By Mustafa Al Hafi
Edited by Nessreen Tamano
Navigating Riyadh’s food truck scene.
We’re all familiar with “Conventional Cone ice cream trucks” roaming the streets in Riyadh’s picnic places; when I was younger, we’d often seek them out on our way to the airport or by Thoumamah road, a popular picnic place away from the city in the 80s and 90s, and I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be my first experience with food truck culture.
In 2016, the revolution of food trucks began in Saudi cities, giving many young men and women the opportunity to create extraordinary food truck business ideas, not limited to fast food. We’ve seen food trucks serving coffee, sweets, ”nitrogen ice cream,” and traditional food.
For our young entrepreneurs, the trend offered them a way to earn extra income – primary to those hit with the recent rise in (corporate) unemployment. It’s relatively easy to start a food truck business – if you have a creative idea, just get a truck, meet the health and safety requirements of the municipality, obtain a permit to run your food truck business, and you’re good to go.
In Riyadh, we can pinpoint the birthplace of the first three popular food trucks in the city at the Red Crescent Yard off King Fahd Road, which quickly became a popular destination for people looking to have a different, casual dining experience. Foodies and non-foodies alike came out to try the fare at 4twins Food Truck (which specialized in desserts topped with fruit and chocolate), Tagfela Food Truck (arguably the first in the city to serve grilled burgers), and Bescletta (serving their signature Spanish coffee).
The site did not last long; after it was shut down after some incidents that led to noise and loitering complaints, the food trucks spread out to different streets in Riyadh, some of them parking at Anas bin Malik Street, at Prince Said Bin Mohammad Bin Mougren Street, and up north at King Abdulaziz Street.
At the Al Malaga neighborhood, Prince Mohammed Bin Saud Bin Abdulaziz Street became the new food truck haunt, as more and more food trucks parked themselves to serve fast food, coffee, and assorted snacks to groups of families and friends. Diners either use the seating provided by some of the trucks, or bring their own foldable chairs, spending more time in the area to enjoy the casual, open-air dining experience relatively uncommon around these parts.
We quickly notice that a remarkable number of the people running the food trucks are very young and hard-working! “My main motivation was to earn extra income to support my family,” said Sulaiman Al Misnad, owner of Happy Cup, which serves specialized coffee. “I started with one of my friends by trying out all kinds of coffee, and then I worked to get a certificate from the International Coffee Organization. I hope to soon open my first coffee shop.” Coffee lovers passing by who are going northwards toward King Salman Road can find Sulaiman in his truck making coffee with different flavors.
If you’re passing by Prince Mohammed Bin Saud Street, you won’t miss Gold & Black, another popular coffee truck with an eye-catching display design. Owned by Bader Al Sharif, it was one of the trucks serving at the Red Crescent Yard. He started out by offering design services to other food truck owners, later surprising his family and friends when he launched his own. Bader runs two trucks that serve coffee, and one that services events and special occasions.
Shrimpini is one of the unique trucks that caught our attention, with their shrimp menu and the owners – close friends Mohammad Al Kashef and Mohammad Al Saab – working behind the griller and happily serving and chit-chatting with their customers. “The market is wide open, anyone can earn extra,” said Al Saab.
When asked about the challenges they face while running a truck, they mention electricity and running water. “We rely heavily on generators, which can be annoying for us and our diners,” Al Saab said.
Needless to say, all the food truck owners I spoke to would really appreciate a dedicated space for them, with water and electricity, and support from the municipality to maintain security and ethical business practices. They’re open to paying the necessary fees in return for all of this.
I certainly hope this happens, and that the food truck culture continues to be a part of ours. It’s a great way to spend time with friends and family, try out different food, snacks, and drinks, and enjoy the weather away from the hustle and bustle of city living