Address: 332 Glen Eira Rd, Melbourne VIC 3185
From an interview with Hassan that has been edited
We started running Divine Deli in October 2001.
The man who used to work here was a friend of mine.
He wanted to sell – and I was in a food manufacturing business that was changing hands – so it was a good opportunity to do something new.
I like the area, and my kids have grown up here. My daughter married last month. She’s 27, but she was ten years old when we started.
So it has become like a family business.
We started to change the business a little bit.
There was lots of shelving that we moved. We changed the floor, and started selling more products.
We installed the awning and put a table outside the window of the shop but – after a year or so – the council said no because it was blocking the footpath, so we moved it further back on the sidewalk.
And there was no coffee machine here. We use good coffee. Not bullshit. Smell it. See how sweet it is? This one is 100% Arabica. The manufacturer says, “Hassan, this is your blend.”
When we started some people said, “Hassan, this isn’t a coffee shop. Why do you make it?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make it because I like coffee,” I replied.
The first week, we started with one kilo of coffee, then two kilos, three kilos, four kilos and so on.
Now it has become like a business for coffee.
If you put in effort, you get it back.
A lot of the food is homemade. The felafel and the schnitzels are all made here. The kids from Mount Scopus come for it, and they’d hang around all the time. No one in the area sells it like us. On Fridays, we used to sell 100-120 pieces because the students came in droves.
They’d get off the bus at 1pm, come here, eat schnitzel and go home. But when the students finish school, we get a new cycle of kids who come in for schnitzel. We get people from different generations but – as customers move to different areas – they might not come every week.
It’s like in your home. When your siblings lived here, your parents used to come in all the time for bagels. Now – less bagels – because nobody is home. But it’s like a circle, there are new people who come.
And former students still come back after many years.
They walk in, give me a hug and say “I miss you Hassan.”
There’s always new people who want different things.
So we’ve started cooking different foods.
We have rice and lentils with fried onion on top. We do the moussaka which is done the Middle Eastern way not the Greek way. We do a vegetarian matbucha; eggplant with capsicum, tomato and onion.
We also do a dish that is like matbucha. We slice eggplant, bake it in the oven and layer it with minced lamb, pomegranate molasses and tomato.
After 17 years, we have never written a sandwich menu. They say, “why don’t you do it?” but everyone knows it. You see the tradies here all the time.
“Schnitzel, schnitzel, schnitzel,” they say.
They know all the salads and dips, and the special; schnitzel, hummus, pickles, chilli, onion, olives, tomato.
You know what I mean?
But we’re getting old.
I started when I was 34, and I’m 51 now.
For any business, they say if you’re still there after 3-4 years it means that it is going well, or that they are happy.
But what about 17 years?
In the beginning, you have to search for good quality. You have to try the food and experiment with different things. If it doesn’t work – good – you put it on special, and once you finish you don’t buy that product again.
A couple of times you have to try it, and the customers will tell you if it’s not good. Now, some people will ask us to make things. We have customers who don’t like to cook, so they’ll call us and say “can you make lasagne or spaghetti bolognese for dinner tomorrow night?”
When we first started, I’d be out at 6:30am having coffee. Now I might open at 9am. It’s not because I don’t care, but I get tired. We can do that now. And my son as well, he used to be here every day.
“Dad, I will help you, no problem,” he says.
He still works here but now he studies. He just finished biomedicine with a high distinction.
You have to be a little bit classy in your mind.
Always the customer is right.
And if something costs $10 and you give them a discount, it doesn’t make you die. The 7/11 and the supermarket down the road doesn’t bother me because we’re a mixed business. Sandwiches, coffee, cheese, homemade food, drinks, Jewish stuff and deli food at a very good price.
In every house you need chocolate, sugar, tea, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes. We also sell fresh products. If a danish is there at the end of the day, we might give it away. When we do it customers are surprised.
“Thank you Hassan,” they say.
You can’t lean on one line because you need variety.
You also build relationships. I started taking orders for Jewish holidays. I used to write “congratulations for the new year” in the Australian Jewish News, and we wrote a few messages in the Mount Scopus schoolbook.
Now read this paper. Look at all the 2017 Passover orders.
This one says 700 gefilte fish.
In the future I don’t want to work seven days.
Five days’ maximum.
We built this from scratch and – if I sell – It has to be someone who understands the business. I’d feel guilty, but maybe they’ll be better than me.
When we came here, the customers loved the previous owner. They used to come in and chat. He was a little bit worried that they’d go with him. But, I wasn’t worried because I am who I am.
And – within a short time – people would come to visit us. If you treat people well and respect them – regardless of their colour or religion – they will come. So you have to do everything in the right way.
This is the life but – believe me – it’s very short. The time goes so fast. You have to prepare yourself for everything because there will come a time when you can’t do what you could in the past.
A friend came the other day and said, “Hassan, remember when you started your hair was black?”
Because he lost his hair, I said “I can still dye it.”
I’m not greedy.
If I was, I could make ten times more than what I do.
For example, we sell a small coffee for $3. People say, “Hassan, if they want coffee, they’ll pay $4 or $5.”
But we don’t do it to grab people. Especially with the builders, we don’t want to make it too expensive.
And people appreciate it.
I do what I feel I want to do with my business. Not because I’m stubborn, but because it makes the customers happy.
This is what I do.
Written By Aron Lewin