Hi Everyone….this post came to me this morning. Recently, in dropping my daughter off to work, we decided to kill an hour at Starbucks in Movietowne. This made me think about the weekend that had just passed where, in visiting my father-in-law at the hospital in San Fernando we needed to get some lunch and Rituals is the one that saved us, being the only place opened on a Sunday and within walking distance of the hospital. So why do I bring up these two establishments, I mention them because it made me realise that if you create something different sooner or later someone is going to come along and either copy your idea or start a competing business right next door.
Steal like an artist mentions the same thing. Why reinvent the wheel when you can just tweak it with your touch and present it as a new item. So let’s get back to these two coffee houses. A bit of history. In Trinidad, we didn’t really have coffee houses as it was thought that Trinis didn’t really drink coffee much, that we were tea drinkers since we tended to follow the English system. Then along came Mario Aboud-Sabga. Sabga-Aboud has built a culinary empire here in Trinidad out of hamburgers, pizza, doughnuts. Before he started the coffee house Rituals he had all those other food businesses but he felt as if something was missing.
“Something was missing: coffee,” Sabga-Aboud says. So he approached Starbucks for a franchise. Once again, he got a familiar answer: “They said, ‘The Caribbean is too small.’ They were looking to expand in China and India. I said to myself, ‘I’ve done everything on my own up until now – so I’ll do coffee too.’”He took a couple of months off work and traveled to coffee shops throughout North America. “I studied what worked and why. Certified myself to become a barista, and went to every coffee show I could find.”He learned to make cappuccino and double-espresso shots like the Americano that Rituals serves. But it also occurred to him that cold coffee drinks should do well in the tropical climate of the Caribbean.
He wanted an atmosphere that was soothing and relaxing, so he conjured up the image of the perfect coffee shop: round tables and soft chairs and couches. He developed a menu for breakfast that would incorporate his frosted doughnuts with nuts and sprinkles, and a lunch menu that revolved around crisp panini sandwiches.
He had a vision for a thriving business. What he didn’t have was a name.
“I thought for months and finally, one morning I was sitting on my porch smoking a cigar, when my wife, Vanessa, said, ‘What is bothering you?’ I told her I couldn’t come up with a name for my coffee shop, and she said, ‘What does drinking coffee every morning mean to you?’ I said, ‘It is a ritual.’ I knew I had my name.”
And so Rituals was born. To cold coffee drinks like Java Chocolate Chip and Moccacinos, he added smoothies to evoke the taste of the Caribbean: Lemon Coolers, Mango Guava Madness, and Pineapple Coconut Chillers.
“Everyone said I was crazy to open up a coffee shop in Trinidad, a place with a tradition of tea-drinking.”
Sabga-Aboud didn’t flinch at the criticism. His belief in coffee undoubtedly stemmed from his Middle Eastern roots. While other Trinidadians honour the British tea-drinking tradition, the Syrian-Lebanese community in the Caribbean kept the custom of drinking potent Turkish coffee served in tiny, ornate cups. He drinks 12 cups a day.
Besides, he had already introduced hamburgers for dinner in the land of pelau and roti, and doughnuts for breakfast in the land of saltfish and fried bake.
Soon there were Rituals stores dotting the Trinidad & Tobago landscape from street corners to universities and airports: 48 outlets opened in a year. The first Rituals was in Maraval, a suburb of Port of Spain; the second at Piarco Airport.
“I wanted to be everywhere right away in Trinidad & Tobago,” says Sabga-Aboud. “Rituals became a household name in Trinidad and that is when it struck me. I’ve created something called ‘the third place’: there’s work, home, and Rituals. People come to begin their day, relax, have coffee and breakfast and settle themselves before they go to work. It’s a place that breaks up the rush of everyday life from one place to another.” He soon had Rituals in almost every Caribbean Island. He also decided to sell them as a franchise and once again everyone told him that the islands are too small and no one would buy. They were wrong again and Sabga-Aboud opened Rituals outlets in Guyana, Suriname, Barbados, Dominica, Antigua, St. Kitts and St Lucia.
Today because there are Rituals almost around every corner, they save you when you’re hungry sometimes like I was saved this weekend.
Then guess who arrived…Starbucks, the same Starbucks who said Trinidad was too small and we weren’t coffee drinkers. So they come to Trinidad and they set up coffee houses next door to the Rituals, probably to draw/steal their customers, and it worked because the strong coffee drinkers started flocking to Starbucks. There is a Starbucks close to most of the key Rituals Cofee houses but they don’t have as many houses as Rituals because Sabga-Aboud followed the marketing concept called Mass Market Retailing, which places a Rituals coffeehouse on almost every corner, a strategy Starbucks hasn’t followed. At last count, Sabga-Aboud had 54 Rituals in Trinidad & Tobago, and 16 outlets elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Personally, I love Rituals, why? because Mr. Sabga-Aboud was smart, being first, he got our tastebuds accustomed to his Chillers, smoothies, tea, coffees, donuts, etc so at least for me, when Starbucks arrived, I didn’t really like their drinks and I don’t like coffee so what did they have to offer me? Nothing really. Well, they do have nice surroundings (used to be too loud for me, has gotten less so now), good customer service, at least for now (this tends to change, get fair or poor after a while as the turnover increases), they have great leaf brewed teas and they have wifi.
