From rural Lebanon to LA, Robert Atallah beat all the odds. I sat down with this king of Mediterranean cuisine to hear his inspiring story.

LM: Let's start with a snapshot of you and the company.

RA: I landed in Los Angeles in September of 1974 with a 21-day visitor visa. Once the Customs officer found out that I only had $36 in my possession, he only granted me seven days. 44 years later, I am still here. I ended up converting my visitor visa to a student visa, first studying English and then pursuing a master's degree in business administration. Throughout that period, I had the constant, strong desire to strike out on my own and be my own boss. But at that point, I had no capital and no experience in anything besides playwriting, which was my first passion. Not having mastered the English language pushed that possibility out, so, being an introvert (and having already worked in restaurants to pay for school), I thought the food business would be a safe choice and one that would allow me to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams and continue to be innovative. 

LM: Tell us your origin story. Why you? Why did you start this company? 

RA: I held multiple jobs in the food industry while attending school full-time. I was enrolled in USC but couldn't afford it, transferred to UCLA but couldn't afford the time, then finished my master's degree at the University of West Los Angeles where you could have as little as six units to keep a student visa current. By the time I graduated, I was managing several restaurants and developed a strong passion for the importance of natural and clean food (which wasn't nearly as popular in the 1970's as it is now). I always felt that I had an independent, entrepreneurial spirit, so I put that toward my passion and opened my own restaurant, The Hungry Pocket, in Santa Monica. We served vegetarian Mediterranean foods and delicacies, including falafel (that we called vegetarian steak) and hummus. In 1978, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about falafel restaurants across California, and I was named as having the best, which was an enormous honor. At the same time, I had many customers who were health food store managers, and, recognizing the healthy nature of the cuisine, they began encouraging me to provide retail items to their consumers. I loved the idea of providing the larger population with healthy alternatives like hummus (as an alternative to dairy dips), began taking steps to make it happen (which eventually lead to one production facility), and officially formed Cedarlane in 1981. The rest is history. 

LM: What was your favorite part about starting Cedarlane? How did you think of the concept and what/who was your inspiration?

RA: I grew up in a little village in Lebanon, the son of a farmer, surrounded by nature and ample fields where we grew all kinds of vegetables, fruits, and grains. Some we consumed, others we dried, pickled or cooked and canned for the winter foods. We saw many sunrises in the fields, and many sunsets plowing and planting, cultivating and developing the love of Mother Nature that provided our survival. This lifestyle -- and the clean way of healthy living -- has always been ingrained in me. But when I moved to the U.S., I did not find any resemblance to it on the shelves of its grocery stores. Consequently, all these emotions started as a dream, and now after 44 years sustaining this sentiment, it became a reality.

LM: Tell us about your design/aesthetic and branding.

RA: From its inception, Cedarlane has always been a health food company, and one of the companies that were among the first in the burgeoning health food movement in the U.S. in the late 1970's and early 1980's that's now known as "clean label," natural and organic. In the beginning, our branding had the influence of hippie culture and a closeness to nature, and our artwork reflected natural elements and colors. In the 1990's, when natural and organic foods started to enter mainstream grocers, we evolved into an Art Deco-inspired style with structural colors. In the 2000's, we shifted focus to really emphasize the food you find when you open a Cedarlane box, with photography of mouthwatering, plated items. Now, with the increased popularity of clean label foods and corresponding "clean artwork," we're focusing more on simplicity and icons that clearly state nutritional values for health-conscious consumers. 

LM: Talk to us a little bit about why you think Cedarlane has been so successful. What was the turning point for you when you knew, this is it?

RA: We at Cedarlane consider ourselves to be trendsetters and fearless in the introduction of new concepts that have never been tried before. Some concepts have been successful, and some have failed -- but the spirit of innovation, our creativity has never faded. Even after decades in the food industry, I continue to push myself to solve industry gaps and make an impact in multiple areas. Realizing that being unique and doing things well and differently not only differentiated us from others but also contributed to our success, was a major tipping point. I always try to think big picture and remember that not one path, but several, can mark the journey for success. 

LM: How can emerging brands in the space be successful?

RA: Plenty of Wall Street capital invaded our industry, and many companies made compelling sales pitches promising placement on grocery store shelves. But it was all -- and often still is -- driven by numbers, lacking vision and soul. Since founding Cedarlane, we've witnessed many companies that came in with a big bang, a big buzz, and then disappeared. We've remained a family business with no board or partners -- just continued excitement about what we do and collaborative creativity. I'd encourage emerging brands to think about the structure of their companies and how they want to grow, and never lose the vision or soul that inspired their start.

LM: What is your take on the future of Cedarlane? What's next?

RA: We were pioneers in the 1980's, and we're eager once again to lead the pack and drive the industry. During the last few years, we've assessed what we need to do in order to keep leading the way, and the company has taken the necessary internal steps to build the infrastructure to support producing more products that stay true to our commitment to natural and clean ingredients. That's included expanding and updating our existing facilities, and the construction of a brand new facility, which meets the needs of all areas of retail and food service. We've also introduced HPP technology (an innovative new natural, cold pasteurization technique) to our arsenal that allows us to sell all our fresh, clean foods nationally and internationally free of preservatives. 

And of course, new products made with only the best, wholesome ingredients. We just launched brand new plant-based items (including Ranchero Tofu Scramble and Butternut Squash Pumpkin Mac & Cheeze, that are currently available at Sprouts nationwide) and are continuing to develop new recipes and products that will provide our customers with even more easy, convenient, and clean, food options.

Sounds like a winning recipe to me.

Published on: Oct 9, 2018
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