Taking a home craft and transforming it into an international gourmet industry, three Tunisian women revolutionized the business of crafting and selling Tunisian pastries.
As Tunisia strives to create jobs and reinvigorate its economy, it need look no further for role models than the founders of the confectioneries Masmoudi, Madame Zarrouk, and Madame Hachicha - who successfully transformed their family businesses into small empires.
Madame Zarrouk’s Pastries – founded by Fatma Zarrouk, now 87 – is now an esteemed Tunisian establishment. Zarrouk opened her first confectionery in 1970, in the downtown Tunis neighborhood of Passage. She learned the craft from her mother-in-law, her granddaughter Khedija Zarrouk explained. While working for the Tunisian Grain Board, Fatma Zarrouk taught pastry making and passed on her extensive knowledge to students. A number of those same students became her employees when she opened her shop.
She expanded her business, opening a second shop in La Marsa in 1976. Then the business became a family affair.
“Everybody got involved,” said Zarrouk.
Moufida Masmoudi, 79, is another Tunisian entrepreneur who built her business by catering to the desires of sweet-toothed Tunisians. Masmoudi’s passion for making pastries started at the age of 6, learning from her mother and from her cousin – who happened to be the pastry chef of Muhammed VIII al-Amin, the last reigning Bey of Tunis.
“She would go with her to the Bey’s kitchen just to help her out. She liked that kind of life,” said Ahmed Masmoudi, Moufida Masmoudi’s son.
“It runs in the family, pastry-making,” said her son. “Her business venture started in 1972; we were all very young. She involved us because she didn’t have the means to hire staff. My father was a pastry chef and helped her too. He also helped by preparing the meals for us while she was busy baking,” he went on.
Raoudha Hachicha opened shop in 1986. She had studied medicine for three years, but left school when she got married.
“I am a very energetic and active person, so I thought of doing something to fill my time. A friend taught me how to make pastries,” said Hachicha.
She originally started selling her creations directly from home, but little by little the business grew.
Now, Hachicha pastries are a very popular gourmet treat among upper-middle class Tunisians. Hachicha attributes her success to high-quality, raw products, good recipes, expertise, and good follow-up with customers. She stressed the importance of being able to adjust to change in demand, and being able to answer the consumer’s expectations.
“Today people want to buy something that is low in sugar, small, and refined in shape,” she added.
Before Zarrouk, Masmoudi, and Hachicha got their start, pastry-making in Tunisia was an activity relegated to the home, and the idea that it could be a lucrative business was foreign. Nevertheless, these three women shared a strong personality, which helped them realize their dreams in spite of the challenges they faced.
“She was a pioneer in the confectionery business, which at first was only done at home and not really viewed as a potential business,” said Khedija Zarrouk about her grandmother’s challenges. “So it was a difficulty she had to face, especially making a name for herself and overcoming all the prejudice surrounding a working woman. One day her husband told her that she would end up in prison,” she said.
Ahmed Masmoudi explained that his mother was also confronted with difficulties when starting her business.
“At that time it was really frowned upon for a woman to work, particularly for those who went to houses and made the pastries there. So by making the decision to open a shop she was taking a big risk. She had to face many challenges – as a working woman but also as she tried to build a commercial tradition rather [...] Afterwards the fashion changed. It became a business of the upper middle class women of Sfax to start posh pastry shops,” declared Masmoudi.
Hachicha explained how changing lifestyles helped normalize this new purchase-oriented culture. “Women today no longer have the extra time to make pastries, so they turn to us,” she said.
Ultimately, the three women’s perseverance, hard work, and business spirit brought them success.
“The secret to our pastries’ success lies in the quality of the product we make. In this kind of business, reputation is built by word of mouth. Big advertisements are not needed; we preferred to remain discrete. It is the product that we offer that works as our best publicity campaign,” said Zarrouk.
For Hachicha, attitude and inspiration are the fuel of a good business. “An entrepreneurial spirit is a pre-requisite,” she asserted.
Masmoudi attributes his mother’s success to her all-around business savvy. He pointed to the jump she got on her competition by entering the market early, the quality of the product she made, her years of experience, and the great importance she placed on marketing.
“What matters is knowing how to manage supply and demand – to recognize a possible market and to seize it,” asserted Masmoudi.
Masmoudi and Hachicha were successful in marketing their product internationally. Masmoudi’s products are now sold in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Bahrain. In France alone they have six stores, and, in 2012, they will open two new franchises in Dubai and Jedda.
“It is a product that even foreigners enjoy,” explains Masmoudi.
In order to please the Western market, Masmoudi described how his mother worked to enhance the brand’s image. “We started giving more importance to packaging. She added creativity to her work by acknowledging the importance of the aesthetic side of the product.”
Hachicha has also had international success, opening two franchises in France to add to the seven in Tunisia.
For her part, Zarrouk prefers to keep her product a local specialty, which is only found in Tunisia. She currently has six stores across the country, mostly located in the north.
“We are not interested in exporting. Our customers who plan on going abroad usually buy from us and take our pastries with them,” her granddaughter explained. If they were to expand abroad, Zarrouk declared they would prefer to sell their products through local retailers.
In Tunisia, Masmoudi, Zarrouk, and Hachicha tend to cater to an upscale clientele. However, in a country where pastries are a tradition, and a staple product for any important family or social event, they also make sure to make their products available in more financially accessible, non-brand stores across the country.
Representing an age-old tradition, the pastry business shows no signs of slowing down, appealing to both everyday and luxury markets. “It is an innovative product that is linked to our culture and traditions,” said Masmoudi.