Bearded bakers put Palestinian culture on the map
The Palestinian city of Nablus may be famous for being the homeland of knafeh – slices of melted cottage cheese baked in the oven with a filling of kataifi or semolina, then drizzled with fragrant syrup – but in Sydney, two Palestino brothers- Australians use dessert for a good cause.
Enter the Knafeh Bakery. Ameer and Joey El-Issa, better known as “The Bearded Bakers”, started their business in late 2014 with the goal of promoting their family’s culture and challenging negative stereotypes.
In the space of five years, the El-Issa brothers and their troop of bearded white-clad bakers have racked up huge social media success.
They appeared in national newspapers, on television and launched in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city after Sydney, in 2016.
They also had an “incredible” stint in New York in 2017 and also toured Lebanon.
Housed in an old shipping container turned into a bakery that emulates a traveling food truck business model, there’s just one item on the menu: knafeh.
But the bakers more than make up for the limited menu, not only in the quality of the dessert, but also in the entertainment, as customers are also offered a dining experience.
The El-Issa brothers said the Knafeh bakery was born out of being overwhelmed by the demand for the dessert served at their family-owned Shisha Bar restaurant.
âWe started experimenting with Middle Eastern ingredients and family recipes and one of them was my mom’s knafeh,â Ameer recalls.
âWe put it on the menu and it became an instant hit. At the time, the influence of social media was starting, so there was a lot of social media about this particular dessert.
âAll the hype at the restaurant was about the knafeh. We used to have queues for the door. It got to a point where it started to put a lot of pressure on the restaurant.”
Ameer added that the concept of Knafeh Bakery could be described as a marriage of two worlds: the El-Issa brothers’ passion for food and people, and design and architecture.
With an architectural background himself, Ameer said he had always had an ambition to pursue something around shipping containers.
|We started experimenting with Middle Eastern ingredients and family recipes and one of them was my mom’s knafeh|
âMany years ago during my university studies there was a case study where architects were turning shipping containers into apartments for living,â Ameer said. The New Arabic.
âIt touched me, and I was keen to do something with a container. For many years, every time I saw a container in the back of a truck or on the docks or on TV, I was going ‘you know I’m going to do something with a sea container someday’.
âMany years went by, and we fell into the restaurant game and we had a huge demand for this restaurant dessert. That’s when my two worlds collided and I thought to myself : “you know what it is, it’s knafeh and container shipping ‘. It didn’t make sense, but at the same time, it made total sense. “
Popping up in different locations each weekend, crates of milk – and bonfires for the cooler months – are set up outside the bakery. Customers often stay long after completing their knafeh, thanks to the entertainment provided by The Bearded Bakers.
Arabic music is still played through a sound system, bakers engage in dancing every now and then – especially the traditional dabke – and customers are encouraged to join.
According to Ameer, the entertainment aspect of Knafeh Bakery is part of a well-prepared business strategy focused on customer experience. Social networks are also part of the strategy.
âWe knew that if we created an environment where people would share their experiences, it would become a marketing tool,â he explained.
But what about the concept behind The Bearded Bakers?
âGrowing up in restaurants and cafes, you know a lot of people over the years would come and want to meet Joey and me,â Ameer said. The new Arabic.
âAt first it was flattering, but after a while in the industry it puts a lot of pressure on you. When we started Knafeh Bakeryâ¦ the idea was to create a brand where we could be there, when we’re not. there – something tangible that people could see. “
Ameer said The Bearded Bakers is now a big part of the business, and it’s not just about food anymore.
The El-Issa brothers have found themselves working with global brands, such as Lamborghini and Mercedes, and several more are in the works.
At the time of this writing, the brothers were about to start a collaboration with UNICEF Lebanon, with the aim of inspiring underprivileged children in the country.
However, finding the right guys to join the attractive and charismatic Bearded Bakers troop was one of the main challenges the El-Issa brothers faced in running Knafeh Bakery. Ameer said they are strict on who they hire, given that the skill set is not a priority.
âWe can teach a lot of things to the team, but we cannot teach character and personality and charm, so if they wear or have these qualities, it is definitely something that we are looking for,â he said. he declared.
Purist knafeh fans may argue that the dessert on offer at Knafeh Bakery is not that. After all, the El-Issa brothers version is based on their mother’s creamier secret recipe.
|Arabic music is still playing through a sound system, bakers dance from time to time [Instagram]|
|We have to show the world what our culture has to offer, that there is so much beauty in Palestinian culture. That there is so much beauty in Middle Eastern culture|
Instead of a stringy slice of cheese, it’s a small paper jar of thick creamy cheese topped with a generous shake of crumbs. The knafeh is then baked on site in the oven of the shipping container, from where it comes out to be garnished with crushed pistachios and syrup.
The result is a crispy topping and a hot oozing center – a Palestinian variation of crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e. It’s still knafeh – and it’s delicious – but it’s slightly different from what is served in cafes in the Middle East and in Arab homes around the world.
So it’s no surprise that the El-Issa brothers were asked about their decision to bring Knafeh Bakery to Lebanon this year.
âLebanon has been an adventure for us,â said Ameer.
âA lot of people said: ‘you come from Australia to Lebanon, to make knafeh in a country where there is very good knafehâ.
âPeople questioned itâ¦ but we didn’t come from Australia to Lebanon to do knafeh – we came to show that the Middle Eastern culture, of who we are, is still very strong in Australia. . “
Looking to the future, Ameer said that while he had ambitions to bring Knafeh Bakery back to New York City, the ânext big thingâ would be to bring it back to Palestine.
“It’s only a matter of time before we do something in the homeland,” he said.
“The timing and the partnership will be very crucial, so that we can make the most of the opportunity and the Palestinian people can make the most of our appearance there.”
Ameer said that although Knafeh Bakery started out as a âpassion project,â no one expected it to reach its current size and caliber. But what he’s most proud of is having the opportunity to put Palestinians on the map and show that the culture is “still very much alive.”
âMusic plays a big part in this, but not just music – it’s also unique and innovative and creates a successful business,â he said.
âWe have to show the world what our culture has to offer, that there is so much beauty in Palestinian culture. There is so much beauty in Middle Eastern culture.
âIt’s in the food, it’s in the hospitality. It’s in the love of people. It’s in this passion to entertain and welcome others. When you come to Knafeh Bakery, it’s is like welcoming you into our home and that’s what our culture is all about. “
He added: âAnd you know, we are proud to be Palestinians.
Elias Jahshan is an Australian freelance writer and journalist based in London. He contributes to the Arab, Australian and other anthology, now available through Picador.
Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan