Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Romeo must live

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian visits Sharei Masr, an evening fast-food park with an intriguing variety of food bikes 

It was one of those Saturday nights when you could finally feel the change of season in Cairo from summer to autumn. There was no humidity, an ideal temperature and enough of a breeze to go out and discover the three-month-old street known as “Sharei Masr”, or Egypt Street. 

Located on Ankara Street in the Nozha district near Cairo International Airport, Sharei Masr, one km long and 15 metres wide, is a project dedicated to giving opportunities to young people in Greater Cairo. 

Romeo must live

It was inaugurated by Cairo Governor Atef Abdel-Hamid in August and helps provide decent work for young people and their families. The Cairo governorate is studying replicating the project in other areas of Greater Cairo. 

The street smells of food, and my appetite is always showing up to play, I never lose it. Arriving there one can immediately feel the warmth. There are bikes, colourful benches and tables, and even garbage bins to special designs. Everything seemed happy. All the young people with food bikes seemed to have a successful story to tell and a hopeful future ahead of them.

Romeo must live

It all started when a video clip of Yasmine Rahim, the owner of a burger bike, and her friend Shaimaa went viral on social media nearly six months ago and gained the interest and sympathy of millions. The clip showed officials in the Nozha neighbourhood removing Yasmine’s bike from the street, claiming that she did not have a licence. 

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi then mentioned the incident during the third round of the National Youth Conference (NYC) held in Ismailia last April and called for a solution to be found for Yasmine and her colleagues with similar mobile carts or bikes. They should be given temporary licences to encourage small businesses, he said. 

Romeo must live

“I never expected the president to mention my case,” Yasmine told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Like many other young people, I am suffering as a result of the country’s economic condition, notably with regard to unemployment. Often our voices do not reach the officials and we end up disappointed. But when I heard the president’s words and actions were taken to make sure that they came true, I said to myself there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Yasmine, 31, studied business administration at the Arab Academy in Cairo and then left to make a living. “I wanted to make money, so I worked in advertising for a period after which I worked in a tourist company. But I got bored with the office work and finally thought of creating my own food business,” she said.

Yasmine’s Burger Station is the first food truck you meet at the main entrance of the project. It cost her LE37,000 to build and design the truck. She then spent four months with her LE6,000 burger bike standing in the street until she posted her clip in April. 

She pays LE2,000 in salary to the girl helping her make and serve the sandwiches. “I also give her a daily meal and commissions every Thursday and Friday when sales reach the maximum at the weekend,” she adds. Yasmine used to have a kitchen for food preparation, “but since the new project opened I come around 4pm for preparation at my station as the place opens at 6pm.” 

She sells around 150 sandwiches per day at weekends, and Burger Station also serves hot dogs and kofta. At weekends the station’s menu becomes more elaborate with hawawshi, chicken burgers and shish tawouk servings. A regular cheeseburger at Yasmine’s costs LE35, a double is LE60, while kofta and hot dogs are LE25. 

I had a cheeseburger sandwich that was quite large in size and also delicious and light, and went to sit with a family who came from Feisal district near the Pyramids. “This is our second visit here. We prefer dining at Sharei Masr as it is cheaper and the meat is fresh and baladi,” said Mohamed who owns a jewellery shop in Sharm El-Sheikh and was in Cairo for the weekend. 

His wife Shaimaa, 31, served me some pickles. “The only thing they don’t sell here is pickles, so we bring our own to add enjoyment to our meal,” she said. It is amazing how Egyptians always want to add colour, taste and enjoyment to everything they do in their lives, I said to myself. 

Romeo must live

NEXT STOP: Safaa studied computing and now works in a translation office in the mornings. “I finish work at 5pm, and then I come here to work until midnight. I am not allowed to take weekends off. I love my work here, as Reem is a very nice and generous person I enjoy working with,” said Safaa of her work at the mobile restaurant Mr Puffz. 

The menu includes a variety of burgers, chicken fillet, shish tawouk, tandoori chicken and kofta gamalat that’s like regular kofta. Some of the food at Mr Puffz is wrapped in special Iraqi bread, and the company has existed since 2013. 

