Shrimp Falafel Mix: how one family-run food truck thrives in Oakland

on December 12, 2018

At 11:30 pm on a Saturday, Sayed El Hamaki and his brother-in-law Mamdouh Hassan prepare for their second rush of the night. As Hamaki grills the chicken shawarma, the aroma of cumin, turmeric, paprika and Egyptian spices disperses along Telegraph Avenue, luring passersby to the food truck. A speaker with a neon light border is propped against the side of the food truck. “Habibi, habibi, habibi,”—the chorus from a popular electro shaabi song blares from the speaker as the neon lights spin.

“The theater will let out any minute,” says Hassan, referring to the Fox Theater at the corner of Telegraph and 19th Street. And he’s right, by midnight, a crowd of 50 people are in line at Shrimp Falafel Mix, with no sign of slowing down. By the time they close at 3:00 am, Shrimp Falafel will have served over 500 more people.

It’s no wonder that the brothers-in-law, who separately immigrated to the Bay Area from Egypt in the 1990’s, operate a food truck. Food trucks often serve as a low-cost and low-barrier way for immigrant business owners to maintain a bond with their culture through food, while also making a living. For Hamaki and Hassan, that means selling Egyptian and Mediterranean food, with their own twist on traditional family recipes and street food. Their namesake shrimp falafel is a take on a shrimp and rice dish Hamaki’s mother used to make when they lived in Mansoura, along the Nile’s delta region. He’s redesigned it to combine falafel, which is made of fava beans, and shrimp by grilling the two together after cooking. Some of their best-selling dishes are different versions of this: plates that combine rice with chicken, beef, lamb, shrimp, shish kebab, gyro, or all of the above, with their signature white tzatziki sauce, into what looks like a mixed bowl.

The reason Hamaki and Hassan are able to maintain their business is thanks to Oakland’s recently updated mobile food vending program. In 2017, after trying several pilot programs that limited food vending to the Fruitvale neighborhood or commercial streets in central and East Oakland, the city adopted a citywide program. The program allows vendors to sell food in a few different ways: through a stationary cart, a food truck, a push cart, or a group site of three or more food trucks, also known as a “food pod.” The new program expands the geographic boundary of the vending areas to include downtown, West Oakland and North Oakland, as well as commercial sections of Macarthur Boulevard.

The new program also consolidates permitting into one central office. Before, vendors would have to apply to different city agencies based on if they intended to sell on private property in the Fruitvale district (Bureau of Building), in group sites (City Administrator’s Office), in an area outside of the pilot program (Conditional Use Permit with Planning and Zoning), or during a special event (Oakland Police Department). Now, vendors can apply for all new food vending permits at the Bureau of Planning office. Those who sell during special events like First Friday are still required to receive an extra permit from the police department.

Additionally, the program limits the number of permits issued. According to Aubrey Rose, a city planner and the Zoning Counter Supervisor for Oakland, the city council set a limit on the number of permits distributed “in order to balance the needs of mobile food vendors with brick-and-mortar restaurants.” In other words, city officials are trying to give more freedom to vendors and more choices to consumers while not taking business away from restaurants. This also prevents trucks from parking too close to each other. For Shrimp Falafel Mix, that means no competing vendor can park nearby and poach their customers.

So far, Rose says, 54 vendors have been permitted under this new program since spring, 2017, although the annual cap is actually 75. This November, the Shrimp Falafel Mix officially became one of those vendors.

 ***

Although the two will now introduce each other as brothers and best friends, Hassan and Hamaki did not meet until the late 1990’s.

Hassan grew up in Kabeish in the Giza Governorate, Egypt, with four siblings. He recalls growing up close to his siblings, in what he described as a small agricultural village. When he got older, Hassan traveled with his father to cities in Europe and North America, where his father met with work partners for his tourist bazaar in Al Haram. In 1992, with his father on a visit to the Bay Area, Hassan decided that he wanted to stay. His father did not approve, but Hassan remained, running his own import and export business. In 1998, he would start an airport shuttle business with Hamaki’s father Emad, eventually marrying Emad’s daughter—Hamaki’s sister.

Meanwhile, Hamaki grew up in Mansoura, Egypt, a city about 2 hours north of Cairo, along the Nile delta region. The youngest of four, Hamaki was close to his older brother and sisters in his family’s large multi-story home, playing soccer out front and on the roof, as his father travelled back and forth to the Bay Area for many years.

