With its eclectic mix of food trucks, steady traffic and the occasional sound of a horn in the distance, Al Hudayriyat Island is the perfect characterisation of food truck culture in the capital. During peak times, vehicles descend upon the island and disperse into lanes. The uniformity of it all is impressive, in part down to bright yellow arrows painted on the ground, but local preferences are the driving force behind the concept.
Hudayriyat Island: Le Patchouli's drive-thru service is a hit
Mahmoud Abdelkawy, senior operations manager at Le Patchouli, recalls how Emirati women inspired him to start a drive-thru service in 2011. “I was working at a coffee shop and found a lady driver outside. She was shy and did not want to get down and order, so she ordered through the car,” he says.
“As a result, I decided to keep one guy outside, and little by little more cars started to come, so we gradually increased the staff outside. To improve our speed, we began using walkie-talkies. We also changed the packaging of our drinks to avoid spills in the car.”
In no time, ordering from cars became the standard among customers, Emirati and otherwise. "People see others ordering from their cars, so decide: 'I will order the same way as you.' That is the culture of the locals and how this concept started to develop," says Abdelkawy.
Le Patchouli has come a long way from the early days of walkie-talkies. The food truck now runs a dynamic operation with two service points, 15 members of staff and modern technology. At the first stopping point, staff approach vehicles with wireless credit card machines and iPads strapped to their palms.
The benefit is also passed to customers, who are able to see exactly what’s available minute by minute after scanning the menu bar code with their smartphones. Internet access certainly makes operations more efficient, but maintaining a network for this open-air concept isn’t easy or cheap.
"For an area like this, we have to use a sim card with a router for our staff to have internet access," says Abdelkawy, motioning to a device zip-tied on top of Le Patchouli's signage. "We use it like a hot spot and sometimes we are paying three or four thousand dirhams monthly, so I think this is one of the issues for this type of environment."
In the end, though, the cost of doing business is offset by the scores of fans who return time and time again for Le Patchouli’s mix of artisan drinks and desserts.
"We are more than speciality coffee. We have the best acai in Abu Dhabi," says Abdelkawy, a claim I can attest to. The dish is served chilled with a colourful array of fresh fruit. Rows of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and banana are accentuated by granola and swirls of peanut butter. There's a lot of contrasting flavour in one bowl, but the layer of frozen acai sorbet at the bottom brings it all together nicely.
Ice cream is another top seller, from molten cake to the popular Baby Shark dessert. Staff can be seen drizzling melted chocolate over layers of pastry served a la mode – a fascinating display of car-side showmanship.
“We used to give the full package from inside, but we learnt when it comes to social-media-savvy customers, they want to see how the chocolate is melted and see the changing colours, so we decided to take the process outside,” says Abdelkawy.
A scroll through Le Patchouli's Instagram reveals just how much Emiratis appreciate a picturesque cup of coffee, with the steering wheels and dashboards of vehicles often serving as the backdrop to these posts. Manicured nails make an appearance, too, since women are still driving this concept forward making up 65 per cent of Le Patchouli's daily visitors.
Abdelkawy appreciates the overwhelming support and looks forward to meeting more customers at their cars because “they are proud of the food and the brand itself”.
Khalifa City: A 'Shot' at your own a car party
Car-side service is also prevalent at the Khalifa City Food Truck Park, but the vibe here is slightly different. Instead of driving through, vehicles pull up, park and get served.
Peter Akingbade, quality control manager at Shot, says: “If you’re lucky, you can park close to the front, but if not, you can choose any available lot and a server will approach you, take your order and bring it back. It’s like a car party.”
As vehicles enter the maze of spaces, staff wave their hands in the air signalling to drivers they're available. The spaces in front of Shot, which operates from a converted Citroen HY van imported from London, are usually filled. Despite its vintage aesthetic, Shot is churning out a new signature drink that coffee lovers can't seem to get enough of.
The cafe's founder and chief executive, Ahmed Al Fahim, says he's most proud of the Rahash Spanish latte. "It has a local touch and people went crazy for it when it was introduced." The unique concoction comes with an edible garnish that can be served hot or cold. The trick to enjoying it is to ditch the straw and drink from the rim of the cup taking in bits of Nutella and tahina halwa with every sip.
Creations such as this only strike once in a while, though, so Shot depends on maintaining high standards. "Our ingredients are expensive, our equipment, too. Staff are trained regularly and we have a quality-control system to ensure customers receive the same taste across all Shot locations," says Al Fahim.
As quality control manager, Akingbade is a big part of the process, literally. “On a regular day, I drink maybe seven to 10 cups, but on a day where we need to do checks or a new calibration, I drink no less than 15 to 20 cups in a day.”
Al Fahim has also set up a platform called Lookforspot.com, which creates food truck parks. Two sites already up and running; the first project in Al Zorah, Ajman, opened in 2018 and the second, with Adnoc Motor World gas station in Al Shamkha, Abu Dhabi, opened in 2019.
Two projects are now under way, one in Abu Dhabi and the other in Al Ain, which will accommodate 35 food trucks and have first-of-its-kind drive-thru supermarkets.
“I am planning to open Shot in every emirate," Al Fahim. "I’m also aiming to open all around the world and bring the Emirati speciality coffee experience to each and every person possible.”