Every morning that he’s in Trinidad – and not flying off to one of his many businesses spread throughout the Caribbean – the soft-spoken Mario Sabga-Aboud sits on a couch in his cosy Rituals coffee shop on Maraval Road, Port of Spain. He reads three local newspapers and sips a café latte before heading to his office in San Juan.
“I love meeting people,” he says as he points out a regular customer hovering over a steaming cup of cinnamon coffee.
Sabga-Aboud has built a culinary empire out of hamburgers, pizza, doughnuts – and coffee, from espresso macchiato with its peaks of foam to Kono Moca chillers topped with a pyramid of whipped cream.
You could say he is living proof of the old adage “when one door closes, another opens”. Sabga-Aboud has had doors slammed in his face, but has always found a way to open a new one.
In the 1980s he had a dream of bringing an American hamburger franchise to Trinidad & Tobago.
“People said that was crazy,” says Sabga-Aboud. “Hamburgers would not be big in Trinidad & Tobago.” When a major US-based hamburger franchise rejected his bid to open outlets in Trinidad & Tobago because the Caribbean was too small, Sabga-Aboud established his own chain, Burger Boys, and branched off into Pizza Boys in 1986. After he proved his critics wrong, he ventured into Chinese food with Wok ‘n’ Roll, and Vie De France with brunch, light meals, sandwiches, and decadent desserts. Then he decided to challenge the chicken moguls with Church’s Chicken.
“Something was missing: coffee,” Sabga-Aboud says. So he approached Starbucks for a franchise. Once again, he got a familiar answer: “They said, ‘The Caribbean is too small.’ They were looking to expand in China and India. I said to myself, ‘I’ve done everything on my own up until now – so I’ll do coffee too.’”He took a couple of months off work and travelled to coffee shops throughout North America. “I studied what worked and why, certified myself to become a barista, and went to every coffee show I could find.”He learned to make cappuccino and double-espresso shots like the Americano that Rituals serves. But it also occurred to him that cold coffee drinks should do well in the tropical climate of the Caribbean.
He wanted an atmosphere that was soothing and relaxing, so he conjured up the image of the perfect coffee shop: round tables and soft chairs and couches. He developed a menu for breakfast that would incorporate his frosted doughnuts with nuts and sprinkles, and a lunch menu that revolved around crisp panini sandwiches.
He had a vision for a thriving business. What he didn’t have was a name.
“I thought for months and finally, one morning I was sitting on my porch smoking a cigar, when my wife, Vanessa, said, ‘What is bothering you?’ I told her I couldn’t come up with a name for my coffee shop, and she said, ‘What does drinking coffee every morning mean to you?’ I said, ‘It is a ritual.’ I knew I had my name.”
And so Rituals was born. To cold coffee drinks like Java Chocolate Chip and Moccacinos he added smoothies to evoke the taste of the Caribbean: Lemon Coolers, Mango Guava Madness and Pineapple Coconut Chillers.
“Everyone said I was crazy to open up a coffee shop in Trinidad, a place with a tradition of tea-drinking.”
Sabga-Aboud didn’t flinch at the criticism. His belief in coffee undoubtedly stemmed from his Middle Eastern roots. While other Trinidadians honour the British tea-drinking tradition, the Syrian-Lebanese community in the Caribbean kept the custom of drinking potent Turkish coffee served in tiny, ornate cups. He drinks 12 cups a day.
Besides, he had already introduced hamburgers for dinner in the land of pelau and roti, and doughnuts for breakfast in the land of saltfish and fried bake.
Soon there were Rituals stores dotting the Trinidad & Tobago landscape from street corners to universities and airports: 48 outlets opened in a year. The first Rituals was in Maraval, a suburb of Port of Spain; the second at Piarco Airport.
“I wanted to be everywhere right away in Trinidad & Tobago,” says Sabga-Aboud. “Rituals became a household name in Trinidad and that is when it struck me. I’ve created something called ‘the third place’: there’s work, home, and Rituals. People come to begin their day, relax, have coffee and breakfast and settle themselves before they go to work. It’s a place that breaks up the rush of everyday life from one place to another.”
That lifestyle, Sabga-Aboud decided, should spread overseas. He set out to become the Starbucks of the Caribbean.
“We’re all family in the Caribbean, so I decided to make Rituals a Caribbean franchise and sell it.”
Once again, everyone told him the idea wouldn’t work. “They said, ‘The islands are too small.”
But Sabga-Aboud wasn’t buying any cynicism. After all, at every stage of his food ventures everyone had doomed him to failure. Still, with all of his enthusiasm, he found that some countries just wouldn’t take him up on the offer to start a Rituals franchise. No one wanted to take the plunge in St Kitts, so Sabga-Aboud moved in.
“St Kitts only has 40,000 residents, but 5,000 of them are medical students. Coffee and students go hand in hand.”
St Kitts ended up being a market that did four times the business of other islands. He has now opened his third location there in less than a year.
Sabga-Aboud also opened Rituals outlets in Guyana, Suriname, Barbados, Dominica, Antigua, and St Lucia – another island where no one would take up his offer. The restaurant opened on February 15.
At last count Sabga-Aboud had 54 Rituals in Trinidad & Tobago, and 16 outlets elsewhere in the Caribbean. “All the Rituals franchise owners are proud to be part of a Caribbean franchise. They’re very aware of that, and it makes me proud to forge business relationships in the Caribbean.”
Rituals started off by bringing in five per cent of his business income. Now, it makes up 54 per cent of his group sales. Sabga-Aboud sees the Caribbean united through coffee.
“This is a place where everyone meets: from government ministers to construction workers, students and bankers – everyone has a place in Rituals.”
Mario Sabga-Aboud has seen the world, but he calls Trinidad & Tobago home.
He was born in Trinidad on June 2, 1960 to parents who represented two of the Syrian families who came to Trinidad & Tobago in the early 1900s.
As newly arrived immigrants, many Syrians began selling cloth and wares on credit throughout the countryside. From there, they invested in property in Port of Spain and other towns, and opened cloth stores. The Syrian community became known for its industriousness and business acumen.
Sabga-Aboud’s father, however, became a career diplomat. By the time Mario turned seven he was living in Guyana, where his father was an ambassador for Trinidad & Tobago. The family moved to Jamaica in 1970. Sabga-Aboud lived there until 1974, when they moved to Lebanon. He was 14 when his father died and his mother took the family to Canada.
“We lived in a farm town in Leamington, Ontario, with 15,000 people. Everybody grew tomatoes for a Heinz factory.”
Sabga-Aboud went to high school in Canada, “…but I couldn’t take the cold.” He moved to Miami to live with his grandfather and attended Broward Community College. He returned to Trinidad and worked in the textile business with his uncle Abraham Laquis from 1980 – 1986, when he opened Burger Boys.