A Little Burst of Joy
“It was love at first bite,” recalls Managing Director of Capital Hospitality SAL Hala Achkar when asked what compelled her to open a bagel shop in the Middle East. “Every time I visited the United States I would carry a suitcase of bagels back to Lebanon and put them in the freezer to keep myself stocked until my next trip but they never lasted long enough. After miles of travel, I decided to solve my own problem and open my own shop.”
Hala’s Tribeca Coffee & Bagels – the name, a nod to Hala’s favorite New York neighborhood – was her way of pretending to live in New York, New York, USA. The first shop was set inside a restored Achrafieh house (an area where Beirut’s high society once lived and is now a mixed-use district characterized by narrow, winding streets, coffee shops and large apartment and office buildings). Hala designed the space to look like an NYC loft, all light and airy, with brick walls and modern art adorning the walls.
And the bagels themselves?
“A good bagel is all about the texture,” explains Hala. “It should be chewy, dense and soft on the inside and thin, shiny, crispy and glistening on the outside. I enjoyed creating unique favors such as olive and zaatar – our best seller.”
The shop opened in 1998 and apparently Hala was not the only person in the Middle East to fall in love with the eponymous New York eat; the store was such a success that Hala ended up expanding the business by opening other locations and selling the brand three years later.
Ooooh, I Absolutely Love New York City!
It is impossible to hear about Hala’s upbringing and not imagine Kay Thompson’s classic picture book heroine, “Eloise,” come to life.
“I grew up in my grandfather’s hotel,” says Hala, “a destination stop for guests who would stay for months, so we made friends from all around the world. I shared a suite with my sister all year long and my parents had their own suite and my grandparents as well. My mother had very strict rules about where we could go in the hotel, what time we should eat and what time we had to go to bed. My best memories were breaking the rules and sneaking into the hotel kitchen at night with our friends to eat the leftovers.”
And so, it comes as no surprise that Hala grew up to be a serial hospitality entrepreneur, despite having grown up in a society in which women are dramatically unequally represented in the workforce.
“Coming from Lebanon, women were at a disadvantage, but I was privileged to have a father who encouraged me to do anything I put my mind to,” says Hala. “Today, I live in Manhattan and am starting my own éclair business. I love everything about living in New York… I love the fast pace, the diversity, the weather, the people, the positivity, the energy and the fact that everyone has a different accent because they are from all over the world. Just walking around the streets puts a smile on my face.”
Hala is the Founder and Chief Concept Architect of BONCHOU Eclairerie’s
The éclair business is called BONCHOU and will launch online in March 2017 and as a brick and mortar in New York City in Spring, 2017. BONCHOU is described as “a gourmet pastry brand that specializes in making eclairs inspired by the French and raised by the Americans.” The word éclair, French for lightening, is an evocation of Hala’s edict that, “A day without a little burst of joy is a day wasted.”
This is Hala’s most singularly focused venture since Tribeca Coffee & Bagels, which was followed by a proliferation of projects including La Maison du Caviar – a French restaurant in the W hotel Doha in Qatar, the Café La Joie – an upscale French bakery and café in Beirut and La Maison du Caviar – a fine dining establishment, also in Beirut.
Secrets to Multi-Culture Success
Hospitality has changed significantly over the years in the Middle East, becoming more competitive and more creative. Social media has created what Hala calls “a world conversation in which everyone can join in and contrast and compare (not to mention review)”. And while cities like Dubai are known for their over-the-top, multi-billion dollar hospitality projects, Hala says that Lebanon is all about the soul, their local culture and authentic hospitality.
For her part in maintaining this, Hala was awarded the “Tourism and Open Door for Women” award from The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism in 2007.
“Being a woman in the Middle East and receiving this award was a true honor,” says Hala. “It was a privilege to be empowered and celebrated as a woman in business; I felt acknowledged.”
And while Hala maintains that leading with passion and purpose is the secret to success, her past experiences have also taught her not to become emotionally attached to her business.
“I work hard and with passion but maintain a personal life and identity,” Hala explains. “I learned this the hard way. When I was running the bagel shop, I was so emotionally attached that when I sold it, I lost a part of myself and was heartbroken. Today I run my business with passion while making sure to maintain my identity.”
Hala’s identity is further kept in check by the incredible friends she has made in YPO – a value she deems “tremendous”.
“The education programs, networking and friendships are invaluable to me. The support system of forum and my peers have helped me realize that I am not alone and that I always have a friend to call.”