How a B.C. founder shifted from tech to tahini and launched the successful QSR chain Superbaba with Square

Born in Saudi Arabia, Dallah El Chami grew up in a Lebanese family and spent his life between Canada, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. To please his parents, El Chami originally began his career in the technology sector, before following his passion for food and cooking and opening up Superbaba, a successful quick-service Middle-Eastern restaurant that now boasts two locations, including one in Vancouver, B.C. Here, we speak to El Chami about his personal and professional background, considering customer needs when making business decisions, the staff experience at his restaurants and the Square products that help him run and grow Superbaba. (Note: Superbaba was compensated for this interview.)

On his family’s influence and his career shift from tech to tahini

When my family moved to Canada, my parents were both working, and my sister and I learned English from Sesame Street. While I learned cooking from my mother, there was always unspoken pressure to work towards a serious degree, something that would lead to a “safe career.” I started out at one of the biggest tech startups in Vancouver and it was hard to explain that I worked in social media management.

I was doing well in the tech industry, doing marketing and design, but I always wanted to work in food. I just didn’t know how to find my way into it. Eventually, through the community of people here in Vancouver, I got introduced to friends who were creating restaurant pop-ups, helping them with catering. Eventually, I created my own pop-ups, which snowballed into me quitting my job, doing a bit of traveling, coming back, writing a business plan and finding partners in Vancouver to eventually open a restaurant, which is now called Superbaba.

My mother has been very helpful — my partner, Leah, became obsessed with Middle Eastern baking, and actually spent a lot of time with my mom, talking to her and practicing techniques. With a lot of the things we do at the restaurant now, there’s almost like a trail of breadcrumbs that lead back to something my mother taught me. It’s been really nice to create a restaurant that incorporates the food I grew up with in a way that’s affordable and accessible to everybody, especially in an expensive city like Vancouver.

On community and the customer experience at Superbaba

At Superbaba, we want to have a place where everyone is welcome. For a restaurant to be part of the community, for me, it means that you’re accessible. That means when you walk in, the customer says hi to you, you say hi back, and they start to recognize your face over time. That’s all you need. It doesn’t require much more than that. It just has to feel like you’re a neighbour.

I think customers having confidence in you as a business does add to that community feeling. We want to be as professional and community-oriented as possible. Using Square, which makes ordering and transactions easy for everybody, absolutely adds to the accessibility of the actual restaurant. Because when someone comes in, or even if they are ordering online, they know what they’re going to get every time and they know what the process is every time. It’s consistent. I think that’s especially true for introverted people who don’t like to spend a lot of time talking to a staff member. While we want to welcome and talk to every customer, we also recognize the customers who just want to have a quick transaction and get their food. When these customers use Square, they know the transaction will be fast and easy, and they feel more comfortable and welcome knowing that they can tap to pay and just be in and out with their food. They know they can expect us to meet them at their comfort level when they visit Superbaba.

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On the staff experience at Superbaba

I get so much enjoyment out of watching my staff work. Working in the food industry can be chaotic, and sometimes not the best for one’s lifestyle. At Superbaba, the staff love working stable hours, they take pride in their work and they want to deliver great food and service for the customers. A lot of our staff actually started out as customers! Having been on both sides of the counter, they have witnessed in real time the way our business has improved and changed, and they are excited about their work. We also want to give the team the opportunity to understand as much about the business as possible, because there are several staff members who want to be business owners one day. So we are as transparent as possible, encouraging them to get comfortable using Square Dashboard to help them understand the numbers and how we operate to give them the opportunity for their own growth.

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On the benefits of Square Register

The first thing customers see when they come up to the counter is the Square Register. The design fits so well with our brand. I’ve always loved really clean, professional-looking designs. I think the best way to describe the Square Register is that it’s just an upgrade to your business. People see the look of it and they trust that we know what we’re doing. We may not be a huge outfit, but we’re not working with a cobbled-together, cash-spilling-out-of-the-register machine like you might find somewhere else. Plus, using Square Register doesn’t just make the business run more efficiently in terms of payments, it also corrects the human error factor. Once we were using Square we eliminated many errors that had to do with having a point-of-sale and payment-taking machine that were not talking to each other.

On the other Square products that help Superbaba run and grow

Switching to Square was one of the best decisions we made for our business. It integrates really well with multiple things that we do, whether it’s accounting or our inventory system. We’re able to connect Square so that we can see those live numbers with our costing tools, our labour tools and anything else that we need. With Square Online, we’ve got an online ordering system that integrates seamlessly with our in-person system. This allows us to take more orders per hour, and offers the customer a self-service option. It’s a very pleasant experience for them, being able to know that their food’s going to be ready on time, without them having to wait for their food while they’re inside.

Since we started using Square, it’s been really easy for our team to understand how our cash flow and sales work. The staff actually love looking at our Square Dashboard — they look at the reports more than I do! The reports allow you to consider unadulterated consumer behaviour. You can see what customers are actually purchasing, what kind of modifications they make to their orders. By looking at common modifications, I actually ended up changing a menu item, because I could see how often people were asking to remove a certain ingredient. That small change saved us labour hours, reduced food costs and ultimately made our customer happier.

Seeing the live view of your business day-to-day gives you a really good picture of where your business is going. We have a lot of counter staff who will check the reports to see how we’re doing, and they get pretty excited and say something like: “Oh, we’re doing so much better than last Thursday,” for example. For them, even though I never thought that they would care about the reporting, it gives them a sense that we are popular and doing well. It’s a perk that I never thought about before. The staff loves using Square, and I think it’s helped save them time and empower them to do their work. It allows them to focus more on the customers and the kitchen, while I can focus on taking care of the staff and working on new projects. Square has simplified the business and saved me so much stress. I think that a lot of people might not think about what a point-of-sale system does for them, but for us, it’s really become the central area of communication. Square contributes to our overall job satisfaction as a team and makes our business better.