A common assumption is that one needs academic certification and extensive workshops to succeed, and it might be true for certain fields, especially in business. However, our story today proves that determination and hard work prevails, regardless of academic certification. Once upon a time, Shams Al Qassabi was a little girl who would stand behind her home’s door and sell the flowers that she made from fabric. But today, she has opened her restaurant’s door at Souq Waqif, and in this interview, she shares with us her story of success as the first Qatari woman to start a business in Souq Waqif. So, who is Shams Al Qassabi?
I am from Al Jesra neighborhood, and I am the first Qatari recipe developer and the first businesswoman to own a shop and a restaurant in Souq Waqif. I consider Souq Waqif an integral part of my ancestors and me because I grew up in its hallways, enjoying its beauty and all the good things it offers. Its love runs in my veins, and I think I love Souq Waqif more than I love myself.
What drew you to the world of business?
I would say that business has been in my blood since I was a child. I remember when I was 8 years old, we used to buy frozen chicken, it was called “chicken canteen” back then, and those chickens would come in boxes that were tied by a piece of fabric. So, I would ask my family to store/save those fabrics for me, and I would use them to make flowers by tying them with a hair tie. Then I would sell those flowers to the children of my area for 2 Annas ( An old currency unit worth 1/16 of rupees) or sell four or five pieces for 1 Rupee (Gulf’s Rupee was the currency used in the gulf between 1959 until 1966.) One day, I was selling the flowers standing behind the door of my house, and the children lined up outside in a long line, and my father happened to come back home at that time, and when he saw the long line, he became worried that something bad might have happened. When he entered the house, he found me sitting in the small space behind the door, working hard to make those flowers with a Mackintosh chocolate box in front of me. In those days, the Mackintosh chocolate box was our khazna (safety box/storage box), so I used to keep my money in it. My father understood what was happening, and he said to me: “In my eyes, you are worthy of 100 men! I’m proud of you. Keep working.” In those times, we did not go to school. Education was available, and there were schools, but society’s mindset was that women did not need to study because they saw that women’s role was to marry, cook, wash clothes, and raise their children. Alhamdulillah, times have changed, and now we have Qatari women who are doctors and engineers. Although I don’t hold a degree, I am still proud of myself because, with the help of Allah, I was able to achieve my goals without asking for help from anyone, and here I am today, standing tall and proud. Many people who started their businesses lost their money and failed. But you can find others who do not know the simplest things about doing business, yet they make it and succeed with sheer willpower and skill. I firmly believe that if you lack the will to work hard, then you will succeed in turning your hobby into a business. Some are just lazy, and they avoid hard work. Others are afraid of losing, so they don’t even try. I, too, have faced a loss in my business, but I don’t care about the financial loss because I still gain experience. Especially since my goal is not simply financial gain; my work is for Qatar, that’s the most important thing for me. This is why I am very keen on my work and the quality of my products. So, I supervise the preparation of the spices in the factory and be present in the restaurant’s kitchen, and I do not allow the staff of the factory or the restaurant to work without my presence. I will not give anyone any room to hinder my attempt to represent Qatar to the best ability. One time a non-Qatari wanted me to sell him my products without my label on them to resell them under a different name, but I refused. My business and my brand belong to Qatar only.
How has your journey in the world of business been so far?
I had learned to sew from my grandmother when I was young, and she was a skilled seamstress. She sewed clothes and measured fabrics using al-Shebr (An old unit of measurement that equals to an inch.), so she taught me to sew the same way. To date, I still use the same method while making clothes. Before my marriage, I joined a sewing course, and during it, the teachers used sewing patterns while I was using the old method of measuring, and the measurements would be accurate. I got a diploma in sewing, and I even graduated the first on my batch. After I got married, I moved to live in Dukhan, and during my first pregnancy, I was sewing clothes and selling them. I would sew 3 or 4 drareers (Women’s Jalabiya)and sell them through the Al-Hasna shop that was located at Abdullah bin Thani Street. Youssef Jolo, a friend of my husband, was selling those drareers for about 300 riyals. Alhamdulillah, I was able to save some money from selling those clothes. Later, I stopped sewing because I became busy with my children, but my first big business adventure was participating in the Modern Family Fair.
