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Ismail Kassem: Dancing & Doners

Big juicy doners and crazy big parties are two of our favourite things in the world. Imagine how excited we were to interview the entrepreneur who does BOTH…

After trying his first doner kebab at the tender age of 15, he spent a lifetime obsessing about the perfect doner. Then two years ago, he want ahead and started making them himself, quitting life in the corporate lane to start a chain of hugely successful kebab stores named after his son Adam. A die-hard clubber, the then went ahead and unleashed his passion for partying, launching the Back 2 Basics series of events which, in less than a year, have become some of the most popular on the CairoScene. This week’s Egyptian Entrepreneur is Ismail Fouad Kassem…

 

What do you like better, partying or doners?

Hahaha, I’d like to party and then go out for a doner.

Which idea came to you first, party organising or doners?

Well I started thinking about both around the same time – around a decade ago.  I’m a bit obsessive compulsive so an idea consumes me for a very long time before I actually do it. The first time I thought about doing a doner place was in Germany when I was 15 years-old. Then two years ago I stumbled across the perfect location, and just went for it.  Ten months later we opened the second branch of Adams.

In the last few years several Egyptian entrepreneurs have tried their hands at doners, but none have lasted in the market. What’s your secret?

My mum and dad are the chefs, the hands behind everything. When we first started I was still working in corporate. I had some meeting in Turkey and by coincidence bumped into an English speaking chef that made the best doner I had ever tried. Now how many Turkish doner chefs do you know of that speak English?  It was like fate. So I made a deal with him to train my team, and later my mum, dad and I all flew back out to learn directly from the best. That’s the secret, we learned this and did this for ourselves, we didn’t just get other people to make any old doners for us. The recipe we learned stays our secret and my mother hand makes a lot of the sauces and seasoning.

So the secret to your success are the secret ingredients?

We love this business, and we’ve put our hearts and souls into it. Passion - that’s the real secret! Everything, from step one until you sell the sandwich is so complex and that’s why I think a lot of people have tried and it didn’t work out.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to have minced meat standing vertically!

So you put passion on your sandwich?

Yes.

Managing a business with your parents must be tough…

My dad and I argue and clash a lot but in the end we agree on the best choice for the business, and for us as a family.

Where you into cooking before?

It’s always been one of my hobbies. I’ve lived alone for a long time in different parts of the world so you pick things up. My mum is a fantastic chef as well.

Who’s Adam?

He’s my son. He’s 4 now.

Does he like doner?

He loves it! But he doesn’t know yet it’s called Adam’s. For him it’s called The Meat House. I don’t want him to get an over inflated ego at this stage. I’m a psychology guy, I’m very aware of every action and its consequences so I don’t want him to feel that he’s the boss.

What’s going to happen that day when he’s at school and his friend is like, “This restaurant is called Adam’s!”  And then he’s going to be like, “No… it’s called The Meat House.” And then his friend will be like, “Noooo, idiot it’s called Adam’s….” Don’t you feel like you’ve knowingly put your child at risk of bullying by hiding such a vital piece of information from him?

Hahaha! He’s actually starting to get a lot of clues and he’s very smart so I think it won’t last for long. I think if he knows on his own then it’s time for him to handle it. But before that, I don’t want him to feel that everyone is working under his name and all “of this is mine”, I just want him to feel like a baby.

So what was the feedback like when you first opened Adam’s in Maadi?

Really positive, and I think that was for a number of reasons: We spent a lot of time renovating the property and preparing for the opening and we purposefully didn’t right anything on the holding, which caused a lot of buzz in the community. I was born and raised in Maadi so everyone was very excited and very supportive. We also found the perfect balance between a gourmet taste experience and an easygoing service experience. The word of mouth is what really drove business in the early days. We also photographed everyone who came into the store with their order, and tagged them on facebook, creating a community of people who had all plugged into the Adam’s experience. 

We often hear horror stories from F&B outlet owners of have having to deal with crooked cops making life difficult. Has that been your experience..

You give tips and rewards and things like that to keep things going. It’s known and it’s standard but it’s not something I see as significant at all.

How have recent events in the country and the subsequent curfew affected your business?

Well the brunt of our business is at night, both  the Maadi and Heliopolis locations are hangout hubs, so of course that’s been tough.  The Heliopolis branch is also right next to the Itihadeya Palace. So if Ikhwanies are there, they’re eating falafel and fries and if there’s a gathering of liberal parties we also get a lot of business. I have a lot of pictures of big demonstrations with Adam’s in the background and I’m going to release them when the time is right.

 Do you have that culture like in Europe where drunk people after a party come to get a doner?

We cater for them but we don’t really stay up so late. One of my next projects is to create an after-party / after-clubbing catering service. Wherever you are, you find us!

Speaking of parties, you’ve also made quite a name for yourself as a promoter with your Back 2 Basics event. How did that come about?

Again, it’s something that I’ve been wanting for a long long time. My actual passion for it came from me becoming just a normal clubber, growing up between here and London and going to every club and being there till the club closes.  It’s a bit cheesy but I love Ministry of Sound.

Where did the name Back 2 Basics come from?

It came from the meaning of the word itself, I didn’t want to be extravagant or anything I just wanted to take care of the basics of a good night out.

What are the three main elements of a great night out?

For me, it’s crowd, music and venue. Simple as that. If you get the right crowd, with the right music at the right venue then you have a fantastic party. That’s the core of Back 2 Basics.

How long would you say you’ve been a professional “partier?”

2000

2000 years…

2000 light years, I have my time capsule waiting outside. I mean since 2000 and it’s almost 2014 now so you can do the math.

Before you organized your own parties, what parties did you enjoy going to in Egypt?

Who doesn’t like Ganzoury’s parties? I love the guy and I love his work and to me he’s always been a guy that I learned a lot from. Electrum Records are always enjoyable. It’s a gamble in Egypt, you go out and you keep your fingers crossed that things will go well and you’ll enjoy it. Nacelle, for example, sometimes I go and I really love it and sometimes I kind of…

So who is your favorite Egyptian DJ?

Being that I’m not a Deep House guy, Ahmed Shawky and Mohamed Mohasseb. I picked for  next Back 2 Basics event. I love their music, the uplifting vocals, it’s very melodic. They trick you into listening to trance without knowing it’s trance, which is EXACTLY what we need.

What’s the one fatal mistake that every party organizer should avoid?

For me it’s just getting involved with the wrong people. You want the vibe to be positive and the crowd to behappy.

 Who are your partners in B2B

It’s mainly me, but from day one my very good friend and my rock Reem Waziry, has put a lot of effort into it and for me that makes her a partner in this.

Is this something that you see yourself doing for the next 20 years?

If I keep doing this for the next 20 years I don’t think I’ll live for the next 20 years! It’s such a stressful experience, even when people come and enjoy themselves you personally get a lot of heat.  I worked for 10 years in corporate, hating myself and my job and being comfortable and I don’t think that’s my cup of tea. I’d rather be stressed and happy and passionate about what I do.

Back 2 Basics event at Roof Bar in Sahel
 

Would you let your son go to one of your parties?

He really wants to go, can you imagine? “Pappy 3ayz arou7 el 7afla bt3tak” and I tell him “no Adam, it’s not the time yet”. I showed him pictures and he loves it! He listens to the music that I listen to, dances and has a great time.

If you have to give up one thing, doners or parties for the rest of your life... which would it be?

I hope I would stop partying… just to save my marriage!

Check out Adam's Doner on Facebook here and Back 2 Basics here