I am an avid visitor to Rituals, as I love their chillers (was addicted), their Chai tea and they also offer salads, pastries, cookies, fruit drinks, paninis and more, but lately, their wifi has been down and at certain outlets the service is terrible. Luckily I don’t visit or have reason to visit the outlets that give bad service, but this is where Starbucks will stand out versus Rituals. The lack of wifi causes people like me and my daughter to go to Starbucks so we can enjoy a drink as we work on our laptops. Wifi used to be available at Rituals but recently, no. What’s up with that?
As I mentioned, my husband and I are avid visitors to Rituals, so much so that I did a painting of the kitchenette area of the Rituals in Maraval before they renovated. We even miss how it used t be where you could see outside, into the neighbour’s yard behind, but we understand that that could be considered unsightly and the restaurant did need a bit of sprucing up.
Change is inevitable, but my main point here is that you create something, you get a period of total monopoly, then BAM!!! someone comes in to give you some competition or to steal your customers. It’s a vicious game out there. But I’m sure Mr Sabga-Aboud isn’t even phased by the competitor as he knows he has built up a brand that will stand for a long time in the Caribbean, he has the money to continue spreading throughout the Caribbean, something I don’t think Starbucks can do and he has so many other businesses, this competitor is like a rainfly falling on your jacket, easily flicked off.
A little about our Syrian community:
Mario Sabga-Aboud has seen the world, but he calls Trinidad & Tobago home. He was born in Trinidad on June 2, 1960 to parents who represented two of the Syrian families who came to Trinidad & Tobago in the early 1900s. As newly arrived immigrants, many Syrians began selling cloth and wares on credit throughout the countryside. From there, they invested in property in Port of Spain and other towns and opened cloth stores. The Syrian community became known for its industriousness and business acumen.
The last group of immigrants to venture to colonial Trinidad originated in the region previously known as Greater Syria, which comprises of present-day Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. Many of the Lebanese hailed from the villages of Buhandoun and Amyoun while the Syrians came from villages in the ‘Valley of the Christians.’ These Arabs emigrated to the Caribbean from as early as 1904 in an attempt to escape religious persecution and economic hardship in their native countries.
Trinidad’s thriving economy, political stability, and pristine environment proved to be the ideal location where these displaced Arabs could establish new lives. They brought with them vestiges of their culture and a keen business acumen which proved to be the ideal tool for success in the colony. At their arrival they were “virtually penniless”; however, they have “managed to achieve phenomenal economic success”.
The eagerness and haste with which the early emigrants facilitated the immigration of their immediate and extended families are indicative of the great significance of the family unit in the Syrian-Lebanese community. Family seemed to be the nucleus of their society and is credited as being one of the contributing factors of their entrepreneurial success. Traditionally, the males assumed the tasks of founding businesses.
The family was also central to Syrian social life which is maintained by regular and frequent family gatherings. Socialization is primarily restricted exclusively to the members of the community although recently, some Syrians, such as the ‘Mighty Trini’ (Robert Elias), are becoming more socially integrated with the wider society through participation in national cultural activities. Previously, Syrian-Lebanese children were prohibited from socializing outside of the community. Young women, particularly those of marriageable age, were very sheltered and whenever social excursions were necessary they were chaperoned by elder brothers.
The Arabs are very religious and quickly assimilated into the Roman Catholic Community. Although the Syrian-Lebanese were either Maronite, Antiochian Orthodox or Orthodox, they preferred to join the Catholic faith because, according to Rose Abraham, “[the Catholic Church] is the highest, the strongest church…the only church Arabs felt is a good church.” It can also be inferred that the similarity in rituals and teachings between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches would have been comforting to the Syrian-Lebanese immigrants.
So they built an empire here in Trinidad because they now own the majority of big conglomerates/groups in Trinidad. But again my main reason for writing this post was how crazy it is out there, don’t think you can be unique for long. Someone is always waiting to “Steal like a competitor”, try to stay different via your quality, customer service and the relationship you build with your clients, that is how it is today. All the best to you in whatever venture you attempt.
Luv you guys, later : )
- Lifestyle: Mario Sabga-Aboud: the man who’s made Rituals a way of life by Debbie Jacob
- Syrian Lebanese by Nalis