TABCo Food, a Kuwaiti company out to enrich the region’s culinary scene through sustainability and an emphasis on smarter food choices, brought US-born Elevation Burger to Kuwait to invoke a new take on what accessible eating means and could be in a nation with a marked enthusiasm for easy dining. They speak to Katrina Kufer about what it takes to grow an organic casual eatery, to introduce new food concepts to the Middle East—a space Kuwait is familiar with as home of the largest GCC-based F&B franchises—and how to bring it all together through good food, innovation, integrity and empowerment.
Many outlets state that “ingredients matter”, gently incorporating buzz words like “organic”, “sustainable” and “responsibility”. But it is TABCo Food—a business founded in 2010 by 5 Kuwaiti friends and entrepreneurs—who has made it its business to show that restaurants in Kuwait, whether local or imported, can really stand up to these increasingly important and critically examined terms. In the case of Elevation Burger, for which TABCo Food is the sole operator of the 14 outlets (and counting) and 210 employees in the country, there is a mission to go the extra step. Using USDA Certified Organic grass-fed beef, USDA Certified cage-free chicken and hand-cut fries cooked in “heart healthy olive oil” isn’t enough for Elevation Burger or TABCo. There’s room to grow and explore by ways of local initiatives to engage the Kuwaiti public beyond satiating a noted cultural hunger for fast dining.
Elevation Burger’s branding presents itself as a sustainability- and organic-focused company that places people and the environment first, rather than profit or flavor-driven, the latter which motivates 46.7% of Kuwaiti consumers. “Sustainability, top quality ingredients and making organic food more accessible are some of our top values,” explains TABCo. “We believe that they are at the core of everything we do and we highlight that, we don’t just promote appetizing food.” TABCo is drawing on the public’s rising interest and tendency towards cleaner eating as the chemicals and toxins that inundate many even fresh foods come under speculation. This is an important gesture considering that the GCC Food and Beverage Report 2019-20 found that dining out is a key part of socialization, and over 50% of those Kuwaitis frequented casual dining outlets, largely dominated by international chains.
It is a movement that is challenging, at least in Kuwait, they admit, adding that the partnership they have forged is one of the few in the nation—and possibly wider GCC—that truly aggressively pursues sustainable, organic eating. “Breaking through the clutter, showcasing your brand and communicating your values is very hard to do,” they lament. “It is extremely hard to catch people’s attention and it’s also more expensive to be sustainable. There are so many brands out there trying to gain market share and build awareness, so they tend to focus on their brand identity, visuals and slogans rather than their values as they have so little time to communicate and make an impression.”
"We strongly believe that to enhance a community, we must adopt practices and initiatives of real impact."
But it is a mindset that Kuwait is embracing. “We have seen that organic and locally-grown produce has been a huge trend recently,” shares TABCo. “Many restaurants are finding ways to source locally and support local farms, something that Elevation Burger is always trying to do. For example, when we launched our home-grown salads, we worked with local farms to source as many ingredients as possible. We were able to source local dill, mint, Rocca, bell pepper and cucumber for a limited amount of time and hope to source more of our ingredients locally as the seasons change and they are available.” Eating and supporting local is something they have noticed the public is likewise proud to do. In actively striving to make organic produce more readily accessible and provide meat that is sustainably and grown free-range free of GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides, TABCo tackles a pricier endeavor other competitors may not engage with as much gusto. But as much as they aim to support local, they also want to actively give back to and empower the public. Treating Elevation Burger outlets like community centers, TABCo prioritizes positioning within Cooperative Societies to increase visibility. “We recently launched our drive-in in the new neighborhood of Al Masayel, so we can make organic options more accessible to people, especially in light of COVID-19. We are proud to be the first organic drive-in in Kuwait.”
Community is a key tenet of TABCo’s business philosophy manifested through Elevation Burger. “We strongly believe that to enhance a community, we must adopt practices and initiatives of real impact,” they say, highlighting their eco-friendly outlets that minimize energy consumption (think renewable bamboo flooring, compressed sorghum tabletops, Energy Star-rated appliances and LED lighting), as well as encouraging and guiding the youth towards “becoming more involved, responsible and productive individuals”. This means holding skill-based workshops, working with LOYAC internship programs to give youths job opportunities, sponsoring community projects such as playground renovations, sponsoring local athletes and chefs, providing lessons for children about organic farming, and encouraging political participation through their Election Day Initiative (voters received a free meal) that won TABCo the 2020 Virtual Arab Media Forum’s “Best CSR Campaign” award.
Smart initiatives seem to give TABCo, and by proxy, Elevation Burger, the edge, such as the Local Chef Collaboration program. “Localization, community empowerment and high-quality ingredients are some of our core values,” they remark. “We also try to be unique, relevant and exciting, but in a way that aligns with our brand values, and the LCC does that as a unique product keeps the Elevation Burger Experience exciting.” Empowering local talent while also refreshing the menu with limited-edition burgers, the program provides Kuwaiti-based trained, professional chefs a platform to share their skills and influences to mutually enrich the culinary output. Beginning in 2018 with “The Chimmi” burger by Chef Maryam Al Nusif, “The Bello” by Chef Khaled Al Baker followed in 2019, then “The Spicy Maple Chicken” by Chef Abdulrahman Al Khashan in 2020, and most recently, “The Truffle Brie” by Chef Anfal Al Rakhis in October 2021. Each flavour profile introduced draws heavily from international influences in line with the chef’s specialities, pushing Elevation Burger out of fast-food connotations and more into the realm of casual dining. By focusing on the product and story behind the product, they add, “We have found a good medium in presenting our food and our values of supporting the local community, sourcing high quality ingredients and providing good food.”
The take-away? “We are not fast-food. We are fast-casual,” says TABCo. “We are trying to show that organic options are more accessible than you think and burgers, fries and chicken sandwiches, usually ‘fast food’, can be organic, tasty and high-quality.” Here, the adage applies in the rapidly evolving and trend-driven food market: “Slow and steady wins the race”, but it never hurts to think outside the box and engage and incorporate seemingly disparate industries to really reach out to and activate the public.
About The Editor
Katrina – arts, culture and lifestyle writer and editor (BFA Fine Arts, Parsons the New School for Design; MA Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art) – has lived in 16 countries and written for a multitude of prestigious publications in the MENA region. Based in Dubai, Kufer is interested in observing new environments and exploring cross and inter-cultural connections.