Can you tell us about your experience at the Modern Family Fair?
In 2001, people from the Social Development Center were visiting the mothers’ council at my daughter’s school. I told them about my desire to work and that I hold a diploma in sewing because they were hiring anyone who could read and write. So, they advised me to participate in the Modern Family Fair to sell the clothes I was making. Still, the problem was that the exhibition was happening in the same week I was informed about it, and I was one of the last people who registered for the fair. So, I was thinking about how I would sew many clothes in such a short time! Especially since my children were very young and required my full attention, I also had no one to help me with the housework. Then I had the idea to sell bzaar (A mixture of ground spices) and pickles! I had a simple recipe to prepare the bzaar, and it was mostly based on me trying the food and deciding if it needed more spices. To prepare the pickles, I took the lemons from the 3 lemon trees we had and made 3 types of pickled lemons. I used what I had of tomatoes to make varieties of pickled tomato, but I did not have the rest of the ingredients, nor did I have enough money to buy them. Surely, I could ask my husband for money, but I didn’t because, at that time, he had already retired and had enough expenses to pay. That is when I remembered my father’s advice, who would say that a successful businessperson always starts their journey from zero. And this is what I decided to do, start from scratch, that is, to collect money. During that time, I met a Sheikha who lived in the north of Qatar at the center where my daughter was studying. When I told her that I made bzaar, she wanted to buy some from me, but the problem was that I didn’t have containers to put the spices in and sell. So, I took empty Nido milk cans, put the bzaar in them, and gave her. After she received the bzaar, she asked me for 3 more Nido cans of it! I used to prepare the mixture of spices with my own hands. I would get spices, like turmeric and cardamom, break them into small pieces using a machete, and then ground them using a hawan (Mortar and pestle). Sometimes, I would use an old Arabic coffee grinder that was barely alive and lost its cover, so I would put my hand on it to stop the spices from scattering. Alhamdulillah, I was able to produce about 12 kilos of different kinds of spices every day.
I had a very successful experience at the fair because there was a high demand for my bzaar, I had to prepare another batch of it. So, I bought large bags of spices and was grinding spices in a hawan until midnight, because during the day I was busy with my children and housework. I used to get up in the morning, prepare my kids for school, drop them off, and then go to the fair, which lasted for 10 days, but I earned 32 thousand riyals in those 10 days! There was a high demand for my products, which were priced fairly too like I was selling a container for 20 riyals. The money I earned from the fair, I used to open a shop in my house but look where my products are now! All my products have a tag: “Made in Qatar,” and I also have a factory! The factory will supply its products to all the big markets in Qatar. By the way, I also established the factory with my own money that I earned from my hard work. I avoided taking any loans to build the factory because I wanted to avoid creating headaches later when I must earn to pay the loan. And in no way this means that organizations, such as the Qatar Development Bank, did not support me, but I preferred to venture alone and build my own business with my hard-earned money. Alhamdulillah, today, Al Shomoos products are known internationally, and a lot of the big traditional restaurants and hotels use my products. But my main branch will always be in Souq Waqif, the place that is a part of me.
Can you tell us about the shop which opened in your house?
After my great success at the fair, I wanted to expand my business, so I used the money I earned to build a room for my driver. And I turned his old room into a shop at home, but I was still using cans of grapevine and cheese to sell my products in, and the sticker that I was putting on them, it was a typical sticker, and I would write on it, while my daughter designed the logo. Printing logos was very expensive in those times, and I preferred to invest my money in improving the quality of my products. A lot of people, when they earn some profit in their business, I see that they prefer to spend it on traveling or eating at expensive restaurants. I refuse to do both, I never traveled except to India, and that is to find the raw material to prepare my spices. Alhamdulillah, the shop in my house was successful, and I think I was earning about 2000 riyals daily, especially as my products became known locally and globally, and my customers were always returning to buy more. They would say that my products became stable in their kitchen.
How did you start your business in Souq Waqif?
