn Baker.