Hamaki’s uncle was the first member of the family to settle in the Bay Area. A sailor who worked on ship run by a Greek company, Hamaki’s uncle was on a voyage to the US when he was robbed of his savings. Without the funds to return home, he had to work in the Bay Area to save enough to return. Ultimately, he decided to stay and get married. Hamaki’s father would eventually emigrate to the Bay Area as well, and then his older brother Amir, and finally the rest of the family arrived in 1999.

When Hamaki arrived, he met Hassan—then his father’s business partner—for the first time. The two of them have been best friends since. “Almost 20 years,” says Hamaki.

The two friends, plus Hamaki’s brother Amir, all drove for the father’s shuttle business at the Oakland Airport. But after 9/11, the shuttle business went under as the domestic air industry struggled.

That’s when Hamaki decided to open his first food business—a cafe with his brother Amir in Oakland. It was called El-Omda Cafe, and they served tea and hookah, until the landlord decided not to renew the lease in 2005. After its closure, Hamaki returned to Egypt. He would marry his wife Hind there in 2006, before traveling to the US again to join his brother Amir on another food-related endeavor, this time in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

At the time, Amir owned his own hookah cafe, and he invited his brother to work with him managing a separate small restaurant that sold hotdogs and hamburgers. Hamaki noticed business was slow, and suggested they try making shawarmas instead as a way to attract more customers. His brother agreed.

It was Hamaki’s first time cooking, and he found that he had a talent for it. His food got so popular that employees at his brother’s cafe started going to the restaurant for meals. Before long, Hamaki became a senior partner in the business, owning two-thirds of it. But Hamaki wanted to return to Egypt to see his son Emad—named after his father—who was born in his absence. He left the restaurant in the hands of another manager, and stayed in Egypt for several years.

He and Amir tried their hands at a café in Egypt, but it didn’t do well once the the Arab Spring came.  Hamaki moved back to Oakland in 2011.

By 2013, the two friends had moved into the same building in Vallejo, with Hamaki’s family on the second floor and Hassan’s on the first. Hassan had started a limousine business, and the two of them worked for it for it a while, until Hassan started feeling that the business wasn’t doing as well, and sold it.

When that happened, Hamaki realized it was his opportunity to pursue his immigrant dream: This time running a business that sold food he loved and left customers with a good impression of his home country. While he was growing up in Egypt, Hamaki’s mother had incorporated shrimp into many of their home-cooked meals, particularly rice. If shrimp tastes good with rice, he thought, surely it would taste good with falafel. In 2014, Hamaki approached his brother-in-law about opening an Egyptian food truck that would sell his “shrimp falafel” creation.

The decision to sell shawarma in Florida had been strategic; business had been slow and Hamaki wanted to try something different than hamburgers and hotdogs. But when it came to making food in the Bay Area, Hamaki’s wife Hind thought that it may have had more to do with her husband being able to represent his home with pride, and have his success reflect well on his cultural upbringing, so “It would be an Egyptian making Egyptian food.”

At that point, Hamaki had the what, but he needed a how.

He knew a food truck would have to be the way to start this time, because they didn’t have the financial resources to open a restaurant right away.

Hassan remembers feeling unsure at first. “I told him, ‘Are you sure? We’re going to make Egyptian food in the truck?’” Hassan recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, we’ll start this way.’ And I was scared … very scared. But I worked hard all my life, so I said, ‘We’re not going to lose anything. We’re going to give it a shot.’”

At the time, buying a food truck cost around $40,000 to $45,000. So the two had to look for a truck to rent. After months, Hassan finally found one within their budget: $2,000 a month. They rented it for one year, and learned everything they know about trucks—and making food in a truck. Hassan recalls how the two initially worked using only their phones’ lights inside the truck, until they learned how to operate the truck’s lights, how to charge it, and how to fill up its propane.

The two also didn’t have their name or menu posted on the truck. They created posters using markers and  paper towels and paper plates—anything to grab attention. They drove all over the Bay Area, giving away free food to have customers try it, sometimes making as little as $50 the whole day, sometimes less. It was only the two of them, with Hamaki on the grill, and Hassan on the register.

