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Say cheese! Syrian refugee to take halloumi startup to Gulf

Razan Al Sous, founder of Yorkshire Dama Cheese, second from right, shows the Princess Royal her wares Yorkshire Dama Cheese
Razan Al Sous, founder of Yorkshire Dama Cheese, second from right, shows the Princess Royal her wares
  • Yorkshire Dama Cheese started with £2,500 loan
  • Achieved sales of £300,000 in 2022
  • UK food and drink exports worth £877 million last year

A Syrian refugee who moved to the UK and set up a halloumi cheese company is looking to the Gulf as one of her first markets for international expansion.

“We are always looking for investment because we know that we’ve got high demand in the UK,” Razan Al Sous, founder of Yorkshire Dama Cheese, told AGBI.

“With or without investment, we keep going. I chose the Middle East for my first global expansion because I am from the region, I understand the mentality, the market and how Dubai has become the gateway to the world.”

Al Sous was in Dubai as part of a delegation organised by the UK’s Department for Trade and Industry attending the Gulfood exhibition last month, where meetings were arranged with supermarkets and potential investors.

She escaped war-torn Syria in 2012 and set up her halloumi cheese company in the UK in 2014, where it has seen her mix with celebrity chefs and afforded a royal seal of approval.

“When we moved it was a really bad time. We almost lost everything in Syria,” Al Sous said.

“But what I loved in the UK, the first thing you see when you arrive from Syria is the green fields. I’d never seen so many cows in my life.”

A microbiologist by trade, she was inspired when she visited her local supermarket in Yorkshire.

“I wanted to grab some halloumi for breakfast and I couldn’t find any on the shelves. When I asked, they said it’s a seasonal product. That surprised me.”

Halloumi originates from the Middle East as a Bedouin cheese made from ewes and goats’ milk.

Yorkshire Dama halloumi cheeseYorkshire Dama Cheese
Al Sous achieved sales of £300,000 last year. Picture: Yorkshire Dama Cheese

With an initial loan of £2,500 ($2,995) and a redesigned ice-cream maker, the company last year recorded a turnover of £300,000.

However, she ran into a stumbling block early on when UK authorities ordered her to change the company’s name, as it could not use the trademarked word “halloumi”.

“At this point I was just at the very beginning,” Al Sous said. “I had two options: either to stop the business, or to accept the challenge.

“The English language helped me because a lot of mums when they stopped at my stall in the market, they used to explain to their children who didn’t know what halloumi was and say it was the squeaky cheese.”

Soon after, Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese was born under the umbrella of Yorkshire Dama Cheese.

As well as the original version, Al Sous has developed chilli, mint and rosemary varieties. In a nod to the Middle East, there are also naboulsi and zataar ones.

The company has won 40 awards while Al Sous has shared her success with celebrity chefs including James Martin, Nadiya Hussein and the popular UK duo, the Hairy Bikers.

She has also had a royal endorsement. “By the end of 2016 the royal office heard about our story and the Princess Royal became very interested and she wanted to come and visit us.”

In 2022 British food and drink exports to GCC markets were £877 million, compared to £624.5 million in 2021, an increase of 40.4 percent, according to the UK Overseas Trade in Goods Statistics: December 2022

Whisky, cereal and chocolate continued to be sub-sectors of strength, accounting for approximately 48 percent of total food and drink exports to the GCC in 2022.

Yorkshire Dama Cheese was part of the largest British contingent to appear at Gulfood, with 200 companies showcasing their wares. 

UK trade commissioner for the Middle East, Simon Penney, said: “The quality, innovation and provenance of British food and drink is unparalleled, and the demand for UK produce in the GCC continues to grow, opening up even more opportunities for our exporters.”