If you ask Rabih Bou Chaaya of Methuen to describe his family’s small business, Maya Gourmet, his answer is a simple one. “I would describe it in few words: handcrafted baklava,” he says. “Everything is handmade from the finest ingredients. I’m Lebanese, so I know baklava.”
His knowledge of great baklava comes not only from his cultural heritage, though. His father-in-law’s homemade baklava is the stuff of family legend, and is now the basis for their successful business, which he launched in 2014, with his wife, Maya, and father-in-law in the kitchen.
“He loves dessert and he loves cooking,” Maya Bou Chaaya says of her dad, Tanios Ata. “He always wanted to open his own business.” Indeed, Tanios has been making his own baklava recipe for decades, first in his native Lebanon, and then here in the United States, catering events and sharing his wonderful dessert with friends and family.
But it was only when Rabih, who works in food distribution, brought his father-in-law’s baklava to one of the grocery store managers he works with that Tanios’s dream of starting his own business became a reality. “I was telling her how good Lebanese baklava is,” Rabih says, and later he brought her a piece. The manager was floored by how delicious it was, telling Rabih that she’d sell it in her store.
Soon after, Maya Gourmet was born. Working out of Kitchen Local—the shared commercial kitchen space in Amesbury that has been the incubator for many North Shore food businesses like Atlantic Saltworks and Spiker?s Shrubs—the family launched their wholesale business, with Maya and Tanios handling the baking and Rabih in charge of sales, marketing, and distribution.
Working at Kitchen Local, with the help of its owner, Lisa Sutton, has been a great experience.
“It’s an amazing atmosphere for small businesses, she does whatever she can to help,” Rabih says of Sutton. “The place is beautiful, you can do everything from A to Z there.”
In just two short years, Maya Gourmet has already found its way into many local grocery stores, including area Whole Foods, Crosby’s Marketplace, Philbrick’s Fresh Market, Fowles Market, and McKinnon’s Market. It’s easy to see why.
“It’s authentic Lebanese, and it’s my dad’s recipe,” Maya says. “It’s all handmade, piece by piece; very delicate, very delicious, and simple, easy ingredients.”
Lebanese baklava is distinct from Greek baklava in several different ways, Rabih explains. For instance, instead of walnuts, Tanios uses cashews, pine nuts, or pistachios. Maya Gourmet’s recipe also uses sugar syrup as the main sweetener. The result is a dessert that is flaky and delicately crispy, rather than soaked with sticky honey, with a subtle sweetness that allows the flavors of the nuts shine through.
Maya Gourmet also distinguishes itself by using all-natural ingredients, such as organic phyllo dough. In addition to the more traditional baklava, Maya Gourmet also offers a variety made with dates, pistachio nests, baklava fingers, and some decidedly decadent twists on the dessert, including white chocolate and dark chocolate dipped options. The date-filled baklava, for instance, offers an added texture and flavor that complements the dessert beautifully. Mixed trays are also available, and are great for parties and holidays, Maya says.
For the family, Maya Gourmet is the fulfillment of a dream that began a world away in Lebanon.
“It’s an amazing experience. It’s really hard to describe how things change. Life changes in a good way, and you learn. You learn a lot,” says Rabih who came to the United States when he was in his mid-20s. “It’s a nice journey, and it’s not done yet. We’re still a small business and we have big dreams and big hopes.”
Maya says working with her husband and father has been a great experience. She loves working together to build the business, bonding in the kitchen, and seeing people’s reactions as they taste the baklava.
So will Maya and Rabih’s two young sons be part of the family business someday, too? Although the six- and nine-year-old boys are more helpful with “the eating” than the business, they love their family’s baklava just as much as the older generations.
“Once they see leftovers, that’s all they want,” Maya says. “One piece is not enough.”