The Rise of Gourmet Street Food in Cairo

By Rehab Saad

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Food carts have been around for a very long time, making their first appearance as a chuck wagon in 1866 in the United States that sold kitchenware, easily preserved food and medical supplies. Later, more mobile canteens were established in the 1950s, introducing ice cream as the first street food business accompanied with recorded jingles and colorful signs. This then sparked the trend that grew to include large trucks selling tacos, burgers, pizzas and different native food.

Food trucks were a great business, not only because it catered to the needs of ‘on the go’ customers, but also because it was less costly than a restaurant, and now represents a $1.2 billion industry. Nowadays, with social media, it has become easier to track food trucks’ locations. This trend grew throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and the Middle East where local authorities then issued a series of special regulations to legalize this emerging food business.

The mobile food business was not new to Egypt as our modern food trucks stem from some traditions. The invention of pushcarts goes back to the fifties where it used to serve poor people and urban workers’ popular food like fava beans, falafel, liver and kushari at cheap prices.

Amidst the economic conditions in Egypt and the limited job opportunities, some youth began taking matters into their own hands by enhancing the food cart idea. During the last couple of years, street food popularity rocketed all over, making appearances in El Gouna, the North Coast as well as in Cairo and Alexandria.

We decided to talk to some of these food cart owners to learn more about their projects, motivations and challenges.

Shocks

“Shocks” is a burger caravan located in New Cairo’s Waterway. “The caravan’s name is derived from my husband’s nickname ‘Shok’,” explained Maha Moustafa, a mother of three and co-owner of the truck along with her husband, Ahmed Shawky. Moustafa employed 15 men for operations after providing them with the necessary training and ensuring that they all had health certificates.

Shawky was an accountant in Abu Dhabi for 14 years, meanwhile Moustafa was working in a nursery and decided to come back to Egypt to start a food cart project, supported financially by her husband. “I really wanted to come back to start this project here, and although I love kids, I decided against opening a nursery in Egypt as it is very costly,” she said. “I graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in 2002 majoring in animation, which was unfortunately inconvenient as an occupation as it would take a lot of time away from my kids,” she adds.

Her brother, who also worked as an engineer in a private company, fully supported her in managing the project, dividing the working hours amongst themselves. Purchasing the car, getting the license and sorting out all the necessary documentation took her a year and a half to finalize, officially opening up her business to the public around a month ago.

“I do not mind paying large sums of money for the sake of placing my truck at a location like Waterway,” Moustafa explained. In spite of the location’s cost, her prices are very reasonable compared to other restaurants. “My main target is to serve people with food that I feel is safe to provide to my own kids. I buy all the ingredients, like minced meat, bread, chicken and hot dogs from sources I know personally, and I change the cooking oil regularly as per OHS regulations. Pepsi, water and ice cream fridges are cleaned daily,” she adds. “I am looking forward to making ‘Shocks’ a brand name recognized across Egypt.”

Sushi Bike 

Mark Abdel Shehid and Andrew el Dairy, owners of the Sushi Bike in front of El Rehab City, graduated from the German University in Cairo and had already begun working in the private sector before deciding it was not as fulfilling as starting their own business. Abdel Shehid, a sushi lover, came up with the idea of a mobile bike to serve sushi at reasonable costs, however, his partner was worried that the project would not be successful.

“We began our marketing campaign through social media, and although initially most people found the idea of serving sushi on a bike strange, we received a lot of positive reviews shortly after, which supported and motivated us to keep going. After receiving a lot of orders, we added a delivery service to our business,” Abdel Shehid explained.

Their sushi is freshly made on a daily basis by professional chefs in a nearby flat. “We have three chefs, two assistants and two operating staff,” he said. The two working on the bike are post-graduates who decided to support themselves financially to complete their studies. “All the staff including Andrew and myself have received health certificates, however, we are facing many issues when it comes to getting a license. We have approached the municipality and the local council, but all our endeavors failed, and so we are hoping to soon receive support from the government to help us overcome these obstacles and facilitate the procedures,” concluded Abdel Shehid.

Beatles Grill 

Beatles Grill in Egypt is a highly innovative food cart created by Ahmed Hisham, a graduate of computer science. As Hisham was a member of the National Party, he was highly affected by the January revolution when all the employees were given an open vacation. With the scarcity of job opportunities that offer fair salaries, Hisham was obliged to stay home for a long period of time.

“I am a VW Beatle lover who is fascinated with modifying cars, and so in 2012, I decided to modify my Beatle by turning it into a cabriolet. However, after being disappointed with the results, I came up with the idea of making it into a grill. I drew a sketch of the equipment I would use, and after finalizing the dimensions, I went to a specialized metal shop and bought grills similar to those used in restaurants,” he explained. “Then I started to manufacture each piece myself and painted the car. After finishing the final stages, I decided to serve homemade sausages, chicken, burgers and potatoes.”

Hisham also opened a Beatles Grill restaurant in Mega Mall in New Cairo, and he hopes to legalize his mobile food Beatles car and expand it across Egypt.

Mocha Hot Drinks

In Almaza, Helopolis, you can find a Jeep Cherokee with the name “Mocha Hot Drinks”. Nour el-Din Shaaban, one of the partners in the project, is a 21-year-old law student. “I have two other partners, Ahmed, the original owner of the car, and Moataz,” explained Shaaban. “Both Moataz and Ahmed were working in the public sector, however, due to low salaries, we decided to transfer this car into an immobile kiosk café. We are open 24-hours, each one of us with his own shift,” he resumed.

“There are a lot of people who need a cup of coffee on the go, as it is sometimes difficult and time-consuming to park in front of coffee shops and restaurants. Our prices are also reasonable compared to other places,” explained Shaaban. “It was easy to get the license, as we bought it from the kiosk placed in the same location.”

Shaaban wishes that one day they would be able to own more than one Jeep café car in various locations.

Family Food

A Renault car stationed in front of El Rehab City is owned by Hany Mostafa; founder of “Family Food”. Mostafa is a lawyer who started this project four months ago. “I was in need of financial support besides my profession as it was not enough income to cover my family’s expenses,” explained Mostafa. According to him, his main target is to make homemade food that is safe, clean and healthy. “The maximum cost of a meal is 38 EGP,” declared Mostafa.

Everyday, he creates a new menu that he sends to a WhatsApp group gathering together his clients, where meals are usually prepared within three hours by Mostafa’s relatives. “The meals offered include lasagna, jack potatoes, chicken, fish, oriental and Mexican food and desserts. We also custom-make food for clients upon request.” He added, “I dream of organizing a huge event serving international cuisine.”

With the rise of the food carts business in Egypt, this industry will soon represent a large percentage of the economy, but unfortunately, the lack of regulations is an obstacle that hinders its growth.

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