Kinfood: What brought you to Seattle?
Mehdi: I already had two brothers here. Since I was a kid, I had always wanted to come to the USA. What a typical American dream. In 2000, I flew out here and spent a month. When I returned to Morocco, I was still in school for another semester before I graduated but I gambled on leaving and starting a new life in America.
Kinfood: How did you get started with Villa Jerada?
Mehdi: First, Villa Jerada came about in the classic way of any immigrant business stemming from nostalgia. And food is certainly that first one on the chopping block. At the time I chatted with my mom on MSN messenger and asked for help with recipes hoping to recreate the family meals I was missing. Working in restaurants, I noticed how unknown the good quality of many Moroccan staples such as olive oils, capers, seafood that are exported worldwide were in the US. Not only I saw the business opportunity but the urgency to break a stereotype and promote our culinary heritage in the most humble way. I come from a culture where your mom feeds you. Although I must say I come from a family where my grandfather used to sell wheat and my dad sold tractors to farmers and trucks to food suppliers so I have always been dragged at a young age to those meetings and deliveries.
Another dilemma surrounding foods from certain cultures especially the southern ones is the “ethnic” term. Somehow these foods are condemned to be cheap and in most cases industrial. Our mission at Villa Jerada is to prove that we have an amazing product from our country that could rival any product from Europe. We are aware that many high prized items such as olive oil, olives, saffron, dried fruits, fish and seafood that goes in tins is purchased from Morocco, taken to Europe and relabeled and sold at twice more the price worldwide.
We had olive oil for over 2000 years. The Moors are the ones that introduced olive plantations, stone fruits, nuts, saffron, citrus and irrigation watering systems, for example, to Spain. Yet, most people are surprised when they hear that olive oil is from Morocco. We always have this assumption that it’s an Italian or Spanish or a greek staple. Ironically most Moroccan olive oils are exported to Europe to be relabeled. More than ever we want the countries of origin to be recognized.
Kinfood: You supply to a lot of restaurants. Have you needed to pivot given the circumstances of the pandemic?
Mehdi: I had a pre-panic reaction, as much earlier I have followed the news very closely through foreign channels and realized that this will be a very difficult and long process. We pushed the panic button a bit ahead of most. We had all our pillars in distress. Our inventory was big at the beginning of the year and 80% built around food service. We also have six figures in pending invoices from partners and then the shutdown of restaurants which is a good chunk of our activity. We reached out to some potential customers and asked them to consider allowing us the opportunity to be their partner in these difficult times since they were committed to help local companies. And thankfully the response was positive. We also had a little rush where we were able to sell food service items to stores (this was during the stocking shopping most of us were doing at the grocery store). And in contrast, restaurants started buying retail items known as CPG (consumers packaged goods) which they normally don’t buy. We accelerated our online presence as well but always within respect to the context. We knew people were struggling and the last thing we wanted was to blast them with promos and sales deals. We wanted to be respectful and considerate. In fact we created a hashtag: #wellbeingfirstbusinesslater
Kinfood: What does kinship in the context of food mean to you? How has food served as a connector for you?
Mehdi: To us it means successful fair trade on all levels of the process. You have to ensure that the source is well paid and compensated. We also try to carry that same formula out for the consumer. We don’t want to dent the consumer. We have to make sure that the connection is like a triangle. It feeds the three parties on equal levels. In addition, kinship means a fundamental respect of the food heritage. Here at Villa Jerada we don’t aim to be very cool or creative just for the sake of creativity. We are just trying to carry ancestral food. It’s way beyond any profits or business opportunities. I think we have demonstrated that when some new products have popped-up on the market. To us it is about how the food is made and how it reflects the history and culture behind the people who supply it.
Kinfood: Finally, what foods have you been cooking this summer to find comfort?
Mehdi: Well, I am the only one who eats meat in the house. I don’t do it often because I don’t want the kids to start asking questions about it when I do. Both of the kids and my wife are vegetarian. I hate wasting food and I also don't like making two meals. I try to accommodate our meals to our kids. It’s always going to be traditional and healthy but if what we are trying to make won’t be eaten by them, we won’t make it.
Recently, we’ve been doing lots of “cupboard cooking” aka trying to clean up and go through all that we already have in the house. We always eat lots of vegetables, herbs and seeds like tahini and nigella, and ginger. Lots of onions and parsley salads with our sumac. We are very keen about a saffron tea at night. Just trying to utilize food as a healing tool. Definitely herbs always. We consume lots of olive oil in our house as well. I’d say if there was a competition for who eats the most olive oil in Seattle, we would win. We go through about a 5L can in a month. We have it with breakfast, lunch and dinner. In addition, we’ve been adding extra nigella seeds and all kinds of fresh and dried herbs and spices to our cooking as they act as natural immunity defense. Again, with the kids, it is a great time for them to learn how to like these things.