CAIRO: The best way to experience cuisine during a holiday is to eat out with a local. That way you will avoid the “touristy” places, and the establishments that are overpriced and not worth going to. Many online review sites are available for research, but nothing beats heading out with someone who knows their way around. Mariam Nezar and Laila Hassaballa of Bellies En-Route, a small company that specializes in food tours in Cairo, share the same belief. It was their experience of being disappointed in restaurants during their own travels that inspired the two graphic designers to introduce the food-tour concept to the Egyptian capital.“We experienced the problem of going to a new city, trying restaurants based on online reviews, and eating food that was mediocre or disappointing,” Nezar, 30, said. “We craved much more when it came to culinary memories.”Having both gone on food tours abroad, and coming across a podcast that featured tour operators from around the world, Nezar and Hassaballa, also 30, were inspired to start their own venture.Since this was a new idea to Egypt, the pair had no shortcuts. They started out by creating a Trip-Advisor listing and joining a few food markets and events to spread the word about Bellies En-Route.Soon, guests started booking tours online and rating them, helping the business grow. “We remember our very first tour,” said Nezar. “We guided two lovely ladies from Canada called Kim and Alicia. They were amazing and gave us so much support, and our first five-star review. “Our first dollar was spent on the tour, and then we added morebecause we were undercharging and not even close to covering costs. In our first whole year, our profit was $5.”Nezar said: “We were able to create a prototype that helped us quickly gather feedback without spending tons of money and then enhance our tour rapidly, all with the customer experience in mind.”Confronted with unfamiliar bureaucracies and protocols, Nezar and Hassaballa had to work hard to navigate their way around their biggest obstacle: Paperwork.“Our biggest challenge was definitely registering the business and getting it legalised,” said Nezar.“It was challenging to find the right lawyer who understood our idea and believed in it, and we also struggled to find information regarding the restrictions we would have because we are not a travel agency nor a tourism business.”The duo want to encourage other travel entrepreneurs to take more risks with innovative ideas that would rouse up Egypt’s tired tourism economy.“Egypt is a major tourist destination that is on lots of bucket lists,” Nezar said. “However, because we’re so used to having tourists visit, we have been offering the same experiences in the same way. We should be creative and offer niche experiences that serve other types of travellers.” She believes Egypt can deliver that unique offering.“Where else in the world do you have culinary influences from Europe, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Persia and India? We might not have been the first to make shawarma or mahshi, but they came here a long time ago and we turned them into the Egyptian versions we love today. Seeing how local they are, we have become experts at making them.”
This report is the first of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.