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Getting to Know Best-Friends-in-Business, Winnie Sun and Hassib Sarwari

While there is undoubtedly strength in numbers, sometimes just the power of two is enough to work magical things. From front/back of house pairings and designer duos to sibling set-ups and mom & pop alliances, this Scout column looks to gain insight into what makes some of Vancouver’s more interesting partnerships tick…

Since opening doors in 2021, Zarak by Afghan Kitchen has become a Mount Pleasant favourite, drawing in a dedicated fan base and often seeing waitlists for their elevated Afghan cuisine and inventive cocktails. Though co-owners Winnie Sun and Hassib Sarwari are quick to share credit for Zarak’s popularity with Sawari’s family (his mother, Zohra, is the Culinary Director; brother, Zabi, keeps things running smoothly as the Manager at their partner restaurant, Afghan Kitchen in Surrey; while another brother, Ehsan, is the Head Chef), anyone who has ever been knows that it is the ever-present and always smiling faces of Winnie and Hassib that make the Mount Pleasant restaurant what it is. What isn’t clear, though, is how they make it all look so easy; so, in order to glean some insight into their strategies for success and what makes their collaboration work so well, we recently reached out to the pair with a slew of personal and business related questions:

Ok, first question (I know you get asked this regularly, but let’s get it out of the way): Are you dating?

No. We’re best friends.

Take us back to the beginning: where/how did you two meet?

We met in 2017, when Hassib was a Manager at Sport Chek, and I was looking for a part-time sales position to support my education at UBC. I was always interested in having a space of my own to create meaningful connections out of, although perhaps not as soon as it happened. But it all changed when he brought me some of mum’s meatballs; they were the most flavourful meatballs I’d ever had, and that’s when I fell in love with Afghan food. For Hassib, it had been his lifelong dream to showcase Afghan culture through hospitality and his mum’s generational recipes in Canada.

Though you had worked at Afghan Kitchen together, you opened doors at Zarak in late 2021, what was it about your initial experience of working together that told you that partnering up would work?

Funnily enough, our initial experience of working together at Afghan Kitchen anything but ‘worked’. I was young, inexperienced in hospitality, and in over my head about my capabilities as a restaurant owner, manager, partner, leader and colleague to those older than I was. It was our different skillsets that brought us together at the time: my experience in corporate, design, menu construction and social media, along with Hassib’s relentless management style and persistence in service excellence, gave us a window into what Zarak would become. I took a leave from Afghan Kitchen to work in Beijing for a year in international education, where I honed in on what it is like to be around people, constantly – to communicate, collaborate, adapt to diverse contexts, and to really be held accountable for over 200 young adults at a time. It was a high-stress position with no time for myself, and that’s when I gained insight into what it would be like working in hospitality.

How did Zarak begin?

We had always wanted to open our first restaurant in Vancouver, but in hindsight, opening in South Surrey was the best decision we could have made at the time: turning a home-cooked meal into a restaurant-calibre dish, sharpening our partnership skills through different experiences, and overall, just learning how to be first-time restaurant owners. This is not to undermine the heart and effort that we had poured into Afghan Kitchen, but to highlight its importance in our journey to becoming better restaurateurs.

In 2019, we were passively looking for spaces in Vancouver. We had looked at a couple: OG Vij’s, and Vancouver House. I was away again at the time, finishing my law degree in England, when I got a call from Hassib that he might have found the dream location, in a residential building at the corner of Main Street and 5th Avenue. Then, it all came down to timing. Covid-19 forced me to come home and I was able to finish the rest of my degree online, but I also had all the time available in the day to really focus on the reality of opening a new restaurant in Vancouver.

In terms of the partnership, what are your official roles?

Hassib is the Operator; he maintains inventory, manages daily operations, oversees Back of House staff, and manages our budget and costs. I oversee Front of House, manage the bar program, and handle our social media and collaborations.

How about “unofficial” roles?

