For Hadeel Layous baking is not just a vocation but a true art, a conduit through which she can communicate feelings, emotions, thoughts and channel creativity. Now owner of the Yerevan bakery business, “Tartist,” Hadeel has become a master of combining creative designs with delectable desserts. She is also one of the 2019 recipients of a FAR Small Business Assistance for Syrian Entrepreneurs (SBA)* grant, which has helped Tartist to grow and expand.
SBA was launched in 2016 to help displaced Syrian-Armenian startup entrepreneurs economically integrate and develop their own businesses in Armenia. SBA enables them to overcome discrimination and barriers to employment, and move ahead with entrepreneurial endeavors in order to achieve greater stability.
Developing an interest in confection
Hadeel’s passion for baking and making sweets goes back to her childhood. Growing up in the Damascus neighborhood of Bab Tuma, she frequently found herself baking at home with her mother and grandmother (both ethnic Armenians), which quickly sparked a life-long interest.
The 33-year-old self-proclaimed “tart guru” previously worked as a pharmaceutical product specialist where she went from one hospital to another to meet with doctors about company products. It got risky after the start of the Syrian war.
“During these visits we saw a lot of injured people. Very often we had to stay inside the hospital until the shooting stopped,” said Hadeel.
In 2013, she decided she’d had enough and she and her husband, Sam, moved to Dubai where Sam had previously worked as a project manager for a leading construction company.
Finding Serenity in Armenia
In Dubai, Hadeel took a job at a pharmaceutical company to keep things afloat however after she found out she was expecting a baby, she decided it was time to embark on a new career path. She invested in her longtime hobby by takingvarious baking courses and spent her pregnancy honing her skills to become a certified baker.
In April 2018, Hadeel gave birth to her daughter, Sophia. Soon after, the family moved to Armenia. For both Hadeel and Sam, family is a priority, they said. During their short summer vacations they would often escape hectic Dubai and find serenity in Armenia. “We had always wanted to live and raise our kids in Armenia,” said Hadeel.
“We like to be a family, to have time for ourselves and be less stressed. In Dubai, we were at work all the time and the level of stress was very high,” said Sam. “We could see and feel that Armenia could meet our demands in this regard; it’s a good place to live as a family and to raise a child.”
Hadeel shares Sam’s opinion because she believes that there is a gap in the level of interaction and socialization in Dubai.“In Dubai everyone is a stranger, an expat. I don’t want my baby to feel this way; I want her to start her life in a place where she can stay. I want her to be familiar with the language. I want to create a place where she can feel like it is home because this is something we never felt we had.”
The art of baking
Hadeel and Sam moved to Armenia during the winter of 2019, shortly after Armenia’s Velvet Revolution. During theirfirst two months in the country, the couple explored the market. Hadeel soon found out that no one in Yerevan could decorate tarts, cakes or cookies the way she’d envisioned.
She started her baking business from scratch, working out of her kitchen. To get some exposure she went to expos for Syrian-Armenian entrepreneurs in order to make connections. In the beginning just a few people placed orders, but she found their feedback positive. “I decided to do this business in Armenia because the legislation to start a business here is very supportive; we felt that repatriation is very welcome,” she said, adding that her big challenge was communication. She has since started to learn Armenian.
Hadeel also seized the opportunity to use different techniques, such as 3D-painting using royal icing (the “icing of kings”as Hadeel calls it). “Very few people like to work with royal icing because it’s really tricky and difficult. It needs to be applied very quickly and accurately and any small difference or mistake in mixing it will ruin everything,” she said.
Hadeel approaches her cookies and tarts as if they were buildings, creating unique, edible structures. While she still worksout of her apartment, no one is allowed into her “office” when she’s baking. Sam now helps her with branding and product materials.
Whether they are for an engagement party, a baby shower or a birthday celebration, Hadeel said she she wants her creations to help people express their feelings and emotions. “I want to present my cookies as a gift item to be given to someone special,” she said.
In 2019, Hadeel applied for FAR’s Small Business Assistance Program (SBA), which started in 2016 with the goal of supporting Syrian-Armenian entrepreneurs to either kick-start or develop their small businesses. Through the SBA grant she received, Hadeel was able to purchase an industrial oven and mixer, as well as decorative and cooking supplements to progress her business and produce more on a faster basis.
“The oven and the mixer were the items I needed the most. When I put the tray into the oven before, a part of it would burn and the other part would be raw. I didn’t have the money to invest in the proper tools at that time,” she said. “I have the talents, I have the skills, I have the know-how, however I was not able to make big financial investments in this business. FAR came to the rescue because now the quality of my baking is so much better. I can bake a large quantity and they all have the same taste and look. It was a big help.”
The impact of the investment on her production levels are astounding. With her new tools from FAR, Hadeel can now bake 30 boxes of cookies per week, something that would have previously taken her about three months to produce.
FAR has also helped Hadeel with packaging materials. Now, she and Sam can use special wrapping materials like vacuum sealing to keep the taste and texture of the cookies good for up to one month at room temperature. They are also committed to developing locally and using local products. They prefer to buy their packaging materials from Armenia, instead of somewhere like China.
“As long as we sell in Armenia we need to buy from Armenia,” said Sam. The SBA program was made possible thanks to visionary generosity of Howard and Catherine Atesian Family from Michigan.