Bearded Bakers bring street food to life
Singing, dancing, music, friendship and beards. Lots of beards. And then there’s the knafeh. The Bearded Bakers’ hugely popular travelling pop-up Knafeh Bakery has transformed the Sydney and Melbourne street food scene into a non-stop, energy-fuelled baking party.
Combining sweet desserts with unbridled joy, a touch of theatre and a proud culture has proven to be a successful recipe for brothers and Bearded Bakers co-founders Joey and Ameer El-Issa. The pair created the business after demand for “Mama Baker” Nabila El-Issa’s version of knafeh at the family’s Sydney restaurant became overwhelming.
“We just couldn’t keep up with the demand,” Joey says. “While the chef was still finishing off his knafeh, people would already be queuing up outside to collect it.”
For the uninitiated, knafeh is a traditional Middle Eastern sweet cheese and semolina pudding with a fine crumbing, topped with crushed pistachios and then drizzled with sugar syrup. It’s almost like a cheesy, oozy Middle Eastern crème brûlée.
“We realised we had to work out how to get this product out as a takeaway item,” Joey says. “And my brother always wanted to do something out of a shipping container. That’s when we were like, ‘This is how we can get this product out onto the streets of Sydney’.
“At first, our knafeh wasn’t really a business model, because we already had cafes and restaurants. It was more of a passion project; something that showcased our mother’s recipe. But before we knew it, it became our full-time gig.”
A positive agenda
For the El-Issa brothers, Knafeh Bakery is about more than just sharing their mother’s delectable knafeh recipe with eager Aussie foodies. It’s also about breaking down the negative stereotypes that often surround Middle Eastern men with beards.
“Our focus was to use Middle Eastern men, because we’ve never really been portrayed in a positive way,” Joey says. “But we’re so proud of our culture. So we thought, let’s try to change this whole negative stigma around men with beards. Mainstream media was always against that sort of thing. They never really showcased the positives of men with beards.
“We took a negative and turned it into a positive. We made young Middle Eastern men feel comfortable about growing a beard, without feeling like there’s a negative connotation to it. It’s a bit of a conversation starter, especially when people see us jumping around.”
The Bearded Bakers now have men from all over the world working with them, helping to bring the magic and theatre (and exquisite desserts) of Knafeh Bakery to life. As well as their phenomenally popular pop-ups, the brothers have also opened three Knafeh Bakeries in Sydney, Melbourne and New York. Next on the cards is Dubai and London.
Keeping things interesting
During lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne, the Bearded Bakers had to rethink their business model. People were still desperate to get their hands on some knafeh, so the brothers pivoted to home delivery, a drive-thru and a “we make it, you bake it” option.
“People in Melbourne embraced it like there was no tomorrow,” Joey says. “We had people travelling 40, 50 kilometres just to pick up their dessert. In Sydney, we had 30 drivers delivering across the city. It took off. At one stage, we were thinking, this is out of control.”
The Bearded Bakers also started partnering with other businesses, especially those that were struggling due to the pandemic and needed a little extra help. In the process, they established a marketing agency called Baker Media.
“All these corporate people were reaching out to us, wanting to work with the Bearded Bakers,” Joey says. “So we started investing some time into brand partnerships and collaborations, always making sure we can connect people from an emotional perspective to the food side of things. Wherever there’s a business, people need to eat. And people want the Bearded Bakers to help them connect with people. So, a big part of our focus now is these brand partnerships – food, fun, fashion, lifestyle. It keeps things exciting.”
Sharing the love
Joey, Ameer and Nabila recently collaborated with Duru Bulgur and home-cooked meal delivery service FoodSt to release some of Nabilla’s favourite dishes, all featuring bulgur. This chewy, nutty ancient grain is iconic in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s a complex carbohydrate that’s high in fibre, protein and vitamin B, and low GI and low in calories.
“We grew up eating bulgur,” Joey says. “We didn’t even realise we were eating a superfood. But when we partnered up with Duru, we realised that Mama had been creating healthy recipes using bulgur since we were little kids. We feel privileged that we can showcase some of the dishes that we grew up on. It’s pretty special.”
Dishes include the El-Issa family staple, kibbeh bil saineh. This is a mix of the freshest minced lamb and bulgur with essential “seven spices” (baharat). There’s also a creamy mushroom and zucchini vegetarian risotto, which shows how versatile bulgur really is.
“Mama usually cooks this for the family during Lent,” Joey says. “Although coming up with delicious vegetarian dishes is a tough job, Mama manages to nail it every time. With a dash of love to finish it off, every dish is better than the last.”
A sweet legacy
That dash of love is no doubt what makes the Bearded Bakers so appealing, and Knafeh Bakery so popular. Delicious desserts aside, the secret to any successful business is the passion that lies behind it. And Joey and Ameer have passion in spades. The brothers are fiercely proud of their heritage, but they’re even prouder of their mum.
“I remember when we first started, we had close to 3000 people a night,” Joey recalls. “So we’re looking out at a sea of people, and Mum says, ‘You know what Joey? I don’t like to say this, but if I die, I’ve left you something sweet’. And she just pointed to the sea of people.
“Our mum is a special woman with special recipes – beautiful, home-cooked, loving food. And for us to be able to showcase her recipe, in an authentic and innovative way? I think it’s a match made in heaven. My brother and I are super proud that we’ve created the Bearded Bakers, but the essence of what we’re doing is our mother’s love for us and her cooking.”