Tasty food, excellent ambience and good company is all we want when going out for dinner or lunch. After visiting the restaurant Villa Mamas a couple of times our editor decided it was time know a bit more about Roaya Saleh and her comforting menu.
The first time I went to Villa Mamas I felt like I was entering the owner’s home. The warmth was probably coming from the decorative items, hand-picked by Roaya Saleh in her trips around the globe. The villa, in the middle of Saar, has an organic garden with fresh herbs that go straight to the plates complementing the homely feeling. The second time was a rainy night, the house was full. My friend’s order was delayed due a problem in the kitchen. The trained waiter immediately offered him a salad while waiting for his choice to be cooked again. This extra care made me very curious about the mind behind this mama’s place.
Woman This Month: Can you tell me a little bit about your story and how the passion for cooking became a big role in your life? Owning a restaurant was always your dream?
Roaya Saleh: My passion for cooking started at a very young age. I used to help my older sister in the kitchen preparing meals for the family when my mother was travelling. The recipes and dishes we cooked were family recipes passed on through generations and I loved listening to the stories and history behind the dishes I was cooking. Owning a restaurant has always been a dream of mine, no matter what else I was doing, it was always in the back of my mind.
WTM: How did you decide that it was time to go to the next step and start your own business?
RS: I’ve always been creating businesses since I was 20 years old. I would see a need and niche and fill it. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I was working with real estate, but with the market recession and saturation, I didn’t want to go back to the corporate world. So I decided to start my dream. My original plans were to do it in my retirement, but the time felt right. Although, at this point I wasn’t fully ready to venture into the restaurant business. I needed to gather some knowledge of restaurant set up – I’d never even been in an industrial kitchen! I had to improve on my cooking abilities and my recipes. So when I decided to start the restaurant, I didn’t just jump in. I studied and investigated. I spent two and a half years looking into my business plan. I tested the market by starting a catering website. I was fortunate to have built up a solid and loyal customer base through my home cooking and catering website. This allowed me to gauge the market for my food and perfect my cooking style and launch the restaurant I wanted.
WTM: Could you give some tips to our entrepreneur readers?
RS: Research, research, research! Get to know your product and customers and always believe in your dream.
WTM: How is the process of creating a menu? Where do you find inspiration and when do you know that you’ve got the perfect dish?
RS: It all starts with myself and what I love. The whole concept is born in my own kitchen and I only approve it when I’m 100 per cent in love. However I’m only certain of its perfection when I see my customers’ positive reactions. I find inspiration in everything! Nature, ingredients I find, books, travels, TV shows and talking with people.
WTM: How important it is for you to use fresh and local ingredients?
RS: This is of the utmost importance – the foundation of Villa Mamas. I only believe in using fresh and local ingredients and I will not compromise on this. I only use fresh and high quality ingredients in my restaurant. Sourcing locally whenever possible, using local farms and even growing some vegetables and herbs in Villa Mamas’ garden.
WTM: How often do you introduce a new item in your menu?
RS: Seasonally and with people’s needs and desires. People are becoming more conscious of healthy eating. I keep this in mind. My menu has always featured lovely vegetarian items but recently I have been playing with more vegan and gluten-free options.
WTM: Do you train your own staff? How important it is to be hands-on in your business?
RS: Training is very important. I believe in training on a daily basis. I set an example for all staff by being there daily, before my staff and leaving after them. I can be seen doing everything in the restaurant – cleaning tables, cooking, etc. I have a good team behind me who support me and have developed a passion for making Villa Mamas what it is today.
WTM: Are you planning to open new branches? If so, when is it going to happen?
RS: My focus currently is on GCC expansion through a franchising model and we are in the process of rolling it out and looking for suitable partners to work with. I won’t be happy until I have introduced Villa Mamas and Bahraini cuisine to cities like New York, London and Istanbul. Later this year I am also opening Mama Gourmet, a sister brand to
Villa Mamas. This retail outlet and delicatessen, attached to Villa Mamas, will sell products that I’ve internationally sourced and use in the restaurant.
WTM: You are a successful business woman, how do you manage your busy schedule with family time?
RS: It is tough to manage, but I always prioritise my family. Having an excellent team behind me at the restaurant gives me the peace of mind to leave the restaurant and take time for family and occasional travel.
WTM: What is the thing that you are most proud of? Any special achievement?
RS: I’m most proud of being the first to introduce modern Bahraini cuisine – I started this! I am proud I have taken Bahraini cuisine to the world through social media via the Food Channel. Another achievement is that Villa Mamas has been recognised by the Government as a face for Bahrain to the world.