Twenty-five years ago, Rachid Akiki remembers returning home from school in Lebanon, throwing himself on his grandmother’s couch and binge-watching “Back To The Future.” He stared at the screen, amazed by the concept of traveling through time as he gobbled down fresh za’atar manoushe, a Middle Eastern flatbread covered with thyme, olive oil, sumac and a pinch of salt.
His grandmother Marie had prepared it. A quarter century later, he can still taste it.
“Cooking is about sharing something made with love, and my grandmother was always cooking with love and passion,” Akiki reminisces. “You could taste it, feel it and remember it.”
From his boyhood in Beirut, Akiki dreamed of seeing the world and sharing his culture. He studied nuclear medicine, earned an MBA, built a successful medical consulting business and traveled the world. But never in a million years did he see himself with a food truck that is making the Lebanese flatbread his grandmother fed him so many years ago. His journey has been a long and bumpy one, as he has attempted to bridge two cultures that are a world apart.
Akiki was born and raised in Beirut. His grandfather struggled with a gambling addiction, which led to the loss of his family home. To make ends meet, his parents moved into his paternal grandmother’s place, where he was raised until he turned 16. His father worked in the army, earning $20 a month, while his mother was a bank employee bringing in less than $200 a year.
“I was basically raised by my grandmother,” Akiki said with a nostalgic smile, “And you know, your grandmother cooks amazing food.”
At first, he dreamed of becoming a pilot in the army. He wanted to travel on fast airplanes and see what existed outside of Beirut.
However, upon applying to military school, Akiki realized he was color blind, automatically disqualifying him from service. Although Akiki was disheartened, he decided to study physics at the American University of Beirut, where he earned his bachelors of science in 2010.
“I really wanted to understand time,” Akiki said. “The relativity of time to our lives and why we die, why we live.”
At age 21, upon completing his bachelor’s degree, Akiki decided it was imperative to leave Lebanon to secure a better future. He applied to the Avalon University School of Medicine, where he earned his medical degree in 2014.
Two years later, he graduated from Boston University with a master’s degree in medical imaging. He went on to a fellowship specializing in nuclear medicine at Harvard University, which he completed in 2018.
Akiki found himself in a tough situation where he needed to extend his visa, so he opted to pursue an MBA from the Hult International School of Business in Boston.
“I needed to learn the formal business skills like accounting and finance,” Akiki said.
After earning his MBA in 2019, Akiki moved to Miami and started his own pharma consulting company, “Bookzdoctor”.
“I ended up moving to Miami because of the weather,” Akiki jokingly remarked, “ the nice sun and the nice pay.”
But once COVID hit, business was slow. So he rebranded into a company that helps connect patients with doctors online. With his new business venture, he was able to work from anywhere and do business with over 6,000 doctors and 200 patients weekly.
“I was helping a lot of people,” he commented. “But I was still looking for my passion project.”
But Akiki felt there was something missing from his life in Miami, something that resided with his identity.
In December of 2018 his grandmother died and he was not able to go to her funeral because of immigration restrictions.
This feeling of cultural void paired with the death of his grandmother prompted Akiki to start Thyme Machine, a Lebanese flatbread food truck business. So in December of 2022, Akiki bought a used truck for $1000 with about 700,000 miles on it and invested all of his savings into fixing it up. The new business has now been open for over three months.
Thyme Machine is known for serving different kinds of manoushe.
From his bestseller Za’atar and labneh manoushe to his lahm baajin, a mix of lamb and beef smothered in Middle Eastern spices and olive oil on a soft flat bread, Thyme Machine has been serving authentic Lebanese street food since the day it opened.
“We don’t just sell food,” Akiki says, “We’re here to show that simplicity and authenticity wins. We’re here to show that the culture that I was raised with still exists.”
Akiki predicts the business will break even within the next month or two. He acknowledges losing some money, but is optimistic.
“I think we’ve been doing way better than any other business that starts in terms of losses, we haven’t lost a lot,” Akiki said.
With a food concept like manoushe, the key is to get customers to see what it looks and tastes like through samples and great social media presence.
“Although it’s very different, the customers love the manoushe because it tastes fresh, it’s healthy and light on the stomach,” Akiki’s first business partner, Tracy Nasser said.
Akiki, eager to transfer this authentic experience to the west, traveled three times to Lebanon to ensure the bread tasted exactly like home. He had to transport Saj, a heavy metal griddle used to make thin crispy flatbread, all the way to Miami.
“Sometimes we have to explain to them that it is similar to pizza so we get them to know what it is,” Akiki said. “but once they try it, they know it’s different ”
Although Akiki settled in the United States, Lebanon will always have a place in his heart. In an effort to support Lebanon, Akiki sourced most of his ingredients from local farmers in Lebanon. Such as the za’atar, labneh and cheese.
The worsening economy and unemployment impacted Akiki’s family in Lebanon and he felt responsible to help them overseas.
“My brother gets paid $80 a month and he has children to take care of,” Akiki said.
Nevertheless, Akiki says he can’t be away from Lebanon for too long. Even though most of his friends immigrated, he still has a feeling of belonging to Beirut and visits at least three times a year.
“Even if you have been here for over 10 years, your identity stays with you,” Akiki said. “In the states, it’s very easy to lose your identity but it’s one of the biggest values you bring for this country.”
In the future, Akiki plans to expand Thyme Machine into a franchise, with his prospects set on New York and Boston.
“I want to make sure that the concept, the authenticity, the simplicity, goes a long way,” he said.