My mother died of cancer when I was 21 years old. There is no shadow of doubt my mother got sick because of the food we ate. I studied this for a long time and the Organic Food and Cafe is the culmination of everything. God put me on earth to set up this business. It's to do the right thing. Every time I shied away from doing the right thing, it came back to bite me. I don't know why it is my destiny. Am I supposed to help mankind? I have no idea.
I finally opened my first shop after experiencing prolonged bouts of dizziness and feeling unwell myself. When a homeopath discovered it was toxins and finally cured me, that was the final straw. Initially, I spent three years travelling the world speaking to organic farmers to verify the authenticity of their farming methods. I found most had converted to organic because of their own illnesses, or after someone in the family died from DDT (a poisonous insecticide) or some other chemical. Who sprays pesticides wearing a full body suit and stays out of the fields for a week? You cannot farm that way.
I started off trying to sell packaged organic food to supermarkets and nobody was interested. My first cafe opened in Satwa in 2004 and that shop was replaced by the Dubai Mall store in 2008. Towards the end of 2010, we plan to open a store in Masdar City near Abu Dhabi and our first store in Bahrain opens at the end of October. I would like to get some of the money that I invested back, but after that I don't want to profit. The proceeds will be reinvested into growing the business.
The aim is to become vertically integrated - to spend money on education and have our own farms and sell our own produce. I set this business up to become self-sustaining. In the years to come, if it keeps going, I hope it will grow into a foundation. We have over 350 suppliers of organic produce. I know the owners of every farm and the relationships established six years ago are still strong. I don't buy fair trade because it's not fair - I do real fair trade, in the sense that I have a set of farmers and pay them a premium so they can build up on that.
There are few ethics in the mainstream food industry. Have a look at www.foodwatch.de to see how food companies cheat. The biggest con is food enriched with vitamin A, C and E, which are just synthetic preservatives that are not even good for us. It's a marketing gimmick. I try to avoid organics from big publicly listed companies. When their main motive is profit, they will start to destroy the organic industry. Now we are moving beyond organic to the next stage - that's bio-dynamic, according to Rudolph Steiner principles.
In commercial organic farming, it is legal to farm in a greenhouse using liquid fertiliser made from fish meal, which ultimately destroys the mineral balance of the soil completely. In bio-dynamic, you cannot grow in a greenhouse and farmers follow the moon cycle for planting and harvesting. I was schooled here. My father has Syrian heritage, although he is a German citizen as was my mother. My father had various businesses in Dubai and he started by supplying the British RAF. My father set up Modern Bakery in the mid-1970s and sold it in 1994, so we made money over the years. My dad stopped working in 1991, when my mother died, and I took over the family business. In 1995, I started a machine supply business. Our family also has a company called Arab Beverage Establishment and my objective is to take those customers through the chain to sell organics for kids.
For my conventional businesses, I track every dollar and every cent. But Organic Foods and Cafe is different; it's my calling. People say organic food is expensive, but expensive compared to what? My mum died at 47. What is it worth to you to live and be healthy well into your 80s or 90s? Realistically, most organic farmers are motivated to foster links to customers so the prices don't tend to fluctuate much. It's a small circle of people that buy, sell and distribute.
As a supermarket, we must have the smallest carbon footprint per dirham in the UAE. Our air-miles policy is important and over half, maybe up to 70 per cent of our food comes from countries within three hours' flight. A lot comes from Egypt and India and a little from southern Europe, Uganda and South Africa. I don't like to comment on whether we are profitable or not because if I say we are, it attracts sharks trying to make a buck. If I say no, it scares my loyal customers
We want to identify losses so we can avoid repeating them. But we do not track basket size in the way supermarkets do. We do not measure how much we spend on wages or rent each month. The most difficult thing to overcome in setting up the Organic Food and Cafe was habit and closed mindedness. Mankind has this sheep mentality - I am guilty of it, too. * As told to Annette Feletti