Techies with the desire to dabble in the hospitality industry aren't news in San Francisco, a city with a larger-than-average population of well-paid, business-savvy people with a penchant for side projects. But restaurants don't become successful just because they are well-funded (though that doesn't hurt)— it takes real passion and creativity to bring the many moving parts together. "I'm a marketer. I'm an engineer by training," explained Googler-turned-restaurateur Azhar Hashem, just a few blocks from her forthcoming Mediterranean restaurant Tawla on Valencia Street. And though her training is certainly impressive, including degrees in Math, Computer Science and Business from Wellesly, MIT and Berkeley's Haas School, Hashem had no formal background in the food industry before starting work on Tawla over a year ago.
To execute her vision of a thoroughly modern take on Eastern Mediterranean food, Hashem has lined up an impressive roster of talent, with executive chef Joseph Magidow (Locanda, Delfina) and drinks by the always-in-demand Bon Vivants. However, it is Hashem's guidance, background and heritage that will give it life.
After eight successful years at Google, taking another tech job would have been an easy, lateral move for Hashem, but an ultimately unfulfilling one. Ironically it was during her travels working for Google that started her down the restaurant path; she found that she was constantly seeking a way to celebrate her native Jordan and its surrounding region on a personal level. So when a mutual friend introduced her to Flour + Water owner David White, who generously shared the seven-year-old restaurant's business plan, her path became clearer. The left side of Hashem's brain took over and it was a matter of reverse-engineering a product that already worked.
"I literally learned the business through the numbers," said Hashem. "I'd be like: Oh, what's this line item? Oh, okay, so what goes into this? How do I control this? How do I keep it under control cost wise? What are creative things I can do here to basically make this business make sense? At what point does it not make sense?"
Tawla may be Hashem's first foray into the food industry, but with 66 seats (plus 12 more in a private dining room), it will likely be the most intimate and personal endeavor of her career. Opening a restaurant in her own neighborhood, the ever-evolving Mission, could also make it one of the most challenging.
At Google, Hashem led marketing teams responsible for launching flagship products like Google Chrome, Fiber and the search giant's annual I/O developer conference. "We call those challenger brands," Hashem says of her former life in Tech. Chrome was challenging Firefox. Google Fiber is still challenging your cable internet service. And at Tawla, Hashem wants to challenge San Francisco's view of what Mediterranean food can be, incorporating influences from Greece, Turkey, the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan) and Iran.
"I have a very, very strong rule," Hashem says of the menu. "There's no falafel, there's no hummus, there's no tabbouleh, there's no kabob." Those items are what she calls "Eastern Mediterranean Cuisine 1.0" and, though they make up a small fraction of the food one might find in the region, they still manage to dominate people's perceptions of it. Mediterranean 1.0, Hashem believes, is a cuisine that has failed to evolve in the past 30 or 40 years, which is especially unfortunate in a city where diners competitively cultivate (and obsessively document) their adventurous palates. "I love that food," Hashem explains, "but people use it as a little bit of a crutch."
So, for Tawla, Hashem laid out an essential guiding principle. "The mandate was: imagine California is an island in the eastern Mediterranean," Hashem says. "What would the food be like?" That mandate meant Tawla chef Magidow spent the past year doing menu research, adapting techniques, balancing Mediterranean flavor profiles to match the Bay Area's local produce and, of course, spending a lot of time in the kitchen with Hashem's mother.
"The clientele is ready, they're exposed, they're well-traveled, they're open minded, they're curious, but the food hasn't kept up with that."
The goal was to create something that reminds diners of what they love about the cuisine, while giving them something they've never seen before. To that end, the menu follows a classic structure of the region, including fluffy pitas and the purposeful exclusion of hummus in favor of Muhammara and Labneh, and a mezze course with share plates meant to warm diners up to the flavors that follow in the main course. "We want you to come in and feel like you've spent time with us," said Hashem. "You had a feast, and you really got your money's worth."
By challenging these perceptions of what Mediterranean food looks like, Hashem also hopes Tawla will change perceptions of the region at large. But she might also challenge people's ideas of what it means to open a restaurant in a neighborhood where "Googler" can be a derogatory term.
"My region and where I come from is deeply misunderstood because we all see it through the lens of politics and news," she said. "This is my project to help people reimagine that space and look at it from a human lens. There's nothing more human than food."
Editor: Ellen Fort