The journey started in late 2004 when I heard during participating in a fair before Eid that there would be an all-women market in Souq Waqif. So, I started looking for information about this market, and someone told me to visit Souq Waqif itself, which looked very different from what you see today. It was full of pits as it was under construction at that time, which made it hard for me to find its location. I saw a man on my way and asked him where I should apply for a shop in Souq Waqif. He asked me if I had the necessary papers, but I had nothing with me. He told me to go to the Private Engineering Office, which I did not know where that was either. So, the man gave me the office manager’s number, and when I called the manager and introduced myself, he gladly told me that they were looking for me! Later, they took me to the shops that would open soon and allowed me to choose any of those shops. They told me they would furnish the place as I wish, so I wanted my restaurant to reflect the Qatari heritage. But the challenge was that they wanted me to open the shop as soon as possible. One day, after the opening, I was sitting alone in the shop when I noticed a man taking pictures of the shop, which scared me a bit, but he comforted me by telling me that the Private Engineering Office asked it. The next day, the local newspaper published an article about my shop in Souq Waqif titled “the first Qatari businesswoman in Souq Waqif.” I cannot express how happy and proud I felt. This is the reason why I work so hard; as for me, success was never the money, but it is earning a good reputation among the people and receiving so much love from them. Every challenge that I faced seemed so small in comparison to my achievement. I am very proud of what I was able to achieve.
How did your business grow from spices to the opening of “Shai Al Shamoos” restaurant?
The market management decided to convert the site where I was before to the Bird Market and move the shops to another place within the Souq, and they wanted me to choose the new location. But I felt that the size of the shop was small, so they were generous with me and decided to give me two shops instead of one. They even compensated us for the decor in the old shop, and they asked for a small rent. The shop gained more attention after the location was changed, and the shop stayed in that location for many years. One day, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa visited my shop and asked me who chose the shop’s location, and I did not know the answer. So, he decided to move the shop to another place, and they chose the new place to be next to the Al Bidda hotel, but I told them that I wanted to open a shop for bzaar and pickles and that I also needed space for an open a freezer, so they gave me a place for the two, and I was above the clouds with joy. They even prepared the place with everything I wanted, from furniture and other things. The spices shop was officially opened by Um Nawaf, Munira bint Nasser Al-Misnad. Later, the management of the market decided to give me another shop as a restaurant without specifying what kind of restaurant it should be. The restaurant had 6 chairs only, but they wanted me to open it within 10 days. So, I called the Al Sharq press, and I asked them to prepare a menu for me with traditional dishes like baid wa tomat (eggs and tomato), khubz al rqaq, nakhi, and bajela, and I did not have any pictures of the dishes or a bill book at the time. After the opening, the restaurant did not have many customers, so I was cooking and giving away the food to the hammali (porters) in the Souq. Although it looks bad that I did not have customers, Subhanallah, it was such a great opportunity for me to learn and practice cooking traditional dishes. I even started to develop my own recipes, and I taught myself everything without relying on anyone. Alhamdulillah, all this led me to publish my first cooking book titled: “Alf, Ya, Al Shomoos” which I decided to write after I participated in the Modern Family Fair. The book contains all the dishes that I would prepare for my own family, and the book was a big hit that I decided to write my second book titled: “Walaem Al Shommos” and this book is dedicated to recipes for big events and the book was translated to English.
Two months after that, in 2004, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser visited me, whom I was honored to meet during the fair when she told me that I would become a global success. What she said at the day stayed in my mind, and today, I am a global icon, and I believe all my success is because of Sheikha Moza, because she is the one who pushed Qatari women forward, and my success is a gift to her. I was also honored by the visit of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa one day before Ramadan of that same year. I saw him in the corridor in front of the restaurant, so I went and expressed my desire for him to visit my restaurant, which he accepted. He asked me about my restaurant, and I told him that it is a traditional Qatari restaurant, so he ordered the management to expand the place for me. And that is how the number of chairs increased to 248 chairs! Now, my restaurant has visitors from all around the world. This is what success means to me.
Have you faced any difficulties in your journey?
