Immigrant entrepreneurs: Fresh perspective

Jasmine Mediterranean Foods’ warehouse in East Vancouver is piled
high with boxes of delicious foods from the Mediterranean: dates,
olives, olive oil, couscous, tahini and more. It’s the culmination of
around 15 years of hard work by Moussa Mohaidly, a Lebanese immigrant
who built this importing and wholesaling business up from scratch.

Mohaidly, 40, came to Vancouver in 1986 when he was 17 years old to
flee the war in Lebanon. He took some classes in Canada, but soon he
decided to quit school, hoping to become an entrepreneur. After a stint
living in Toronto, where Mediterranean food was easier to find,
Mohaidly realized there could be a business in bringing those products
to B.C.

After his day job installing carpets and tiling, Mohaidly drove to
local specialty stores and restaurants, selling baklava and olive oil
that he brought in from Toronto. In 1995, Mohaidly and his brother
purchased a halal meat store on Vancouver’s Main Street. They quickly
expanded the shop’s product lines to include falafel and Middle Eastern
spreads, such as hummus and eggplant dip. In 1996, he renamed the store
Jasmine Halal Meat and Mediterranean Foods.

At the beginning, most of his customers were immigrants from the
Mediterranean. However, Mohaidly soon realized that there was potential
to reach a much bigger market. “The trend is towards healthier
products, and Middle Eastern products are generally known as healthier
products,” he says. “However, I believe the mainstream market needs
products that relate to them, that have the right labelling. Being from
Lebanon, I have the experience of both cultures and I can use that to
create authentic Eastern products that appeal to the mainstream.”

As Mohaidly’s storefront operations grew, he rented a warehouse to
expand his wholesale operations. In 1998, he decided it was time to
import directly from the Mediterranean, rather than buy from middlemen
in Toronto and Montreal.

Mohaidly’s first visit to Lebanon since he was a teenager was
overwhelming. He was only familiar with his hometown and the hometown
of his parents, but soon he was criss-crossing the entire country in
search of products that he felt would appeal to mainstream Canadians.
The banks in Canada had refused to give him financing, so he had
borrowed money from private investors to make his purchases. Word of
mouth soon spread in Lebanon that a buyer from abroad was looking for
products, and vendors began phoning Mohaidly and offering deals.

He selected his products and had them shipped back to Vancouver.
While Mohaidly was waiting for the container to arrive, he talked with
Canadian government officials to learn how to clear the shipment
through customs. “The first container arrived after 45 days,” he says.
“I felt like I won the lottery. That’s when I started telling myself
that I’m truly an entrepreneur.”

It took Mohaidly four and a half months to sell the products from
the container, and even then, he barely broke even. Still, he was
satisfied that he had learned to import his own products, and he now
brings in food from Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Tunisia.

Today, after moving into a bigger storefront and warehouse,
Mohaidly is still focused on growing his business. He’s now branding
his own imports and he has plans to start manufacturing his own
products in Canada. “I want all my products to carry the Jasmine Foods
name,” he says. “If the branding is done the right way, it has a huge
potential for growth.”