Like many immigrant business owners, Hamaki and Hassan relied on their personal network of friends and family for financial help. Owners of other food trucks lent them money to buy supplies and during difficult times when they needed repairs. At that time, Hamaki’s father-in-law—as well as one of his best friends, and one of Hassan’s father’s friends—all lent them money to buy sandwich ingredients, pay for gas, and come up with the 3-month advance required to rent the truck.

Eventually, the two found their current spot in downtown Oakland, and word got around. The truck started gaining in popularity with the late night crowd in downtown Oakland, and some weekend regulars started coming in from as far as Fremont, Hayward, Santa Rosa and San Jose. On a regular weekday night, the duo, and now additional crew members, serve about 200 customers. That number reaches upwards of 500 on weekend nights.

***

The two had finally found an idea that stuck and a loyal group of customers.

But there was a problem. In 2014, most food vending wasn’t permitted in Oakland. In fact, food vending wasn’t permitted outside the Fruitvale neighborhood except in food pods like Off the Grid (which also started without city permits) or during special events like First Friday.

In 2001, in response to community activism, city officials had implemented a food vending program that legalized push carts and food trucks in Fruitvale. In order to comply with the 2001 program, food truck owners were required to acquire a business license, an Alameda County Health Department permit, and park on private property in the Fruitvale district, which meant they also needed a Conditional Use Permit (CUP), since food trucks were technically considered a fast food restaurant commercial activity.

The program had a part in shaping the food scene of the neighborhood. Loncheras—taco trucks—with their shimmering neon lights, playful and vibrant colors, and trucks affectionately named after a personality, such as El Tio Juan Taco Truck (Uncle John’s Taco Truck), or a region from their home country like Taqueria Sinaloa, now season International Boulevard.

In 2011, the city updated the program to allow “group sites,” also known as food pods, of three or more food trucks in designated areas in downtown, North Oakland, and West Oakland. An example of this is the Oakland Museum of California’s Off the Grid food truck gathering on Friday nights.

Still, in other regions outside of the pilot program, mobile food vendors set up shop without valid permits from the city. Parking a food truck on a right-of-way street was illegal, but for trucks like Shrimp Falafel, that was their only option.

But permit enforcement was rare at the time. According to Rose, the city had no dedicated food vending inspectors, which meant reduced compliance with the regulations the city had set for its vendors. In other words, vendors could be breaking the rules set by the city on anything from designated vending locations to even cleanliness.

According to a report from the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA) presented to the city council in December, 2011, enforcement of regulations was managed at the time by CEDA’s Building Services department, which monitored and penalized improper food vending only on private properties. When it came to improper food vending on public properties, that was handled by the police department. However, according to the report, the infractions were considered “a low priority due to current staffing levels and the need to respond to patrol calls.” Vague language in the food vending regulations made enforcement even more difficult, according to the same report.

According to Rose, there are currently hundreds of unpermitted food vendors in Oakland, and city staff found this was an issue back in 2011, as well. After surveying vendors, “brick and mortar” restaurant owners, and staffers for the city and county involved in regulatory enforcement of the evolving program, city staff found that tension was especially high between pushcart and truck owners competing with restaurants for business. But at the same time, some city officials supported street food vending. They pointed out that it was a low-barrier entry point for owning one’s own business, could help with revitalizing commercial districts, and provide food for employees in areas with fewer restaurants.

In March, 2017, the Oakland City Council approved a new ordinance amending the old one. The program needed to be updated for several reasons, Rose said, including extending it to the rest of Oakland. “The program was operating under a pilot program, focused geographically on the Fruitvale for about 15 years —which isn’t the intended time frame for a pilot program,” he said.

Another significant change from the 2017 update is that food trucks can now park and sell on right-of-way streets and sidewalks—before, food trucks would have to park on private property in order to legally sell. But the city also created a series of buffer zones to prevent the truck vendors from encroaching on restaurants’ turf. Food trucks have to be 300 feet away from restaurants and schools. The only exception to the school buffer zone is if the truck is considered a “healthy vending” truck and sells fruits, non-fried vegetables, and whole grains.

Truck vendors who have been in their location for a long time will be given priority for permits through what the city calls “grandfathering.” Pamela Smith,  who has been running the day-to-day operations at La Placita Commercial Kitchen after founder Emilia Otero—the pioneer of the first Oakland food vending program—retired, says that La Placita worked diligently with the city to ensure the grandfathering clause was included in the new program. She believes grandfathering helps protect Oakland businesses. “We wanted for people who are coming from other cities to not be able to take their spaces or take their location,” she said.