No journey is free from challenges and difficulties. In the beginning, I had many challenges; the first one was my fear of society’s reaction to what I was doing. Although I did not do anything wrong, I was afraid. So, when I was participating in conventions, if someone I knew passed by, I would hide from them or pretend that I was busy so they wouldn’t stop at my booth. The same goes with appearing on media; I would refrain from publishing my pictures. It wasn’t an illogical fear because many family members were opposed to me standing in front of people to sell my products. They would say that a good daughter wouldn’t do something like this. Of course, there was nothing wrong with what I was doing because many women were buying and selling in their homes. My grandmother, for example, would sell the clothes she was making. It was common for women to gather in a house, have coffee and nuts, share their stories, and engage in trades. As a child, I remember that I was buying from our neighbors, so there were women in Qatar who were businesswomen inside the walls of their homes. Also, my grandmother was a doula, and she would help women for free. In that time, all women were united, and they lifted each other, cared for each other as if they were one heart, and I hope that the current generation of women would support each other the way our grandmothers used to do. But Alhamdulillah, I was able to throw that fear behind my back and didn’t care much about it even though some of my family members had cut off contact with me for a long time, but times have changed. Those who once said that I’m wrong today are doing the same business, and now they know I was right to do so. Actually, because of me, they gained a great reputation among people. I also had difficulty working and making the products because I lacked helping hands and had family obligations. I remember that I used to wake up at 5 am and take the bus with my workers from the factory and go to the factory with them. It was a difficult time, but we enjoyed our ride; for example, I would hear them singing songs on the bus, each of them in their own language, and I might have learned some Hindi through those interactions. But now, I face difficulties of other kinds as the shop and the restaurant are very successful, and I have over 25 workers, so we have obligations towards them. It is true that the business was affected by the blockade and the lockdown because of Covid-19, but our Emir made sure that we were compensated, and he opened many other doors for us. And during the lockdown, we signed with Snoonu delivery application to deliver the restaurant’s orders.
What are your most cherished moments?
One thing I will never forget is the encouragement of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, nor will I forget the support of the Social Development Center and the support of Umm Nawaf, who gave me the title “Shams Al-Shomoos.” I will not forget how Amal Al-Mannai stood with me on the day of the fair. What happened is that all the tables had a uniform design in the fair, which I had no idea of, so I looked for artificial flowers, and I hung a pergola, in addition to bird cages, and I also put a millstone, and some dried herbs. On the day of the opening, I thought that Sheikha Moza would not pass by my table, and then I noticed that one of the participants had put a ribbon in front of her booth so Sheikha Moza would cut it as an inauguration. So, I took some ropes and tied them around the table, and when Sheikha Moza visited my booth, I told her to untie the rope. It was a simple symbol, but it reflects who I am. Sheikha Moza was very pleased with my booth, and she said it looked like a hut. Another thing that I will never forget is how people supported me, and it didn’t make any difference to them if I gave them the products in a box or in a bag; some even were bringing their own boxes with them. Of course, the memories are more today, and the walls of my restaurant are full of pictures of visitors from all over the world. Every day we get visitors from different countries, from Japan, India, France, and high-profile visitors; for example, I remember the international actress Evangeline Lilly, she visited us wearing an abaya and a hijab with her husband and children, and we were forbidden from taking any pictures of her, because she does not like to show her children in the media, and I had a conversation with her. Also, Tilda Swinton visited the restaurant, and when she heard my story, she kissed my head and said that I am an inspiration to everyone, and she highly encouraged us to film a documentary about my journey. Some politicians visited the restaurant too, like Lord Thomas. I was also chosen to be the face of the Qatari protocol and the face of authentic Qatari hospitality. My picture was put on a plane, and one time, a researcher from the British Ministry of Culture visited our house and stayed with us for 3 days. She wanted to experience daily life in Qatar, so she would wear abaya and hijab and be with me in the restaurant. She even wanted to fast during Ramadan because that is when she visited us. At the end of her stay, she gifted me a 220-year-old antique plate. I was also selected to appear in an American documentary titled: “Born to explore,” and Richard Weise, the host of the program, chose the restaurant to represent the face of Qatar. And we had many other special visitors. The visitors always love the restaurant’s atmosphere because it is simple and welcoming, and we do not do advertising, and all our success is based on word of mouth.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
I feel like when another Qatari woman succeeds, then we all succeed as women, and I aspire to see them succeed on international platforms, and to them, I say: immerse yourself in the field that you like, depending on yourselves, work hard and never leave any stone unturned, even if you had to start from zero.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.