“Our specialty is the puff, a Japanese cake that resembles an eclair. We make them either with chocolate, vanilla or mango cream custard,” Reem Ghoneim, operations manager of Mr Puffz who shares the business with her brother, told the Weekly

Ghoneim uses only fresh food items in her handmade products. “I start work around 4pm, whereas most people at Sharei Masr come at 6. My morning kitchen preparations start at 7am. I also have another branch in this area,” she said. She is a 2008 graduate of the Faculty of Mass Communication at Ain Shams University and also holds a Masters degree in marketing. 

By this time, I was craving for something sweet so I tried the specialty, the vanilla cream puff, as suggested by Reem. I felt the freshness of the vanilla cream inside the dough and the unique taste. I was still quite hungry even though I had had that big burger sandwich. I ordered another puff from Reem, this time with strawberry cream. The dough was exceptionally fresh. The bigger puff costs LE25, while the chocolate one costs LE30. 

Romeo must live

A few metres away there was a stage for Karaoke nights and street talents at weekends. People were having fun trying to perform songs with the help of the Karaoke DJ. 

Another station that many people seemed to be attracted to, especially children, was a blue bike called Ahwa Aal-Mashi, or coffee on the go, which also serves juice shakes. Ibrahim Hassan, owner of the project, is a 21-year-old man who is a student of mass communication at the Nozha Academy and a football player. 

“I attend lectures at the academy three times a week and practise my favourite sport, football, at the Tayaran Club every day,” said “Hima”, as his colleagues call him. Hima says his bike was parked just outside the project at first, but then “everything became better after we entered Sharei Masr. We now have water and an electricity supply and all our comments are met with positive and speedy actions.” 

The owners of the bikes still have certain demands. As winter is approaching, they need to be protected from the cold and rain. “We asked that the area should be covered with tents in the winter for maximum protection,” Hima said, adding that he would like to see the management provide the place with large screens to entertain guests with football matches, for example. 

“Thursdays to Saturdays are the peak days for business. In summer, every day is a peak day,” Hima said. “We have customers from Maadi and Rehab. I usually like to be informed where my customers are coming from, so I always ask them,” he added. 

Ahwa Aal-Mashi’s menu has a special item: watermelon juice served inside a watermelon fruit that costs LE30, a child’s favourite. A cup of juice costs LE20. After you finish drinking your juice, you can also have your name engraved on the fruit itself for free. “Watermelon juice can be mixed with pineapple, mango, lemon, blueberry or kiwi juice served inside the empty fruit,” Hima said.

I ordered Turkish coffee with hazelnut prepared on charcoal. The coffee was quite light in colour, and sipping some I enjoyed its delicious taste. Hima pays his workers on a daily basis. “It depends on what I make each day, probably LE50 to LE70 per day per worker,” he said.

I was standing with a customer who was asking about the watermelon juice, and we both suggested that the idea could also work with pineapple or cantaloupe, thinking that a pineapple costs LE30 according to last year’s market prices.  “Today a pineapple costs LE80,” insisted Hima, who didn’t welcome our suggestions.

Romeo must live

The cooperation among the businesses renting space in the place is remarkable. They buy food from each other at reduced prices. “We not only offer discounts to each other, but we also guide our customers to other bikes that serve what we don’t,” said Safaa who had come to deliver a burger sandwich to one of the workers at the Munchies food bike. “We also borrow ingredients from each other, when we have shortages of certain items,” she said.

Mina Maher, 30, makes and serves sandwiches at Munchies. “We’re all friends here, and we cooperate,” he said.

According to Maher, applicants for business places at Sharei Masr should be aged under 31 and older than 21. They should be Cairo residents, and priority is given to residents of the neighbourhood. Applicants should not be government employees.

“The clients differ here. When we were serving food in the street, most of our clients were young people, but today we receive families from all classes, even well-known actors. TV presenters have come to see us to prepare stories for their programmes when the project was inaugurated,” Maher said. When I asked him why his bike had phone numbers printed on it, he said he had clients from 6 October City who called him to order their food. 