Smith also thinks it was important to create a framework that supports vendors who have dedicated an extensive amount of time to establishing their clientele at a certain location, and to not create unnecessary hardships for them. “Moving any mobile business would mean that you would start off brand-new again. You would have to build your clientele again,” she said.

For a mobile food vendor, one of the ways you build a solid customer base—with regulars—is by being in the same place, at the same time, consistently. It’s especially important if you’re trying to sell in an area where there are other dining options nearby like there is near the Shrimp Falafel Mix’s spot. So it was important for Hamaki and Hassan to be able to keep a location where people could count on finding them. Hassan recalls how alarmed customers became on New Year’s 2016 when the two first upgraded the look of their truck—people started asking where the truck was, and reporting the sighting of a new one. “They were kind of mad that someone will take our spot,” said Hassan, “so they started calling us.”

For the brothers-in-law, the new program has been important in making sure they can keep operating in their theater district spot and that no competing vendor can park next to them—which has been an issue in the past.

But the two almost missed out on getting the permit altogether, if not for a friend of Hassan’s mentioning about two and a half years ago that the city council was going to vote on whether city planners would be handing out more food permits. (“I don’t know how it happened,” said Hassan. “We have good luck.”)  Hassan started going to city council meetings then. When the permitting application opened in June, 2017 , he was one of the first to apply.

Hassan says the brothers-in-law had to disclose—and provide pictures as proof—how long they’d been selling at their current location. “When you don’t have anything to start with, you have to go step by step,” said Hassan, describing their process. “We’ll get this license done, we’ll get this done, every month, until we finish the process.”

When they were done, the truck qualified for the “priority group 3 category,” according to a report from the city’s zoning counter. This meant that they’d get to keep their spot, and had priority over other potential applicants for it who may have vended from there for a shorter amount of time.

Lidia Morales, owner of La Catrina Taqueria parked on the 2900 block of Broadway Street in Oakland, qualified for the same category, and she says the program’s been good for her, too.  She’s been in the same spot, in front of the Grocery Outlet, for 17 years now without an official permit. A few years ago, she received a letter telling her she needed to move her truck—and that worried her.

Morales says because she’d been at that location for so many years, she received priority when applying for the spot under the new program. Still, the process took about a year for her to complete, and like other applicants, Morales had to pay an application fee. But she feels it was worth it. “This is my source of income. I’m a mom for four kids—a single mom,” said Morales. “Thanks to the new permits, I feel much more secure that nobody is going to be able to move me from here.”

***

Shelly Garza, a small business consultant at La Placita Commercial Kitchen, believes food trucks provide an opportunity for immigrants to become entrepreneurs. “I sit down with an endless amount of entrepreneurs that are coming in as immigrants here and already have a vision of owning a restaurant,” said Garza. “I tell them, what is the easiest way to start ownership? Start with a food truck or a cart. Or let’s start you as a caterer.” Garza believes it is important for people to have stepping stones to help guide their vision of becoming entrepreneurs.

Garza also believes food trucks help address the problem of “food deserts.” That’s when residents of an area, often lower-income communities, have a hard time accessing affordable, fresh and nutritious food. “There might be an area where there are no restaurants or anything available and a food truck can come there and provide some healthy food … that’s accessible to the community,” she said. She notes that food vending also has the potential to help the local economy, since the food truck industry has grown. “It brings people to that specific area and it starts becoming a nice destination,” she said.

The Unity Council’s Maria Sanchez, who works with Fruitvale merchants, says that’s been true there, where these businesses provide jobs to residents. “A small restaurant at least has 6 or 10 employees,” said Sanchez.

This city’s own CEDA report from 2011 agrees that food trucks are an attractive idea for people who want to start small: city staff found mobile food vending “has been shown to be an effective entry point to owning one’s own business.” One reason, the report’s authors wrote, is that “for a comparatively modest investment, an entrepreneur can develop a track record in retail sales and develop a loyal clientele.”

“Some food vendors have stated a desire to eventually own ‘brick and mortar’ restaurants at some point down the road,” the report continued.

