When you walk into this little restaurant on the main street in Zamalek district, you can’t help it but notice its colorful front, which reveals a transparent second floor kitchen, overseeing the street, with 5 big letters saying “Zooba.” The good smell of traditional Egyptian food combined with the untraditional artistry of the place welcomes you to one of Cairo’s most impressive culinary ideas.
“Zooba” is an Egyptian restaurant that came to life based on a simple idea: reviving the traditional in an untraditional way. Founder Chris Khalifa, who previously worked as banker for over six years, switched careers to follow his passion for food. “The idea is to take local street cuisine, and present it with culinary passion and high quality ingredients,” he explains.
Zooba offers a wide range of traditional Egyptian food, from foul and taamia, to koshari and hawawshi. In addition, the restaurant freshly prepares Egyptian dips, salads, pickles, bakery items and a wide variety of desserts and juices, for reasonable prices; your average check might range between 25 and 50LE ($4-8).
But here comes the part where Zooba really stands out: it offers new combinations of each and every element on the menu, so you can easily find foul with a completely original mixture of spices and vegetables, baladi bread made with beetroots or spinach, or cheese dip flavored with cumin and orange. Don’t forget the fresh strawberry juice with basil, or the koshari- I thought it was especially outstanding, and I’ve tried a lot of kosharis.
Khalifa has been working on the concept since before the revolution. In an unstable political context last year, difficulties finding a good location put the idea on hold until end of 2011. But in March 2012, he launched in full force. “After the revolution, things started to get back to normal,” Khalifa says. “People still go out to eat, and there are still 80 million people in Egypt who need necessities, like good food.”
Zooba is a self-funded project, and he intends to keep it that way thanks to his full time job. “There is no such thing as a part-time entrepreneur, you are either an entrepreneur or an investor,” says Khalifa. To run daily food operations, he brought in Moustafa Elrefaey as his executive chef and partner.
In fact, everybody working at Zooba is a trained chef, which is uncommon given that Egypt lacks a culinary academy. However, in early 2012 a new academy headed by the Egyptian Chefs Association and Egyptian Ministry of Tourism graduated its first class, from which Khalifa and Elrefaey recruited their team. They trained their new chefs and offered them a share of the restaurant’s profits to encourage a hands-on approach to building Zooba; the restaurant considers its chefs its greatest asset.
To launch the restaurant, Khalifa reached out to customers through social media. He didn’t resort to advertising, as he considered the banner bearing Zooba’s name during construction to be a billboard itself, given its prime location. “Zamalek is a great area for brands, kind of like Soho in New York,” he says. He also depends on reviews of Zooba by writers and food critics, which thus far have been positive.
Other stores are opening up with similar concepts of reimagining traditional Egyptian food, like Cairo Kitchen, which opened a couple of weeks after Zooba. You for Khalifa, this encourages the market to embrace the concept and broadens his customer base.
“Starting up a company is not the easiest thing in the world in Egypt. The country is not quite entrepreneur friendly,” he says, recounting his challenges of securing a license, and the broader lack of access to funding in Egypt. Yet the lack of infrastructure pushes entrepreneurs to work hard for what they have, he says, convinced of the endless opportunities in Egypt.
Zooba’s next steps will be expanding in Cairo and then going international, to fill a market gap, Khalifa explains. “There is no recognition of Egyptian food outside of Egypt.”
Indeed, Zooba generates a nostalgic feeling for all things Egyptian, beginning with the layout, products, service, and colors. As it aims high, it triggers a new optimism that overrides old clichés about the culture.