Seven years into his career as a banker, Christopher Khalifa went his way to launch his own enterprise. Amazed by a rich Egyptian street food culture, he decided his venture would aim at renovating, as well as upgrading, Egyptian street cuisine.
“The idea was very simply. We found a gap in the market for Egyptian street food,” said 34-year-old Khalifa. “No one was trying to create a brand around it. No one was trying to innovate with the ingredients, the quality of the ingredients, the type of recipes that this cuisine could be made of. [People consumed this type of food in] a very traditional way.”
Khalifa added that he was inspired by a global culinary trend.
“[I] started to see this trend [with street food] happening in the world,” said the Egyptian-American. “So many concepts [were] being developed with all types of world cuisine, [take the case of Mexican chipotle and burrito as an example], and I realized that we had a very deep culture of Egyptian street food.”
In March 2012, Khalifa opened Zooba’s first branch in the upper middle class neighborhood of Zamalek in western Cairo. The company’s name had been well thought-out.
“It is a slang term that everyone can relate to, something not too deep and as easy as the [concept of street food],” he said.
To get his venture off the ground, Khalifa invested EGP 1.6 million, the equivalent of nearly USD 230,000 then. He had relied on his personal savings, some loans as well as funds from two partners, including his mother and a friend.
“One of the things that attracted me to F&B (food and beverages) versus a huge heavy industry type of business is that you can do it with an amount of capital that is not obscene,” said Khalifa.
Developing an appetite for success
After Zooba’s first branch became successful, Khalifa initiated three rounds of capital. As of today, the company has 13 shareholders.
Zooba’s menu covers a vast array of Egyptian street’s most famous staples including fava beans, falafel, Koshari as well as meat-based sandwiches, such as hawawshi and Alexandrian beef liver.
Khalifa contended that Zooba cooks have been innovating many of these traditional staples by adding new ingredients. For example, they have revolutionized the stuffing of falafel by adding pickled lemon, red peppers as well as eggplants. They also seek to offer healthier versions of very traditional staples, such as the whole-wheat Koshari.
In all their recipes, Zooba cooks use “the best-quality” ingredients, said Khalifa, which require different pricing schemes for meals that Egyptians are used to find exceptionally cheap.
By using the best quality ingredients and innovating their food offerings, Khalifa said they were able to move away from a preconceived pricing notion for street food.
While the price of a large serving of Koshari, for example, would not exceed EGP 10 in a typical Egyptian eatery, Zooba’s version can cost almost three times as much, at EGP 27.
“Why did Egyptian street food have to be so cheap?” wondered Khalifa. “Who wrote the rule that Koshari had to be incredibly cheap with the cheapest possible ingredients? Why can’t we make the same foods [but] use the best quality ingredients?”
As of today, Zooba’s six branches have an annual turnover of EGP 30 million, the equivalent of USD 1.7 million. The company has no plans to branch out locally any further. Instead, the focus will be on global expansion for the next five years, said Khalifa. The company is expected to open a franchise in Saudi Arabia as well as a branch in New York City by the end of 2018.