Each licence holder occupies a two-metre area, and all pay LE1,450 per month in rent except for booths whose renters pay LE2,000. Most of the food bikes at Sharei Masr were previously in the street just outside the project. People living in the neighbourhood used to submit complaints about them, saying that they did not have licences.  

Sharei Masr visitors also enjoy shopping for books, leather products and silver accessories. Jarrod is a booth that sells beautiful leather products in different colours, mainly handbags and purses. “We use genuine Egyptian leather. All our products are handmade in a workshop in Obour City,” said Ronal, the owner, who added that the administration had taken good care of the place.

 “They deal with us in a very respectful manner and all our demands are answered,” she said. She graduated from the Faculty of Commerce at Ain Shams University in 2010 and pays LE2,000 per month in rent.   

Romeo must live

ROMEO AND OREO: Romeo is another bike that serves burgers, tawouk, sausages, hawawshi and chicken liver. Ahmed Gad, a 2008 graduate of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management in Cairo, said the name was after a colleague Rami who had had the idea of starting a food bike. 

“Three of us share the project. After we graduated, each of us travelled to a different Arab country looking for a living. We came back with this idea to Egypt.” Ahmed said that applying for the project and getting a licence was quite easy. He added that any complaints were solved in no time. “The Administrative Control Authority and the Social Solidarity Ministry control the place and provide us with our needs when we ask. The place is also secure, and we don’t need storage areas outside,” Gad said.

Romeo serves its burgers in coloured buns, either green or red. “It’s just food colouring,” said Gad. A 150 gm burger costs LE30, and the 250 gm one costs LE50 with no side servings. 

While I was wandering in the area, I noticed the high-quality cleaning that goes on. A young man, Attia, was sweeping the ground. “I earn LE1,500 per month. I have to do my job well, and I am happy with it. The management checks everything,” he said. The area also has restrooms and a washing area with a basin. I found both to be quite clean. Attia left school after finishing grade 9.

Romeo must live

After spending three hours in Sharei Masr and even though it was after midnight, I still didn’t want to leave the place. It has a certain attraction. I was still craving something, perhaps a rich creamy drink mixed with ice cream. I decided to approach Abanob’s colourful Oreo Home bike I had noticed while wandering around. 

Faculty of Commerce at Cairo University graduate Abanob Samuel, 24, had been project manager for a mobile phone company WiFi system at Cairo Airport. “My work there was quite boring. I applied for a visa to open a food business in Dubai, but it didn’t work out, so I stayed in Egypt and started a business in the street.” Samuel said, adding that his mother and sister help him prepare his goods.  

Oreo Home serves all kinds of smoothies, including with chocolate, whipped cream, ice cream and red velvet mixtures with Oreo biscuits base. It also serves different kinds of brownies and cakes.

Standing at the cart, someone started to use Samuel’s stuff freely. Do it yourself is part of the offer at Oreo Home, and you can prepare your own drink at a reduced price. Neighbours with bikes enjoy special prices too. I was invited to prepare my own Oreo drink, and at last I was satisfied.

Samuel is a very enthusiastic and creative young man. His future plans are to travel abroad and come back with new beverage ideas, all prepared with biscuits. “The idea of food bikes is more developed outside Egypt, so I need to find new and more creative items,” Samuel said. He calls his three friends to help him with his business while he is absent, as he does not believe in employing strangers. “I prefer my close friends to manage my bike while I am away. I pay them between LE50 and LE70 per day, depending on age and experience.”

Oreo Home prepares birthday cakes too by order. “I prepare a large-size brownie cake filled with blueberries, raspberries, whipped cream and ice cream and sell it for LE300. The pick-up destination is Sharei Masr. There is another branch of Oreo Home in the Shubra district,” he said. 

It was almost 1am when I decided to depart, by which time there was no one left except Hima, his brother and Samuel with a few more customers. They started to talk and joke with sarcasm and humour. We laughed. They requested that I take photographs of them “to show our love and respect for each other”, they said, laughing. 

“We will be waiting for your next visit with your family,” Samuel farewelled me with a smile.

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