|June 11, 2018|
He Built Qatar's First-Ever Vegan Cafe --- and They Came | Rising Stars
|Ghanim Al-Sulaiti, the 26-year-old owner of the Evergreen Organics cafe in Doha, Qatar, sits at a table about to bite into his burger. But that charred slab of protein isn't made from meat. The burger, forged from vegetables, beans and grains, is 100 percent vegan. So is everything else served at Sulaiti's café, the first ever vegan eatery in this Gulf Coast country.|
Aside from the traditional floor-length dishdasha he's wearing, Al-Sulaiti looks and sounds every bit the American millennial. That's not surprising --- he spent four years in the U.S. studying engineering at Drexel University. But along with a BS degree, he came away from his time in America with a new mindset.
Al-Sulaiti remembers the moment vividly: "I was watching Good Morning America and author Kimberly Snyder was talking about her book on being vegan, and how it's healthy," he recalls. Intrigued, he bought the book and tried a few recipes. Gradually he noticed he was feeling stronger and more energized --- and soon a plant-based diet had become a way of life.
When Al-Sulaiti came home and announced that he wanted to open a vegan cafe in Doha, his family thought he'd lost his mind. "It's not what we eat," said his relatives, convinced the venture would fail for lack of customers. In Qatar, a parched country wedged between the Arabian Desert and the Indian Ocean, the concept of veganism was alien --- estimates don't even exist for what portion of the population is vegetarian, let alone vegan. Qatari cuisine may include plant-based food like hummus and dates, but historically, a complete, nutritious meal centered around fish and meat.
Along with rising incomes from oil fortunes, supermarket shelves started to fill with items imported from all over the world and Qataris embraced foods rich in fat and sugar --- causing diabetes and obesity rates to surge. In 2016, it was reported that 42 percent of adults in Qatar are obese, compared to the region's average of 37 percent --- alarming statistics, considering the global average is 13 percent. For Al-Sulaiti, this worrisome trend was the major motivator. "We're really on the fast track to becoming fat and sick," he says. "I wanted to teach people that there's a different way to eat --- healthier, more sustainable, more humane."
As he looked for a spot in The Pearl, Doha's modern district, Al-Sulaiti found a kindred spirit on Instagram --- Jawaher Al Fardan, a young Qatari raised in England and the U.S. who also wanted to bring vegan culture to her home country. Ignoring the skeptics, the pair opened Evergreen Organics in 2016, serving an all-day menu, plus smoothies and fresh juices. Having a business partner share your ideals even if your relatives don't was the key to their success, says Al Fardan. "My family still makes fun of me and they still see it as a joke," she says.
Evergreen Organics took off, becoming the go-to place among young Qataris. "If I can describe it with three words, I'd say gourmet, interesting, healthy," says 25-year-old Nasser Al-Ansari, a regular who is not vegan but loves the food (he is particularly fond of the Beetroot Ravioli). "It actually tastes so good that you forget everything you are eating is plant-based," he says.
As their clientele grew, Evergreen Organics became more than a trendy eatery. It kick-started a movement as people of varying ages and social strata were introduced to a new way of eating. "A vegan restaurant in the Middle East is really a wow, it's not what you expect," says the cafe's chef, Stephanie Calfat, who grew up in Brazil but whose mother's family hails from Lebanon. "We see a change," she continues. "We see families bringing small kids to eat vegan, and also older people. They come in big groups and sit at big tables together."
A number of customers began requesting recipes so they could experiment with vegan cuisine at home, and the cafe became a hub for swapping advice on adopting a vegan lifestyle. These "mixers" also drew longtime vegans afraid they'd be ridiculed. "People were coming to the cafe saying I had a vegan diet forever but was silent about it," Al Fardan says. "Now they feel they are part of a community."
But running a plant-based menu on the arid Gulf Coast is challenging. "At first I was actually worried about having enough fresh organic ingredients, because we are in the middle of the desert," Al Sulaiti says, "but luckily Qatar now has a growing network of greenhouses and hydroponic farms, which made it possible." Still, many ingredients must be flown in, adding to the cost and carbon footprint. The cafe isn't cheap --- smoothies run to $13, the Boss Burger costs almost $20 --- and the bulk of its customers are upper-middle-class professionals who live and work in Doha. But understanding the prices is part of the shift in attitude, Al-Sulaiti explains. Organic food costs more because farmers don't produce as much of it, but the quality is better.
Meanwhile, Al-Sulaiti is broadcasting his message to other realms. In October 2016, he established the Good Vibe Foundation, which operates a vegan cafe in Cambodia --- another country with a meat-centric diet --- with the aim of supplying 10,000 schoolkids with nutritious meals and educating them about healthy food choices. He also launched Botany, a line of vegan, ethical skin care products.
A plant-based enterprise that takes root in the desert is a major win for veganism, even if the number of unreformed carnivores in the Gulf will probably always outstrip kale-and-cucumber smoothie fans. But Al-Sulaiti is undeterred: "I really want to show people that there's a different way to live."