Kate Zaidan: On Dean's Mediterranean and Love Over Fear
Step into Dean’s Mediterranean Imports and you’ll be greeted by the aroma of warm spices and an unforgettable smile. Take a few more steps in and you’ll find there’s much more to both the store and the woman behind the smile, Kate Zaidan.
As the new owner of the specialty food store in Findlay Market, Kate continues the legacy of a business her father, a Lebanese immigrant, started over 30 years ago. With respect for the wisdom and success of her father and the thoughtful confidence to lead the business with new ideas, new products, and new branches of business, Kate combines people, food, culture, and personal principles to create an exceptional niche in the local food world. And while navigating her new role as a young woman business owner, she’s discovering that she just might have a knack for all that leadership stuff, too.
What is your job, Kate Zaidan?
I am the owner of Dean’s Mediterranean Imports. I bought the business off my dad last year.
You had a career in the nonprofit world; how did you handle the transition to becoming a small, retail shop owner?
I have to say I took to it like water. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I do. I kind of did it out of a familial obligation. I felt a calling to honor the work that my dad did, but I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it.
What changes have you brought to Dean’s?
One of the first things I did was add a computer to keep track of all our inventory. At any given time, we have might have 3,000 to 5,000 items – probably more than that, actually, including all the spices. When I asked my dad how he kept track of all of that, he said, “I just do. When I see we are out of it, I order it.” [Laughs.]
I also added a prepared food menu and a little carryout restaurant. I hadn’t had a falafel in Cincinnati that really inspired me, that tasted like what I’d had in Beirut, so I just decided to add some prepared foods. Now we have a full carryout menu, and it’s become a sizable percentage of our business.
I also implemented quarterly staff training that we use to build our food knowledge, do some course-correction type stuff. And the thing I like to do with our staff training is focus on helping my staff learn food, because I don’t necessarily have “foodies” on my staff. We do a lot of education so that they can help the customers figure out what they need.
What is your favorite part of your work?
It really is a toss-up between the interaction of my customers and my staff. But I have to say that I actually like being a leader. You talk to small business owners, and a lot of times, they will say that staffing and dealing with employees is so hard and so difficult. I love that part of it. I really like thinking about my role in empowering them, helping employees while they’re in our store. They might not be here forever, but while they are here, I want them to learn some skills, learn some leadership abilities, learn how to take ownership over a position, and hopefully learn some things about food, too.
What is the toughest business decision you have to make?
Figuring out the money side is so hard. I want to be able to pay my staff super well. I want them to all have health insurance and benefits. And I want to be able to offer reasonable, fair prices to my customers. And I want to be able to do that while I do all these cool extracurriculars!
Between employees, customers, and suppliers, there’s plenty of opportunity for criticism, especially for a new owner. How do you deal with negative feedback?
It’s so hard! I try to be perfect all the time! [Laughs.] With negative feedback, especially like customer feedback, or from my dad, it always cuts deep. But for me, it does come back to having a core set of principles.
If I can make mistakes and learn, that everyone else can, too. And we just do better every single time.
I rest a lot on three principles. If something doesn’t line up with those, then it just doesn’t fit in my framework. One is: “Always choose love over fear.” Fear creeps in all the time. Fear has its own wisdom, but you have to balance it with all the goodness in the world, all the gratitude in the world. And like, love wins, hands down.
I also believe in “win-win.” I want my relationships with my employees, with my partners, to be win-win. That means it has to work for me, and it’s got to work for them. When you have a win-win relationship, it makes sure that both parties are coming out ahead, better than they were before.
The third principle is that I have a true, gut belief that every person is worthy of human dignity. And every encounter I have with another person is an opportunity to reflect that value back to them.
How do these principles play out in real life?
Well, it's part of what I enjoy the most about dealing with the public. I think [the cool thing about] having a store in a dense, urban environment that draws people from all over the city (and the world, really!) is that I get this neat kaleidoscope vantage point at a time in our country where we are increasingly segregated and clustered around people who are a lot like us. So I get to kind of treat it as an opportunity to just connect, and be curious about people, and meet them quite literally where they are, just accepting and non-judgmental, with a genuine desire to be helpful and to make someone's day better – and no surprise that food is the medium for that. What better medium for connection is there?! So that is one way.
Food is a perfect lens to approach social issues.
And they are pretty sound management principles, as well. I assume the best about my staff. I want people to feel like they can grow and succeed with our little business, that it is a safe and comfortable place to work in. Of course, I want to deal with real problems as they arise, and I try to avoid projecting my own failings and issues and insecurities onto others, which is a really easy trap to fall into. I want people to feel like they can grow into the person they were meant to be in this business – even if it means growing out.
I am trying to build a community that both honors and respects our individualities while we work together to be accountable to each other and to the health of the business. It's a cool challenge.
Is being a leader something that comes naturally to you?
I really do have to think about growing into this role, because I make a ton of mistakes, all the time. I have perfectionist tendencies, and I don’t like to make mistakes. I want to be right all the time, and perfect, and I’m just not. It has been a great, fun challenge for me to take the mistakes and learn from them and grow. And along with that, to make sure I’m building that culture within the store, within the staff – making sure that if I can make mistakes and learn, that everyone else can, too. And we just do better every single time. So, when I think about leadership, that has definitely been one of the things I have tried to cultivate. I read a lot about leadership, and I’ve had to develop my own sense of authority, that I have ideas that are good and other people should hear them. It’s been something I’ve really had to work on.
