Meet Simone Saleh Lawson

women in business series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

Today I am honored to have one of the owners of Sassool Mediterranean Café featured in the women in business series. Simone Saleh Lawson owns one of my favorite restaurants in the Raleigh/ Durham area with her parents and sister. Just a quick reminder before you met Simone, that you can go here and check out the other profiles. So sit back and learn all about Simone’s story.

Meet Simone Saleh Lawson in the Women in Business Series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

Tell me a little bit about you.

My name is Simone Saleh Lawson, I am a North Carolina native and one of the owners of Sassool Mediterranean Café.  I am passionate about all things outdoors and adventure, I love fitness, food and time with my family. I graduated NCSU in 2012 and then received my MBA from Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC in 2017.  I live a very busy and non-stop life, so the wide-open space in Clayton, NC was the perfect place to call home after I got married to my husband, Tobey, two years ago. Although most days are spent at the restaurant and on catering sites, I spend my days off exploring nature and laughing my head off with my husband.

Meet Simone Saleh Lawson in the Women in Business Series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

Tell me about your business. 

Sassool Mediterranean is my family’s business, originally founded by my father, Mounir in 2011.  We have three locations now and it takes a huge team effort between my sister Noelle and I, my dad, and my mom.  We provide a HUGE variety of Mediterranean foods, with a Lebanese focus (where my dad is from); and we are pretty unique in that we are intent on making every item from scratch and by hand.  When you walk into the restaurant you will see a large cafeteria-style display of over 40 hot and cold items. You’ll also see a bread oven that produces fresh pita and pizzettes, a kabob grill and a unique market section that carries a lot of our favorite Mediterranean pantry staples.  Even with the massive selection, we offer daily, we are very passionate about the TASTE of freshness, and will not diverge from that value. The restaurant uses a lot of Old-World cooking methods, most of them directly taught to us by my grandmother, Cecilia Saleh (her nickname is Sassool).  We serve lunch, dinner every day, offer family size deli containers for take-out and deliver LOTS of catering. It is definitely an operation with many moving parts and takes the whole family effort to make it thrive. All of the executive team (my family) has their concentration that they work on in addition to running the day to day.  I am head our marketing department, the catering department, and conduct cooking classes in the restaurant and other venues to promote healthy eating and use of Mediterranean ingredients.

What struggles have you faced in your business? 

Running a family business involves a lot of passion.  But finding like-minded passionate people that also work hard, and managing the staff of over 50 people (at each location) is quite challenging.  Using Old-World, made from scratch recipes tend to be more complicated than a pre-mixed salad that comes in a bag, so training is a constant task to keep up with.  Working together as an executive team used to be our biggest challenge because my sister, my dad, my mom and I all have different management styles. But after a few years of constantly working at it and uniting our vision, we have a great energy and momentum going—and it’s a partnership that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Meet Simone Saleh Lawson in the Women in Business Series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

How have you overcome those struggles?

Creating a seamless new staff orientation and training process has been key in making the process of training more successful and consistent.  Streamlining my grandmother’s cooking methods (“take a hand full of this and a handful of that”) with a more systemized way of creating recipes using charts, symbols and uniform measuring tools has been a very slow but rewarding process.  It also really helps the consistency between all locations.

For finding the right staff, the importance of sharing the inspiration of OUR family story and what makes us special at the restaurant really helps pull out the passion in the individuals I train and work with.  Then staying in touch with everyone on the staff; making sure that they know I am their boss when it comes to the business, but that I really care to know how they are doing and if they are struggling with anything, has built a really loyal team that pulls together even on stressful days.

Who were your mentors growing up? 

