Economic Development: Vashon Island Syrian food cart owner named U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2023 Young Entrepreneur of the Year

The U.S. Small Business Administration has bestowed a prestigious honor on the owner of a popular Syrian food cart on Vashon Island.

Safa Jneidi, co-owner of Iyad’s Syrian Grill, was named the SBA Seattle District Young Entrepreneur of the Year!

The award – part of National Small Business Week (April 30-May 6) – recognizes a young entrepreneur under the age of 35 that demonstrates staying power and substantiated history as an established business with at least three years of business operation. Winners must also show growth in net worth and business expansion, increase in jobs and sales, innovativeness of products or services, response to adversity and contributions to community-oriented projects.

“Winning this award means a lot to us,” said Jneidi, who operates the business with her husband Iyad Alati. “It makes us proud of ourselves, and of the hard work we have done. It makes us feel that we are a part of this country, and it gives us the motivation to continue to grow our business. This is just the beginning.”

Jneidi and Alati launched the business in 2019 with a focus on local ingredients and traditional recipes from their home city of Aleppo, Syria. Their daily food cart has established a loyal following among the Vashon community and they have grown their business by offering packaged foods in local coffee shops, cafes, and grocery stores.

Jneidi moved her family to the United States in 2017. After fleeing Syria as refugees and spending four years in Turkey, they were relocated to Washington state by the United Nations. Through an invitation by the Vashon Resettlement Committee, the couple found a new home on Vashon Island, where they now reside with their three children.

Once settled, the couple knew they wanted to open their own business. Prior to leaving Aleppo, the Alati family owned a textile shop – a business that has been in Iyad’s family for centuries – but it was his passion for cooking and sharing food that sparked their new journey as entrepreneurs.

“Iyad has always loved food, and loved to cook,” Jneidi recalls. “He has photos of himself as a child, cooking alongside his grandmother, who was famous for her food in our area. These days he will spend hours in the kitchen, testing recipes, perfecting a sauce.”

During their time in Turkey, Alati worked in restaurant kitchens, honing his skills. When the couple came to Washington state he enrolled in Project Feast, a nonprofit with the mission to empower refugees and immigrants by providing pathways to sustainable employment in the food industry. Once he graduated, he found work in local restaurants, while the couple hoped to start a venture of their own to showcase their cuisine.

While Alati crafted his recipes, Jneidi enrolled in English language classes and began navigating the process of starting a food business, learning about licensing and permitting, and acquiring the equipment they needed to launch their food cart at the Vashon Farmers Market.

After launching in 2019, Jneidi’ s business soon faced the challenges of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. By following local health guidance, they were able to implement social distancing measures and sell their food outdoors, but it was a challenge to stay afloat. Jneidi was able to utilize funding from the SBA COVID Economic Injury Disaster (EIDL) program to help cover expenses and remain in business while experiencing a reduction in revenue.

“It was a hard time to stay in business,” Jneidi said of the pandemic. “The opportunity to get this loan from the SBA was a big help, to cover expenses, to buy ingredients, to keep advertising. We are thankful that the SBA was there to help small businesses like ours to continue, and to survive.”

Today, Jneidi and Alati are ready to expand. They open their food cart daily to a line of dedicated customers, and through her tenacity, Jneidi has placed their packaged food on an increasing number of shelves in area supermarkets and cafés. The demand from customers is growing, they are developing more packaged items, and plans for a mobile food truck to bring their cuisine to more locations are in progress.

With their sights set on bringing their food to eaters beyond Vashon, they are quick to credit their local community for giving them the support they needed along the way.

“We are grateful to each and every one of the people here on Vashon Island,” Jneidi said. “Without them, we would not be here, we are lucky to be here in this great community.”