But just because it’s a lower-cost option than a restaurant doesn’t mean it’s cheap. “It’s not as low-barrier as it used to be even ten years ago,” Garza said. “Now there are trucks that are up to $100,000, so folks have to get loans from small companies.”

She also believes that although it is easier than than opening a restaurant, there are still a lot of regulations and bureaucratic processes that vendors have to get through before opening a truck. For example, she said, “We have a person that we work with at the city, but that person only stays a certain amount of time, say a couple of years. And then something else changes as far as processes, and we lose that person and have to start all over with a different set of people.”

“We take ten steps forward but five steps back. So we’re still in that endless circle,” Garza continued.

And the brothers-in-law can attest that even if you make the money and permits work, running a food truck still takes a lot of labor. “A lot of people think it’s just a food truck; we come make money and go,” said Hamaki. “No, trust me, a food truck is not an easy job.”

For Hamaki and Hassan, it’s a job that involves the entire family. Preparation for each day’s shift starts with Hamaki’s wife Hind, who prepares the falafel, rice, and desserts at home in San Leandro, starting in the morning.

In the meantime, Hassan and a few other staff members drive to Jetro Cash & Carry to purchase the food for the day. Ingredients like bread, vegetables, and meats can cost around $700 a day. This has to be done daily, because a truck’s kitchen space is limited and has no refrigeration. The brothers-in-law have to sell out or give away any remaining food by the end of the night.

The crew then heads to a special parking lot for food trucks, per city regulations, where they move the food onto to the truck and make sure the truck is properly charged.  Before taking off downtown, Hassan’s nephew Mohamed Al-Zaky, and his friend Ebrahim Al-Benna, wash and prepare the vegetables and meats. Once they finally get to their spot on Telegraph Avenue around 6:30 pm, Hamaki and Al-Benna can start their grilling in the truck.

Once they finally close at 2 am—or 3 on weekends —they also have to break everything down again. Until recently, the brothers-in-law paid $1,000 a month to park the Shrimp Falafel Mix at a food truck vendors’ parking lot in the Fruitvale overnight in order to comply with regulations from the Department of Health for vehicles in which food is prepared and handled. They recently changed location to one in Alameda. The two, along with Al-Zaky, and Al-Benna, have to wash and sanitize all the dishes, mats, and floors of the truck before they can head home.

And they’ve also built a larger family—friends in the food truck community who can be counted on to help them along. One Sunday afternoon, as they drive into the lot, Hassan points out the owner, who lent them money to get things started. Hamaki points to another vendor who also parks his food truck in the lot overnight. “That man helped us a lot, too. When our engine go down, he gave us his truck for a week,” he said.

***

Oakland’s vending program is not taking new applications at the moment, although Rose says they hope to open the application process again shortly after New Year’s. Rose says the city is conducting weekly internal meetings to develop the program further due to state regulations that changed earlier this year. Their plan is to streamline the process to ensure a faster turnaround than the last round of applications, many of which took around a year to complete. Rose says city planners hope the new process will bring the permitting duration closer to a month.

For Garza, she hopes the new vending program, complimented by the California Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, which prohibits the criminalization of sidewalk street vendors, will allow immigrant food vendors to sell without fear. Thanks to this new law the immigrant community “isn’t so worried or scared to take that next step to become an entrepreneur in this industry,” she said. “People are saying, ‘OK, you know what, this is exactly what I want to do and this is exactly how I want to grow my business through mobile vending.”

For vendors who do hope to expand their business, Sanchez said, “I think this will be a good opportunity for them to know where to go to get a loan or where to get a permit to do the things in the right way,” like to properly prepare food at home.

And Morales hopes to do exactly that. “For now, I’m very glad I have a secure place,” said Morales. “I’m hoping to keep growing and have my own restaurant.” Morales recently acquired a second truck, which she plans to use to vend at special events and festivals next summer.

For Hamaki and Hassan, their plans are to open a second location a few streets over. Earlier this year, the two applied for a permit for a daytime stationary cart on Franklin Street—which is closer to Lake Merritt, with several banks and other businesses nearby.

Hamaki says it’ll be called “Shrimp Falafel Rice Bowl.” After all, it’s one of their most popular orders.

Wesaam Al-Badry and Mickey Capper contributed to the making of this story.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
logo
Oakland North

Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

Latest Posts