My food mentors growing up would have to be my dad, my grandmother, and my aunts.  Growing up in a blended house of cultures (my mom is southern and my dad is a Lebanese immigrant), it was absolutely fascinating to see my Lebanese family get together and create huge food events for no special reason.  The passion that I saw come from the kitchen and in hospitality…even just on a small scale was truly inspiring. I learned hard work from my dad. Since I was very small, I was the tom-boy of the big family of girls and wanted to be just like my dad.  I would go to work with him at his restaurant (before Sassool), when I was 6 years old and work the entire day with him and help him with tasks like bagging bread, packing spices, and stocking market shelves (the short ones). But I can’t leave my mom out of the mentor collection.  There are five kids in my family, and my dad has always been very involved with the business, so I saw a lot of strength from my mom, raising all of us, teaching us, cooking meals, and involving us with sports and activities. My full-upbringing could have never been possible without either of them.  Even to this day, my dad, my sister and I are usually seen at the front of the restaurant, but my mom chooses to stay in the back, as the spine of the operation, handling all the books, accounting, and payroll.

Meet Simone  Lawson in the Women in Business Series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

If you were to give advice to a woman going into the field you are in what would it be?

Don’t expect to get it totally right (in regards to managing the restaurant) in your first week.  After 9 years, and an MBA, I still find myself learning through different experiences and developing into a better manager year after year.  

Also, only go into the restaurant industry if you TRULY have a passion for it.  It is a 24-hour business, whether the Open sign turns off at 9 pm or earlier. Expect constant challenges, but expect huge emotional rewards too.  You must be resilient to anything negative, such as complaints, a lowered health score, a bad review…only take it as an opportunity to make the restaurant and operation better.—this is the only way you will remain on top of it all.

Meet Simone Saleh Lawson in the Women in Business Series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

Have you found that being a woman in your field is harder or easier? Tell me about the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman. 

Being a woman in the restaurant industry is what you make it….but you have to be tough no matter what (even if you are a guy).  The biggest disadvantage that I do experience is that initially newer staff or vendors don’t often take me seriously. But if I exude confidence, run the operation by clear standards and stay consistent with my expectations, they quickly understand that I do mean business and that I cannot be intimidated.

An advantage that I see is that when our restaurant wins an award for Best Mediterranean, or Best Healthy food, or Best Special Diet Food (all awards we’ve won in 2020), the applause from customers and the local community is so great!  When our company, represented by my sister and I, does well, it seems like people react more positively than if it was two men running the company—but it may also be because they see how much of our hearts go into our work each day.

Meet Simone  Lawson in the Women in Business Series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

Have you ever have to overcome a hostile work environment? 

Unfortunately on rare occasions, there have been a few hostile trial-day employees…they never make it to day two.  It sometimes is a conflict between the training employee and a veteran employee, but I seem to always catch it after it has escalated.  I find that the only thing to do is to get the hostile employee out of the building. For the ones on their trial days, they are not allowed to come back for further training.  We really try to reinforce a family atmosphere at Sassool, through our communication, mutual respect, loyalty, and personal appreciation. But if there is a red flag that an individual is not going to fit in with that culture, its best to stop the training there. 

Meet Simone  Lawson in the Women in Business Series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

What made you decide on your chosen field? 

I chose my field because I was 120% inspired by my family’s food culture and my dad’s relentless hard work to make people happy.  I love food, hospitality and customer experience, and I have a passion for business and strategy. The fact that I am able to put those three things together every day in my work is a dream come true.  And the cherry on top is that I work with the people I love most. The hard work is absolutely worth it every day, not just because I see our customers come back day after day, not because of the awards, not because I’ve built a solid team of staff, but because this is a labor of love that my family is building and growing together.

Meet Simone Saleh Lawson in the Women in Business Series from North Carolina Lifestyle Blogger Adventures of Frugal Mom

Anything else you would care to share.

Never doubt yourself, the only thing that will hold you back from reaching for bigger and better is YOU.  Never go into anything without thinking, but do not be afraid to take a leap of faith, put your whole heart into the operation, and do never regret—only learn and adapt.

Also it’s SO important to make time away from your work life…spend time with people you love, challenge yourself with new adventure and discovery, and take some needed “me” time.—I try to jam to music I love and have an impromptu dance party (by myself) at least once a week. ? 

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