When Latif Karim graduated from university, he was unable to find a job in either the public or private sector in Baghdad. Instead of worrying about unemployment, he and his friends decided to start their own business.
“We bought an old car and we painted it with bright colours and then we turned it into a mobile restaurant,” the young Baghdad local explains. Now Karim and his friend tour the city selling meals on street corners.
“We cook easy dishes, things like falafel, kibbeh and soup, that are also inexpensive,” Karim says. “Our prices are affordable and the dishes are popular.”
And Karim’s roving food truck is not the only one. Over the past year or so, mobile takeaway bars have become more popular in the Iraqi capital. Quite often one finds that the locals running the businesses are in a similar position to Karim – unemployed young people who have started selling food this way because it’s an affordable way to start their own business. It is highly likely that this is part of the reason why the food trucks have become so popular in Baghdad in such a short time.
The low cost of entry to the business was very appealing, agrees Salman al-Taher, who runs a mobile café selling sandwiches. “My friends helped me to raise enough money to start the business,” al-Taher says, noting that it shouldn’t cost more than about IQD10 million (around US$8,300) to start a business like his.
Obviously the food truck owners don’t have to pay rent either. And because of the size of the business there are not usually more than four locals employed by any one food truck.
In the wealthier suburbs of Baghdad, the food trucks tend to offer more Western-style meals, like hamburgers, hot dogs and steaks. Muntasir Abdul Hai runs one such food truck and he proudly tells NIQASH that his food truck is kept meticulously clean and that his customers are loyal to him because of this, and because of the standard of his dishes.
Mansour al-Jibouri is another of the enterprising young business owners. He started his food truck business several months ago when the luxury restaurant he used to work in, in one of Baghdad’s wealthier suburbs, closed its doors.
The prices there were relatively expensive and the restaurant didn’t get enough customers, al-Jibouri explains. Al-Jibouri told NIQASH he was very happy that he had work and that he was running his own business and was able to make money for his family. The only thing he didn’t like that much was the fact that his customers ate on the sidewalks and that this could annoy other pedestrians.
The provincial authorities in Baghdad are not opposed to the food trucks operating in the city. In fact, the council has a similar project in mind to try and help improve unemployment rates in the city.
The council plans to bring in some suitable vehicles and then sell them to young people who want to start such businesses, allowing them to pay the vehicles off in instalments, Ali Jassim, who heads the council’s Services Committee, told NIQASH.
Jassim also said that the Baghdad council doesn’t object to the mobile food trucks as long as they adhere to regulations on health and hygiene and don’t block any public spaces.
As for security – for example, the dangers posed by car bombs – this was not a concern for the young men running these restaurants. As Hamza Atwani, another of the mobile food truck owners, said, “when there is an explosion in a certain area I just leave it and go to another one right away”.
Speaking to customers at some of the food trucks in Baghdad, most of them really like the fact that they can more easily get their takeaway meals. One female customer said she liked the fact that the trucks were providing employment opportunities for the city’s youth but that she had some concerns about the fact that customers sometimes blocked the sidewalk and that the trucks sometimes left all their rubbish and a mess behind, and simply drove away.
Another customer, Ahmad Salem, really likes the food trucks. He says it’s “a civilized phenomenon” that’s been imported from Europe. He also thinks the fact that university graduates are starting the food trucks is part of the reason for the mobile takeaway bars’ success. The students are clean, well dressed and treat their customers well, he told NIQASH, and it’s a great solution for unemployed graduates. Additionally, he notes, owners of small businesses no longer need to go a long way to get their lunch or a cheap snack, which also saves them money.