Small Business: A middle eastern family’s journey to cheesemaking

When Kuwaiti-born Palestinian Quadri Mahmoud moved to New Zealand with his family, cheesemaking was firmly in the back of his mind. Three decades later, he talks to Rahul Bhattarai about his journey from being an electronic engineer to a fromager.

What does your business do?

Taiba Cheese is a family owned and operated artisan cheesemaking company. We make handcrafted Mediterranean white cheese. Our main produce is Halloumi, Akkawi and Knafeh cheese, all made from cow’s milk.

What was the motivation for starting it?

The idea of making cheese started almost three decades ago when we first moved to Aotearoa in 1994. We grew up in the hot Arabian Gulf: Kuwait. But the green pastures of New Zealand acted as an inspiration that gave birth to our new venture.

What’s your background?

I am an electronic engineer by trade and I also got my MBA from Massey University in 1996. Back home in Kuwait I was the division manager of a medical equipment company – Bader Sultan & Brothers Co.

My wife Sahar Basheer is a microbiologist. Our trades came in handy when we started our cheese company.

I oversaw the building and set-up of the factory. I built it as an annex to our house in West Auckland, while Sahar, with her experience as a microbiologist, had been researching the science of cheesemaking for the past 10-years. She is essentially our R&D specialist, refining our recipes for flavour and texture.

How big is the team today?

We have a grand total of three staff! My wife Sahar, our daughter Shahd and myself.

How was your business affected by Covid-19?

When Sahar visited her family in Kuwait just before the Covid-19 outbreak, she couldn’t come back home for seven months with travel restrictions on Kuwait. So it definitely set us back during our startup.

What are your long-term plans?

As a new business just starting this year, our plans are not set in stone yet. We are constantly finding new opportunities. At the moment though we sell our cheese at our local farmers’ markets and the public’s response has been positively overwhelming. We’ve also had interest from speciality shops in different parts of the country and we’re interested in exploring these opportunities. We are also thinking about travelling to different parts of Aotearoa and visiting the local markets.

However, we are not planning to mass produce our cheese because we want to retain our artisan touch. I believe we will lose the quality and value of our product if it gets mass produced. We started this business as cheesemakers, and we want to continue to make our own cheese and maintain the high quality of handcrafted cheese. Quality over quantity.

How does your cheese stand out in comparison to other products in the market – what makes it unique?

We are the only certified producers of Akkawi in New Zealand. Knafeh Cheese is our own proprietary recipe.

Both of these cheeses have a unique texture and flavour – they are a unique category of cheese not known in New Zealand. In the Middle East, white cheese is used in fatayer / Arabic pastries and desserts are very popular.

It provides a depth of flavour with the meltability and stretchability of mozzarella, or more technically cheeses known as “pasta filata cheeses”. This is not heard of in New Zealand and we think these cheeses will be a game changer once New Zealanders discover how to use them in their own kitchen.

What’s your favourite cheese?

Halloumi! We hail from the Middle East, just a stone’s throw away from Cyprus. Back home, Halloumi is like Cheddar. Everyone knows it, everyone eats it. When we came to New Zealand we couldn’t find Halloumi that tasted like that we ate back home, and we wanted to come up with a recipe that reminded us of the flavour and texture of authentic Halloumi.

We trialled and tested our Halloumi for years before starting our business. Sahar researched the science of cheesemaking to develop and enhance our recipe for texture and flavour, and the feedback from our customers tells us it’s worked.

Akkawi is a popular Middle Eastern cheese with a tangy, salty flavour that can melt and stretch. Knafeh Cheese is our own proprietary recipe, modifying the original Akkawi for extra stretchability, and with a complex yet subtle flavour not found in any other cheese.

How long has your business been around?

We established it as a company in 2016 and started building our factory outside the house in 2017. We only started trading this year in February, however.

How are you marketing it?

We’re active on social media and we like to make a presence at events like the Auckland Food Show to gain some visibility.

What does the competition look like in this market?

There’s a lot of Halloumi in the market but not a lot of artisan Halloumi. Akkawi, while popular overseas, is quite new to the majority of the Kiwis. Although our Knafeh Cheese shares certain similarities with other cheeses, it is unique in its own way.

What advice do you give to people wanting to start a business?

It’s hard work! Make sure it’s something you enjoy, and something that will give joy to others, because the joy that you spread will be your motivation when the going gets tough. You will have to make a lot of sacrifices, so having supportive friends and family does help. Their advice and encouragement will often be more important, which will cushion the struggle of starting a business.

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