Kozbara's Winning Couple
It's not every day you find a married couple working together, but Sherif Khalil and Lobna Moheeb make running Kozbara Kitchen, Cairo's newest catering company, seem like a breeze. We catch up with them to find out more...
Kozbara Kitchen only cares about two things; quality food and customer satisfaction. This catering service has been exponentially growing since its arrival, and promises to find and make just about anything your taste buds desire, guaranteeing that any celebration is uniquely special. Kozbara Kitchen offers a myriad of options that pleases everyone from the health conscious to the pork obsessed. There isn't anything they can't find and there isn't any cuisine they shy away from. With Kozbara Kitchen you get fresh quality food that makes your belly want to zaghrat. We talk to the cute couple behind the whole operation, Sherif Khalil and Lobna Moheeb, to find out more...
How did the idea of Kozbara Kitchen come about?
Sherif: Lobna came up with the idea that we start up a small kitchen in our basement just as a trial. About 6 months later I left my job out of the blue, and bought a small oven and we started working. We printed out, a very basic menu, hired a chef and took it from there. At first, it was trial and error idea and then it evolved.
Did either of you have a background in food?
Sherif: Well, I love to cook as a hobby and Lobna likes to eat!
Why did you choose to have just a kitchen and to cater, rather than to open a restaurant?
Sherif: Because a restaurant would run on a very high budget and we started on a very low budget. We didn't want put too much money at stake at the beginning, so we started on a just a delivery basis, not even takeaway. Then we evolved into catering and taken on bigger events.
Who makes the food at Kozbara Kitchen?
Sherif: We hired an Egyptian Italian chef who's got 20 years experience in cooking in Italy and, more recently, worked at a friend’s hotel in Hurghada and we took it from there.
Lobna: But he's not the first chef we hired; we went through a few chefs to reach this one. It really took us some time.
What was the dish that secured him the job?
Sherif: It wasn't really a specific dish, it was the way he had control over the kitchen. As a head chef, he doesn't really cook that much anymore, he’s the manager. He manages buying the ingredients, he manages the rest of the staff, cost control and quality control. There are two more chefs under him, and a delivery man on staff.
And why did you settle for the name Kozbara Kitchen?
Lobna: It just came to us. We went through a lot of names before we thought about looking at the ingredients we use. It wasn’t until a friend just decided to go ahead and make a logo for us, using the word ‘Kozbara’ and we liked the look of it, that we settled on it.
How quickly did people take to the idea getting home-cooked food from someone else’s home?
Sherif: It took some time because people are nostalgic for home cooked food, but they've also become so health conscious. We started off with an Egyptian home cooked menu and it didn't work that well because people would order these kinds of food say, once or twice a month. So we started targeting healthy eaters - home cooked, but health conscious food, and that began to get people’s attention.
Where do you get your ingredients from?
Sherif: From the market; the local market in Shubra. It’s truly the freshest and we get the best prices from there.
On average, how many orders do you get a week?
Sherif: We get around five orders a day for individual meals, but we’re now focused on catering, more than personal orders. This move came by coincidence as we had a friend who was getting married and suggested we cater it. It wasn't what we did at the time, but we tried it and it worked brilliantly. We’ve started to push in that direction so we're not focused as much now on delivery as we are on engagements, weddings and corporate events and the such.
Say we’re throwing a wedding tomorrow, then. What’s the process of getting Kozbara Kitchen to cater it?
Sherif: It depends. If it’s in a hotel, they usually don’t allow external caterers in. So, we usually cater outdoor weddings in gardens and clubs. The options are endless. We have a few menus you can choose from that include live cooking stations where we bring a big grill and barbeque whatever you want, pasta stations, shawerma stands... whatever you want!
How has the feedback been so far? A wedding is the most important day of most people’s lives and, in Egypt, the food is the most important part of a wedding...
Lobna: The couples we’ve catered for have been very happy. The main concern people have here is that the food will run out! They don't want the guests to ever come by the buffet and find that something’s missing because it's going make the family look cheap or that sort of thing. That's part of the Egyptian persona, they have to spend so much on the wedding to make themselves look elaborate so that’s something we have to be aware of.
