The Man Bringing Egypt's Street Eats to NYC
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
One man says yes: Chris Khalifa is opening the first American location of Zooba in the high-stakes Manhattan restaurant scene.
By Dene Mullen
Before Chris Khalifa could get his restaurant idea off the ground, he had to negotiate the small matter of Cairo’s Arab Spring. The year was 2011, and the Egyptian-American entrepreneur was trying to put the finishing touches on Zooba, the fast-casual restaurant concept he’d conceived of in response to the street food craze sweeping the world.
“We have a great culture of food; we have incredibly tasty food,” Khalifa says while sitting in Zooba’s brightly colored Cairo headquarters. “But no one had really tried to innovate with it. No one had tried to create a brand with it. No one had tried pushing the boundaries of how it’s consumed.”
One revolution, eight years and six Cairo outlets later, Khalifa and his team are prepping for their biggest opening yet: New York City, this summer.
The move into restaurants was a sea change for Khalifa, 35, who grew up in Cairo with an American mother and Egyptian father and was educated at Cairo American College, the country’s most prestigious school. He professes no special affinity for food in his formative years and instead remembers pestering his mother with ideas for establishing soccer tournaments and other entrepreneurial pursuits. After studying economics at Boston University, Khalifa was a few years into a banking career in Egypt when he identified a gap in Cairo’s culinary market that he felt he could exploit.
Cairenes — aka Cairo residents — who ordered into the office or went out to eat were mainly consuming Western cuisine. Khalifa wondered why Egyptian classics couldn’t be seen in the same light and sold at the same price point as a penne arrabiata or a hamburger.
Every customer we have is convinced that their mother makes our food better.
With his mission set, Khalifa just needed a chef who was capable of taking Egyptian street food to the next level.
“Chris is the best salesman I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Moustafa El Refaey, Zooba’s head chef and co-founder, who left his job at one of Cairo’s most prestigious restaurants to join what was then a nonexistent company. As the conversations progressed, his wife was less enthused, asking El Refaey: “Are you crazy? You want to leave an international company to open a ful and falafel shack?” So El Refaey took her to a half-hour meeting with Khalifa. The chef recalls his wife’s response on the way home: “This is the best opportunity you’ll have in your life!”
Khalifa and El Refaey opened their first branch in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek in March 2012. Khalifa admits they “got everything wrong” at first, but people appreciated a homegrown concept in a world of Western franchises. “That gave us the ability to learn in a way that we wouldn’t if we opened in, say, London or New York, where we would’ve been eaten alive. There was a sense of pride that came with Zooba,” he says.
Khalifa hopes to channel such goodwill when Zooba expands overseas this year. He’s signed deals in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but it’s the U.S. outlet in Manhattan’s fashionable NoLita (North of Little Italy) neighborhood that really captures the imagination. Zooba will not be the first Egyptian restaurant in New York, but it looks set to be the most authentic — even The New York Times’ review of Tut’s Hub, considered by many to be the city’s best Egyptian restaurant, notes that “mysteriously, much of the menu is devoted to American comforts, inviting you to create your own salad, pizza or pasta.”
Zooba’s approach will not involve appealing to Western palates and tastes, Khalifa insists. “We’re no experts in PR or marketing … but we are good at understanding our identity and what we stand for.” Rather than adjusting his menu for U.S. eaters, Khalifa says “we’re staying authentic.”
It means New York’s culinary adventurers will encounter ful, the aromatic stewed fava beans that constitute Egypt’s key street food staple, and koshari, a hearty texture orgasm of rice, macaroni, noodles, lentils and chickpeas topped with crispy onions, spicy tomato sauce and garlic vinegar. There will also be the Egyptian variant of falafel, known as ta’ameya.
“To Americans, falafel is falafel is falafel. Most people don’t even know there are regional variations, and I think, hands down, that Egyptians do the best falafel,” says Zora O’Neill, travel writer and author of All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World. “It’s made with fava beans instead of chickpeas and includes fresh herbs that make all the difference.”
Restaurant lovers are increasingly eschewing the watered-down, bastardized versions of cuisine they were often presented in the past. Nowadays, the roving hordes of tick-the-box foodies want obscure offerings and regional recipes, thank you very much.
“I think that ‘authenticity’ is a loaded word in food, but what people are responding to now is restaurants that are doing a niche thing and doing it super well,” says O’Neill, a longtime New York resident. “I also think the fast-casual space is a really smart angle to go in on. In the past in New York, there was this really unfortunate thing where all these great world cuisines got lumped in as a cheap and greasy adventure to have in the outer boroughs. That’s gradually changing.” The challenge for Zooba, she adds, “is just getting noticed at all” in a hypercompetitive market, with 26,000 restaurants across the five boroughs.
Khalifa says that much of the reason for choosing New York was to tap into this increasingly experimental consumer base — although offering an intriguing cuisine and placing authenticity above all else is only half the battle. “The food’s important, but we’ve been serving this food in Egypt, where every customer we have is convinced that their mother makes our food better,” he says with a smile. “Which means we’re in the business of providing an experience.”
Nailing down everything from the service to the temperature of the restaurant has been much easier since Khalifa moved to New York in August 2017 for fundraising and research purposes. Having secured $4 million in funding, the team is moving into the final stages before the big opening. Dressed casually in jeans and a pinstriped bomber jacket, Khalifa talks with great confidence and, blissfully, almost never veers into the “Google speak” so beloved of contemporary entrepreneurs. He is acutely aware that the next step is his company’s most ambitious, and most difficult, yet.
“We could build a lot of shareholder value by opening around the Middle East with much less competition. Why go to the toughest place on Earth to open?” he says with a laugh. But there’s romance in imagining a Zooba sign at the Spring Street subway exit, or someone striding through Soho with his hawawshi (a pita stuffed with mincemeat).
“The dream has always been that we want to export this to the world,” Khalifa says. “We want to be the first brand that can say, ‘Y’know what? Egyptian food is as good as any other, and it can be successful in a city where it’s very hard to be successful.’”
Read more: This Malaysian island has the street food other street food aspires to be.
- Dene Mullen, OZY AuthorContact Dene Mullen