Appetite for success: UAE's food truck owners loving the ride

Succeeding in the business requires a killer idea and a lot dedication

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The best part of Abdulla Al Saiqal's job is the smiles he receives from his customers.

No matter the age or nationality, the Emirati food truck owner says he is yet to see a customer’s eyes fail to light up upon receiving an order of sweets from his Boutique Ice Cream food truck on Al Hudayriat Island in Abu Dhabi.

It has been seven years since the truck, painted in swirls of strawberry pink, blue and creamy white, launched in the UAE capital.

While the rising temperatures help, Al Saiqal puts his success down to an idea well researched and executed. That’s why owning a food truck, he says, is easier said than done: "It is a business, at the end of the day. This means you have to be patient as you build it up and have a product that’s surprising.”

Al Saiqal found inspiration for his business venture during a 2015 holiday in Asia, when he visited countries such as Thailand and South Korea.

“I was really surprised by the different amounts of ice cream and shaved ice dishes they were serving in restaurants and fast food places,” he says.

“They were delicious and beautiful to look at. So that’s where I first thought that such an idea can work here in the UAE.”

That said, it was a slow start.

Boutique Ice Cream began with pop-up stalls and a cart at family parks and events before graduating to a three-metre and, finally, a six-metre food truck.

With a staff of six serving up everything from Thai-inspired stir-fried ice cream (also known as rolled ice cream) with flavours including Nutella and mixed berries, Al Saiqal says progress has been sweet and steady.

“Everybody loves dessert, no matter the weather,” he says.

“Sometimes business can be a bit slow but to know that you are serving something that makes people and families smile every day makes me happy.”

Work out where you fit in

Jaret Spearman serves fare at the other end of the temperature scale.

The Canadian’s blend of smoked and grilled burgers is a hit on both sides of the E11 Road, with a co-owned Big Smoke Burger food truck located in both Last Exit food truck parks, serving Abu Dhabi and Dubai-bound traffic.

Such positioning provided him with an insight into the traffic flow of one of the UAE's busiest roads.

"We found that it is in unusual parts of the day that our Abu Dhabi bound truck gets busy," he says.

“It's more unpredictable because people are coming back throughout the day from weekends spent in Dubai.

"The Dubai-bound location has more traditional times. We reach a peak at the weekend with Saturday being our busiest day and we serve up to 200 covers."

Big Smoke Burger also has food trucks at La Mer and Boxpark, Dubai. That expansion, over the space of six years, is down to its classy take on the classic burger. All are flame grilled and patties are made from scratch on site.

In addition to fries, Big Smoke Burger also serves “authentic Canadian” poutine: a Quebec fast food staple of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds and homemade gravy.

Spearman says his food trucks are riding high after being one of the first to catch on to the “UAE burger craze”.

“When something like that happens you really want to find out what you can do to stand out,” he says.

“We saw that there was something lacking in terms of food trucks serving premium burgers in a casual way and we really focused on that and grew from there.”

It’s the focus on specialisation that’s key to a food truck’s survival, Spearman says.

“You need to understand that you are working with a very limited space, so it's all about efficiency in terms of operations," he says.

"Keep it simple, easy and fast and make sure you are putting out the best quality product, because there is not much interaction from taking the order and until it arrives.”

Maintaining the passion

Originality, however, does not always guarantee success.

This is something Canadian-Jordanian Ahmad Antar is finding out since opening Kurtos Kalacs less than two years ago.

Located at Marsa Mina, Abu Dhabi, the blue and green striped truck serves international desserts, from Hungarian kurtoskalacs, a traditional pastry served in the shape of a cone, which inspired the food truck's name, to Spanish churros, Palestinian kunafa and Emirati luqaimat.

The combination of Covid-19 safety measures and stifling temperatures severely hampered trade, Antar admits, but he is determined to carry on.

The Kurtos Kalacs menu has been slashed by 40 per cent as part of a new summer promotion.

“It has been difficult but I am confident that we will get through this period,” he says.

“Fortunately I also have another job so this is an additional income.

“While times are tough and I do have to manage finances carefully, there is something great about having a food truck.

“When I see that truck every day I feel satisfied because this is something I own and with that comes responsibility.”

Updated: June 24, 2022, 6:01 PM