In Incfile’s ongoing Spotlight of the Month series, we share the success stories and learning experiences of Incfile clients who are doing interesting and wonderful things with their businesses. This month we're featuring Sumer Saliba, owner of Mid East Eats, a company that offers food and cultural tours of the Little Arabia District of Anaheim, California.
Sumer is passionate about cuisine and hospitality, and as a first-generation Arab American, she decided to start a company to help share the uniqueness of Middle Eastern food and culture. The tagline of Mid East Eats is “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers.” By leading tours of the Little Arabia District, Sumer’s company hopes to help people from all walks of life develop a better understanding and appreciation for the food and heritage of the Middle East.
Sumer shared some of her favorite insights, success stories and learning experiences from her journey as an entrepreneur.
Finding Inspiration from Heritage and Heart
Mid East Eats is not the first entrepreneurial venture for Sumer; she has been a business owner for her entire adult life, ranging from a virtual bookkeeping business to selling handmade jewelry on Etsy. But starting a business focused on Middle Eastern heritage and hospitality was particularly meaningful to Sumer on a personal level.
“I’ve always had a side hustle, but Mid East Eats is the most passionate thing that I have worked on that has become a viable business,” Sumer said. “I love food, and I love my heritage. Cooking and feeding others fulfills my soul, and I think that stems from being Arab American.”
Hospitality is massively important to Middle Eastern culture and central to the everyday life.
“All Middle Eastern countries have their own tradition and food, but they all have one thing in common: being hospitable to others,” Sumer said. “In the Middle East, hospitality is expressed through food. It's quite normal to invite random strangers into our homes for meals or coffee. Food is usually eaten family style, and unannounced guests are always welcome at the table.”
The restaurateurs and small business owners that Sumer supports with her Mid East Eats food tours are helping to keep this hospitality tradition alive.
Breaking Barriers, Building Community
The Little Arabia District is a unique cultural enclave in Orange County, California, located in the midst of major attractions like Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Sumer and Mid East Eats are working to bring more of these tourists to the Little Arabia halal butcher shops, bakeries, Arab and Armenian restaurants, Arab grocery stores and hookah cafes. Along with introducing more people to Arab and Middle Eastern cuisines, Sumer is seeking to build cultural understanding and better relationships between people.
“The most rewarding thing about owning my own company is bringing people together and helping others,” Sumer said. “I teach and learn about different cultures, and I help break down negative stereotypes about my culture that we see too often in the U.S.”
Sumer’s company offers a variety of food tours, such as a food sampling tour of six different restaurants, a private curated tour and an Arabian Nights tour that includes a stop at a hookah lounge. This provides people an opportunity to try Middle Eastern foods like falafel, shawarma or katayef (syrup-drenched folded pancakes) for the first time.
By tasting the food and experiencing the friendly, generous hospitality of the Middle East in person, Sumer believes that her customers will come away from the experience with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the people and places of the Little Arabia District and the broader Middle East.
A Small Business Owner, Supporting Small Business Owners
The COVID-19 event has been challenging for small businesses, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industries where shutting down or reducing operations has been required. Sumer loves small businesses, and she sees her business as a way to support small business owners in the Little Arabia District.
“I am helping these mom-and-pop shops in the Little Arabia District, and most of these business owners immigrated to the U.S. to create a better life for their families,” Sumer said. “Without these resFootaurants, cafes and shops, these business owners would have nothing. And we wouldn’t have the delicious foods they serve. We wouldn’t experience the kindness and hospitality that we would experience in the Middle East.”
At a time when so many small businesses are facing uncertainty and so many people are longing to travel and experience the flavors of the world again, the work of Mid East Eats is more important than ever. Hopefully, Sumer and her tour customers can help keep the Little Arabia District thriving for years to come under the current circumstances.
Ben Gran is a freelance writer from Des Moines, Iowa. Ben has written for Fortune 500 companies, the Governor of Iowa (who now serves as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture), the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, and many corporate clients. He writes about entrepreneurship, technology, food and other areas of great personal interest.