What's the sort of average price per head for your wedding catering?
Sherif: Around 80 to 120 LE.
And what’s the largest wedding you’ve catered?
Sherif; 250 persons at an outdoor wedding in the Mohamed Ali club.
And there was enough food?
Sherif: Yeah, of course!
Lobna: But this particular wedding was really nice because the buffet was open during the whole wedding which is unusual here.
Sherif: It was an Armenian wedding, so they didn't want people to go eat and get heavy because they were drinking throughout the evening.
Do you think that Egyptians, given how the economy has weakened, will change to sit-down meal concept for weddings?
Sherif: Of course, people much more practical now, but a buffet is still essential for most people. Whether it’s all salmon and caviar, or rice and meat is the choice they’re having to make based on their buffet now. Luckily, we can offer all kinds of things, so even if you have a tighter budget, we can help you out.
Have you had any catering catastrophes?
Sherif: No, we haven't had any disasters but most of the problems we face are logistical; a truck driver is late because the road was blocked, for example. Nevertheless, we always calculate this margin of error. We’re at a wedding six hours before it starts, for example. The biggest problem now is transporting or all staff and equipment home after an event when there’s a curfew.
Have you ever been stopped by the military and offered them food to get out of trouble?
Sherif: No! You know, I heard they don't take food from civilians just in case we poison the food or something.
Let’s talk about the food for a second; how diverse is it?
Sherif: I mean we do anything you want, anything you ask for! If you want a pork leg from Spain for 700 Euros, I'll get it for you! The Armenian wedding I mentioned had a whole wide range of grilled products - they wanted pork belly and pork leg, grilled, along with chicken, meat and kofta for a European/ Egyptian wedding.
Was that the strangest request you've ever had or is there anything else stranger requested?
Sherif: No, that was the strangest.
Lobna: But it's not that strange, just different. If you take a look at the menus we have, you’ll find we are trying to do something new like the barbeque menu or the Italian menu; we’re trying to change the idea of a typical Egyptian wedding menu and we're flexible enough to do it.
And what's been the most popular cuisine out of all the ones you cover?
Sherif: I mean, no matter how sophisticated people seem to be, as far as we've seen, they still order within a certain range that’s not very diverse.
Let’s imagine you had a time machine and we went back before you were married and before Kozbara Kitchen existed. What would you have at your wedding?
Sherif: Kozbara of course! But we had our wedding at the Diplomatic Club and they, like hotels, don’t allow outside caterers which is a big problem we’ve been facing. If we had the choice we'd choose our food, definitely.
Ok, so now we’re travelling to the future. What is the future of Kozbara?
Sherif: We want to be the biggest caterer in Egypt and by no means is the quality going to decrease if we are. There's this Egyptian curse that when a business succeeds, the quality starts to go down and then it collapse; especially in the food business.
So how do you ensure consistency?
Sherif: I just have to be hands on all the time. You have to have all the owners and all the stake holders in the process. I mean, if I reach a certain level of success I can't just depart and stay home and watch my bank account get fatter. You have to be involved in the day-to-day headache.
And how are each of you involved in the day-to-day running of the business?
Lobna: I’m the logistics person, so I’m at my computer most of the time, crunching numbers and making calls.
Sherif: I’m more into the produce, the equipment, the hiring and budgets, as well as PR.
Do you know what your best selling item is?
Lobna: The chicken fillet because you can have cooked and sauced in any way you want.
And what are each of your favourite dishes?
Sherif: Our grills are great and I love our tomato pasta sauce.
Lobna: I like veal with lemon sauce, or mushroom. Both, equally.
As a married couple, what are the problems faced by you working together?
Lobna: We don't really have any.
Sherif: You have to be careful with the politics in the kitchen so we’ve had a few fights over that. Our chef got upset because Lobna was kind of harsh with him, so we all ended up arguing. The kitchen is a very emotional place and conflicts are easily started.