02 Aug 2017
Tripoli, Lebanon
Sustainable Food and Agriculture

More often than not, the food that is fast is not always the food that is healthy. Luckily for hungry Lebanese consumers, they have TAQA. The brainchild of entrepreneur Soumaya Merhi, TAQA, is on the cusp of becoming the leading healthy grab-and-go snack producer in Lebanon and across the region.

TAQA began in March 2013 under the name of Bread Basket Square. The brand came from the company’s original product: a healthy, wheat-free oat bread that Merhi started selling at Souk el Tayeb, Lebanon’s first organic farmer’s market. “It was just a very small idea that has grown into what we’re looking at today,” Merhi says.

The birth of TAQA:

Merhi had returned to her hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, just four months prior. She had been studying in Montreal, Canada, where she also worked at a food factory — a job that gave her the valuable insights into manufacturing, supply chains, and organic certification that she would later use to launch her own business. An appreciation for healthy living runs in Merhi’s family. Her father works as a homepath and was the one who tipped his daughter off that Lebanon may have a market for alternative baked goods.

Bread Basket saw quick success at Souk el Tayeb, and had no real competition — at the market or elsewhere in the country. The company became the first in Lebanon to sell specialty baked goods with no butter or wheat. “We were also the first one to use the word ‘healthy’ in our products,” Merhi expands. “Lebanon was always geared to words like ‘light, and diet.’ It was important for us to shift that focus to healthy.”

By deeming its products healthy rather than light, Merhi wants to debunk the myth that foods with labels such as ‘diet’ and ‘light’ are good for you. “A light product could still use chemical products or preservatives. You’re always adding or extracting something to create these foods,” she says. “I want to remind people what natural ingredients are, and have people understand everything that is in our products.”

Today, as always, TAQA’s products remain 100% natural — with an added local touch.

Innovative products, traditional flavors:

A unique feature of TAQA’s products is Merhi’s decision to include classic Lebanese flavors. This is especially true in taqabars, energy bars where rosewater mingles with almonds; coconut flirts with lemon; and hazelnut and cacao are combined to create a mouthwatering Nutella-like taste. Merhi’s personal favorite taqabar includes pistachio, orange blossom, and dried fruits and nuts — a flavor, she says, is very close to the spirit of Tripoli. TAQA also makes a vegan maamoul (pastries stuffed with dates), and several products that incorporate za’atar (thyme).

The “Lebanese bakery with a twist” mentality is about flavors, but it is also a strategic move. “These flavors are familiar for people,” Merhi says, noting that healthy, natural foods can come across as intimidatingly foreign. “By familiarizing our ingredients, we’re opening TAQA to a bigger market. We want people to be healthy, but most importantly we want to create a product that tastes good. We have heard from our customers that the flavors really resonate.”

While TAQA’s flavors may harken memories of the maamoul served in your grandmother’s kitchen, the ingredients are pure innovation: processed sugar is replaced with raw brown cane sugar and dates, and the flour is a homemade combination of oats, rye, and spelt grains, some of which are purchased from local small-scale farmers.

TAQA’s products are all handmade with love by the team of five working in the company’s Tripoli-based factory.

Bringing healthy snacking to Lebanon’s capital:

TAQA is growing in leaps and bounds. In May 2017, the company opened its first storefront location on Rue Pasteur in Beirut’s trendy Gemmayze neighborhood. “Having that location has added a lot more credibility to our brand. We can now invite people to a space to sit down, where they can feel the pulse of what we do and get to know our products,” Merhi says.

The same month brought about a brand transformation, where the company’s name switched from Bread Basket to TAQA, which means “energy” in Arabic. It is a fitting name, given the company’s new mission: provide natural energy on-the-go, and become the leader of healthy and convenient snacking in the Middle East. Despite the success of TAQA, Merhi says the healthy snack market in Lebanon is far from saturated. “People have told me we’re the only [one] who is making a convenient snack in the appropriate price range,” she remarks.

Price, convenience, and flavors were all factors that prompted Karim Khneisser to become a loyal TAQA customer. The Beirut resident has been visiting TAQA’s Beirut storefront since it opened its doors. He has sampled a number of the products, but usually buys the oat maamoul, TAQA bread, za’atar crackers, and various taqabars.

“TAQA offers a natural product from A to Z,” Khneisser says. “It tastes really good and it’s affordable and energetic. Frankly, I eat these products all day long, and take them with me when going for a hike or doing any other outdoor activity.”

TAQA targets growth in the Middle East:

TAQA is well on its way to becoming the most successful on-the-go snack supplier in the region. The company already has 120 POS (points of sale) across Lebanon, and is about to sign with a distributor that will boost POS locations to more than 500, including major Lebanese supermarkets. Merhi is also aggressively pursuing expansion in other Middle Eastern and Gulf countries.

Earlier this year, the company also received ISO certification for the production and distribution of its products, something Merhi says adds industry credibility and helps when talking to bigger distributors.

That credibility is valuable for investors, especially those in Lebanon who can express hesitation in investing in innovative and different businesses. In addition to its product sales, TAQA is also receiving financial support from a Lebanese angel investor, a venture capitalist, and Fondation Diane, a group that supports Lebanese citizens in pursuing their green responsibilities.

Fondation Diane has been investing in TAQA since December 2016. Patrick Semaan, the foundation’s Chief Communication and Creative Officer, says their interest was sparked by Merhi’s positive environmental impact and the fact that she supported local endangered trades such as grain production. “The healthy food product positioning factor and scalability of the business in neighboring countries was an appeal for us,” he adds.

With TAQA’s success, Merhi says similar Lebanese companies have opened with similar missions. Despite this, she is not worried. “My initial drive for this company was not to make money — it was passion,” she says. “When you’re working with passion, you approach your product differently, and the drive you get from that is something you can’t compete with.”



Website: www.taqaonthego.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/taqaonthego, www.facebook.com/taqabar

Instagram: www.instagram.com/taqaonthego & www.instagram.com/taqabar

Photos: Courtesy of TAQA.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
A Lebanese initiative is stirring up competition in the healthy food market | The Switchers
TAQA Organic food and agriculture