For Hassib, that would be cleaning and gardening. The cleaning part is definitely necessary, and it’s something I despise doing. The gardening part I think is just to fulfill his desire to get his hands dirty and watch something grow. But, if you ever did see him in the summer tending his plants and trees, you would probably think that’s his biggest passion in life. Aside from my own official roles, I don’t do much else in the restaurant. I like to go home as early as I can nowadays, so I can catch up on reading.

Over time, partnerships develop their own language/shorthand…can you share a curious/ silly/unusual shorthand term you have in your working relationship vocabulary?

Hassib calls me “Angry Bird” when the occasion calls for it. I only call him by his name, “Hassib”, when I need something or when I am mad. Otherwise, we call each other “Boss”.

Winnie Sun is “Angry Bird” | Photo courtesy Winnie Sun

What was the hardest thing about being in business last year?

Truthfully, it was navigating ‘normal’ restaurant operations after a very busy opening year. We were both overwhelmed and burnt out from that, and last year was a time of reflection, and learning how to navigate the space and our staff while still maintaining the thrill of being a newer restaurant.

What was your biggest “win”?

Still having guests walk through our doors and being truly grateful towards us and our staff for being here. That kept us going; that made us want to be better every day. Making meaningful connections with guests so that, on their next visit, they truly feel like coming home. And also for me, becoming a better bartender.

What are you looking forward to as a business this coming year?

We see this year as an opportunity to keep challenging ourselves in our dishes and drinks, because this is an ever-changing industry. We are continually finding ways to adapt ancient methods of Afghan cooking with modern technique.

Now that you are looking back from a place of having grown into your identity and found your rhythm as working partners – has your early idea of what a partnership would be ‘rung true’? What aspects have solidified most over time?

Absolutely, our initial strengths and weaknesses that are complementary became more clarified over time. I still hate cleaning, accounting and paperwork; Hassib still likes those things. I am still intensely curious, and I like to make things around me run as smoothly as possible to guarantee the greatest amount of personal latitude from inhibiting responsibilities; whereas Hassib takes on those responsibilities, giving me the freedom to explore. He’s the backbone of Zarak.

What changes have you seen in the restaurant industry over the past few years? How have you adapted your business model and partnership in response?

There have been a lot of changes since Covid-19: decreased group size, then a sudden increase in bigger groups, and nowadays, more longing for intimate gatherings; fluctuating use of social media, restaurant guides, and Google Maps; less reliance on review-based platforms, and more focus on dining experiences through story-telling; a continuous transition into minimal- to zero-waste, and being plant-forward. Those are things we are both acutely aware of, and we almost have an instinctual mutual understanding of each other in such a way that we don’t actually really talk about implementing changes, we just trust each other to do them.

How have your relationships evolved over the years? At the core, how have they remained the same? Are the two relationships delineated in any way? Or fully integrated/blurred?

The only way that our partnership has worked over the past years is truly seeing and appreciating each other as best friends, by trusting each other, being a stable presence, nurturing personal and professional growth, and offering support and constructive feedback. In these ways, we have always seen each other less as business partners. That’s probably why we never sit down for “meetings” – most of our business-related conversations happen casually, or in passing.

What is one thing you can never agree on?

The instinctive answer is: almost everything. We sit on opposite ends of every possible spectrum that is presented in the industry and life, ranging from staff, to food, seating, design, and how we spend our days off. But we realize this of ourselves, and we respect each other’s opinions, and try to find a happy median that works. That plays a substantial part in why we work together seamlessly.

How do you make each other laugh?

Just by existing, we can make each other laugh – perhaps a bit too much.

The last meal that you shared together out somewhere?

Elio Volpe. We ate and drank a lot in the new, gorgeous space. Congratulations to the team there, and especially to Chef Vish.

Do you have advice for anyone looking to go into business together?

Even though we can talk and joke about not agreeing on anything, the most important advice is to ensure that you share similar values, or respect and understand differing ones. Everything else comes after values. It goes beyond the desire to make a profit for us. Our same values of integrity and discipline imply that we share the same vision as a business, as two partners who work day-in and day-out in the restaurant, and the same vision for the future.

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