Are there social issues where you see food as a facilitator for change?
When I left my nonprofit work, I did think about if I was abandoning my commitment to social change. I had to really consider that, but I think that food is a perfect lens to approach social issues. And it is instantly disarming, too, so it takes you off your hackles a little bit – just depending on your perspective and where you come at different social issues and problems. It’s really easy to get into your mode of thinking, and it is really hard to break free from that.
And is this belief where STIR! started?
Yes, definitely. I got a People’s Liberty grant last year to do a program called “STIR! Sharing Food, Sharing Culture.” I was seeing this great cross-cultural action happening at Findlay Market and at my store counter. It occurred to me that food is really the way to break down traditional barriers. When you don’t have anything else to talk about, you can talk about food. When you don’t have any shared history or even cultural references, food is something you can begin with. I thought it would be neat to blow that up, take that concept and build on it. So, STIR! was a series of six cooking classes that brought people from widely different cultural backgrounds into Findlay Kitchen to demonstrate their techniques, because I think technique is something that is also cultural. I tried to bring in a wide swath of people to demonstrate recipes to a group of people who would never have interacted with each other otherwise.
I get this neat kaleidoscope vantage point at a time in our country where we are increasingly segregated and clustered around people who are a lot like us.
It was so fun, and they were great classes. And through STIR!, I managed to build a network of immigrants, refugees, and people who are working the world of refugee support, and it has become a little side project of mine.
Is STIR! still active?
Yes, it is. I’ve come to think of STIR! as the culture-education arm of Dean’s. And I love working with different partners. We are doing a series of plated dinners this year. We just did one with Llyas Bourchid, the general manager of Salazar, who is from Morocco. We thought it would be cool to explore Moroccan cuisine and really use it as an opportunity to look at the food in-depth, as well as hearing his personal story of how he got here.
Why do you think a multicultural environment is important?
That, I think, goes back so far. Growing up as a child from mixed cultures, I spent a lot of years trying to figure out how to fit in. You don’t necessarily look at me and identify me as Lebanese, but growing up, I did have to hold that tension of navigating my own cultural identity. We went to school at a mostly white, suburban school in Cincinnati, and then I would spend the weekends in Findlay Market where there was this rich mix of people, not even just across cultures, but of different class and racial backgrounds. Findlay Market has always been a hub of interesting people, and I realized that was what I loved about this place. And it was what drew me back to work at the market: the fact that it is such a neat place to be. It’s good public space. It’s public space where people are interacting across lots of different lines while getting something accomplished.
How is your business environment different than your dad’s was when he was starting out in America 30 years ago?
When my dad came to the States, one of the things he loved was just how straightforward everything was. He’s a real dollar-and-cents kind of guy. Like, he wanted to open a business, and here, in America, you don’t have to pay extra to somebody or make them cookies; you just go to the office and sign up. That culture appealed to him and made him proud to be here and proud to do business here.
He assimilated into America pretty well. But he certainly had challenges. My dad adapted his Lebanese culture to the American consumer. For example, “Dean” is not his real name. He changed his name to make it easier for his American customers to remember. And he added more gourmet, non-Middle-Eastern food out of the necessity of the time.
Now it’s the other way around. It’s funny, because we’re in this phase where you can buy tahini at Kroger; you can buy lots of Mediterranean specialties everywhere. Our customers have changed and are more willing to try new things. Mediterranean foods are so familiar that we have to be innovative to stay on top. And we’re staying innovative by going back to our roots.
As the owner of a small business, is it possible to “get away” from the store?
Very challenging. One thing I try to do is just trust my staff, trust that they are capable people who will get the job done. I can take a break. That can be hard to do sometimes. At some point, you have to say, “Okay, I’m entrusting you with this.” And you really do have to have good systems in place. And make sure people feel empowered enough to know their role. And then, let it go.
“Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
I also mentor a 13-year-old boy who lives in the neighborhood. I spend a lot of time with him. We love to cook, so we cook together a lot. He’s with me most every night. I don’t even know what to call it. It’s a heavy mentorship, I guess.
What business advice would you give anyone, or women, in particular?
For the longest time, I had an Emerson quote on my phone because it was so relevant to me: “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” It’s a great quote. A lot of women tend to be reacting to what other people are wanting for them. I know that’s true for me. I’ve always been a reactive person; like, “What do you need me to be and I’ll be that person for you.” So, figuring out my own core intuition that I know I have – that everybody has inside of themselves, that you really can trust – is something that has been the most liberating thing for me, to be able to have people give me feedback and I can take it. I can learn from it, but I don’t have to react to it.
Who are the influential women in your life?
Well, the most influential woman in my life right now is my wife, who is a source of inspiration every single day. We’ve been together 10 years and married five years. She is an educator who saw limitations as a working teacher in the public school system. So, she got the idea to get her Ph.D. and do research to help solve some of the more institutional problems in public education. She just got a fellowship in New York City and will be there for the next five years. She is such an inspiration to me.
I always have to give props to my aunt Carol. She really took me under her wings growing up. She, and of course my mom, were always solid support. And with Aunt Carol, anything that I was interested in, she would always tell me that I could do it. “You want to take figure skating lessons? Go for it. You want to ride horses? Okay, you can do it.” She really helped develop my character and my interests.