A seven-year itch led former Google executive Azhar Hashem to trade her corporate career for her 66-seat dream – a restaurant space at 206 Valencia st., where she will open the Mediterranean eatery “Tawla” on Thursday.
Tired after years of working long hours at Google and a daily commute between the Mission and Silicon Valley, Hashem decided it was time to pursue her passion for cooking with personal happiness as her bottom line.
“People told me it’s career-kill, but I didn’t even know what my city looked like on a normal day. That was more crushing for me,” said Hashem, a native of Jordan.
The leap from techie to restaurateur was not completely uncalculated. Hashem’s plans for a Mediterranean restaurant have been simmering for some eight years and she expects it will take her some time to build a successful business.
“I’m in it for the long-haul,” said Hashem, adding that if all goes well, Tawla will be the first of several she would like to open.
Nestled between a community chiropractor and a family-run liquor store, thyme and other herbs sprout from ceramic pots that line Tawla’s entrance.
Despite only moderate foot traffic along the residential stretch of Valencia Street near the 101 freeway underpass, some restaurants seem to be thriving.
“We want to be that place for locals to walk down the street to eat,” said Hashem, pointing to the success of neighboring restaurants such as Burma Love, which is just across the street, and Mission Beach Cafe, which is on Guerrero. “The product has to be wanted by the community.”
Painted letters spell “Tawla” on a front window, and the restaurant’s exterior is simple because Hashem wanted to avoid the “polished look” of many upscale restaurants that have moved into the Mission.
Instead, she’s focused on recreating a sense of community that she’s held dear during her some 11 years of living in the Mission.
“[In Jordan], you would go down to your corner store and they know you by name and when I first moved to the Mission, the bodegas were nostalgic for me in that same way,” said Hashem, acknowledging that such interactions have become less common.
“The problem with [gentrification] is not that a lot of people can’t necessarily afford to go to these new restaurants, but that they don’t feel welcome there,” said Hashem.
But prices at Tawla are competitive, in part because they are fixed to include the waitstaff’s tips. Appetizers range from $7 to $11, and up to $160 for a roasted leg of lamb for four.
Hashem said that she sees class and social division in her community, and to some extent faults tech employers in the area.
“As techies, we can do a lot better by the communities we are in,” she said. “It can start as simple as [a company] not shipping it’s food [for employees] in from somewhere else. [If there are restaurants on your block], get your employees to spend money around the corner.”
Still, at Tawla, she’s put to use some “good” ideas borrowed from tech.
One of them is keeping employees motivated through perks such as profit-sharing, equity share, and a tiered health benefit model.
“Even at new startups where you don’t have any money to begin with, employees get health benefits,” said Hashem. “The restaurant industry is broken.”
While experimenting with a no tipping model that has proven challenging for other local establishments, Hashem starts her employees at $14 an hour, some $2 ahead of the city’s minimum wage, and she’s offering a profit sharing plan.
“You’re hustling for the good of the company not just for yourself – that’ the tech mentality,” she said.
Hashem hopes that her restaurant will disrupt “misconceptions of Mediterranean cuisine and culture” held locally.
“A lot of Mediterranean food available in the city is what I call “1.0”– it’s the food that came with immigrants,” said Hashem, explaining that hummus and falafel are not on her menu.
With the help of former Delfina Chef Joseph Magidow, Hashem will cook up something a little more “evolved and sophisticated.”
The emphasis is on home cooking that heightens awareness of the traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean region– Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, as well as Greece, Turkey and Iran.
One of Hashem’s favorites on the menu is ful medames, a bean dip famously served with boiled eggs and caramelized onions by her mother. It is a spring dish in Jordan and a family tradition that she hopes to share with her customers.
“One bite of that and I’m hit with nostalgia,” said Hashem. “I want people to linger and connect to the food in the same way.”