Two university professors and self-confessed foodies shift gears and launch the Egyptian-themed Taza Truck in Pennsylvania
By Noha Mohammed
Photos courtesy of The Taza Truck
Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley area, about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia and 90 minutes from New York City, is home to a bevy of white-collar businesses and half a dozen universities. It is also home to Hala Rihan-Bonner and her husband Tim Bonner, two university professors who recently launched The Taza Truck to introduce the flavors of Hala’s native Egypt to this fast-growing urban community.
Hala was born in Egypt, but spent her formative years in the southern US states of Mississippi and Tennessee. Her parents were chemistry professors, and in 1979 moved the family to Saudi Arabia to start a new department at King Faisal University. After attending high school in Rome, Italy, in the early 1980s, Hala returned to Egypt in 1985 to attend the American University in Cairo, where she earned her BA in economics and later her MA in Middle Eastern studies. After finishing her Master’s in 1992, she worked for the global energy company Repsol then changed her career to international education and worked for the Fulbright Commission until 1998. For the next three years, she ran executive education/conference planning business with a friend in Cairo, then moved back to the US in 2003 to continue working in international education.
Until recently, Tim was the Director of English as a Second Language at Lehigh University. He and Hala married 10 years ago, and while he’s never lived in Egypt, he’s made many visits to his in-laws. “I love Egypt as my second home,” he says, “and feel a deep affinity for the people because Egyptians are some of the most kind and generous people in the world.” In an e-mail interview, the couple share their dreams for the fledgling Taza Truck, named for the Arabic word for ‘fresh.’ Edited excerpts:
Why The Taza Truck as opposed to a regular restaurant?
Two reasons: One is that opening a “brick and mortar,” or regular restaurant is very expensive in the US. Two, in the US, the food truck industry is one of the fastest-growing food industries because you can have a concept and see your truck to fruition (ie get on the road) within six months, which is what we did. We also like the fact that Hala and I can run the entire business ourselves without any employees in the beginning, which keeps costs low as we start out. However, we do plan to expand to have more trucks in the future and are going to hire chefs/managers who train and learn to run the trucks.
Tell us a little about the project. How long has it taken you to complete from start to finish?
Hala and I are highly motivated individuals. We obtained our PhDs while running university departments, and while we also managed an investment property. We love challenges and new adventures, so this idea was just another adventure to try something new. We were both looking for different jobs because we were getting tired of administration in higher education, so we thought a food truck would give us the time, flexibility as well as the level of income that we needed to live comfortably.
We saw a show on the Cooking Channel last summer, and we joked that this might be a good business idea. By October, it had turned into a serious idea, and we had found a truck builder who was reputable. You must [go with] a professional company that knows [how to] build these types of trucks because there are so many laws that must be followed in the States. If you don’t build it correctly, you will not get the permits, and you can be shut down immediately. We found a great company in Florida, and we obtained the financing from them by December to start building the truck. By January 7, Tim’s birthday, the truck was being built. Tim left his full-time position at Lehigh University to concentrate on getting the permits, setting up the advertising and social media, and finding the locations where we would park and sell our food. We received the truck on March 16, were inspected on March 17, and opened on March 22. It was really fast to get up and running because we needed to get open for the warmer months in the Northeast, which is the peak time for outdoor festivals and events. We did a lot of advertising, and we contacted several of the local papers to ask them to write articles about us.
Interestingly, we didn’t originally plan to do a lot of events. We wanted to just set up at universities and business parks, but as we realized the local townships and cities are not very open to having food trucks parking in their towns, we realized that we would need every event and festival in the area to build a following. So we changed our business model a little to fit in all of the events and festivals that we could.
You said it’s just the two of you right now and I’ve read that you’ve a license to operate in four states. Where to you see this dream project taking you? Are there possibilities that you’ll launch a fleet, or a sit-down restaurant?
We have a license to operate in several towns and cities, but only in Pennsylvania. Our long-term goal, which we always have because we are “planning-ahead” people, is to have a fleet of trucks where we can employ new culinary school grads as interns, who eventually become the chef/managers of each truck – this is our educator backgrounds in which we want to always help young professionals improve their opportunities. We originally thought about doing different foods in each truck, but as we started this first truck, we realized the logistics of having several different menus and preps every day would be complicated and frankly, overwhelming. So we’ve decided to stick with The Taza Truck fleet that to create a brand that people know and love.
We may eventually open a brick and mortar, but this has never been part of the plan. We think the food truck culture in our area is so new, it can support more than one Taza Truck, so we’re shooting for that model. Food trucks also will allow us to keep our schedules flexible because we do not need to be in a restaurant 24/7 and can continue to teach in university part-time, which we both are still doing.
Would you say Egyptian food has become more familiar to the US diner, what with the sizable Egyptian community there? How well do you think The Taza Truck will hit off with non-Egyptians, or will you be relying on Egyptians as a clientele base?
Yes, there are significant Egyptian and Syrian communities in the Allentown area, and Middle Eastern food like shawerma, falafel, baba ghanoush and of course, hummus have become very popular in the past 10 years, but Egyptian food is not well known. In fact, when people think of Egypt in the US, they think of the pyramids and the old Pharaonic culture. Many Americans don’t realize that Egypt has a modern culture and different foods and flavors just like every other Middle Eastern country, which is why we decided to open an Egyptian food truck. We had gone through several different ideas such as Mediterranean because of the “healthy” idea of the Mediterranean diet, Middle Eastern because it’s popular, but in the end, we decided that with a food truck, we needed to be unique to build a brand, which is why we decided to highlight that we are Egyptian. This concept has paid off because people are really curious about Egypt in the US, so it has brought out a lot of curious “foodies.”
However, so that we can build a following, we’ve put items on our menu that are popular foods such as shawerma, falafel, Egyptian Fried Chicken (we call it EFC, like KFC), hummus, baba ghanoush, arnabit (cauliflower, which is very popular in the US), roz bi-lebban (rice pudding), and we’re introducing some not-well-known items such as koshari, basboussa, bitengan mikhalel (pickled eggplant with garlic), kofta (we call these Egyptian meatballs) and fuul (which we describe as Egyptian chili to help people understand what it is). Every time someone asks, we give them a try of something to help them get hooked.
We didn’t rely on Egyptians as a client base, but in the weeks that we’ve been open, word has gotten around the community, and many Egyptian men are coming out to find us because as they say, they can only get this food at home, so it’s great to have a place to go outside of home that serves home-cooked meals. This was a surprise to us, but we are very happy they love our food too.
Are there recipes on your menu you feel will need to be adjusted to suit US tastes or will you try to be authentic? Do you find all your ingredients locally available or do you have to come back to Egypt to pick up certain items?
We have not adjusted the flavors much at all – one of the things that drives us crazy about Americanized “ethnic” foods in the US is that the flavors get “dumbed down” to “fit the American palate.” However, many Americans love flavor and spices in their foods, so this is a huge misconception that many ethnic restaurants believe. “Making our food Americanized” undermines the entire reason for opening a restaurant serving unique Egyptian food. We tell people that we make Egyptian food with all of the richness of its flavors. If you don’t like spices and flavor, then you may not like our food, but try it, and you’ll see.
Just like us, many Americans have traveled and are self-proclaimed “foodies” and want something different with lots of flavor, but they have a hard time finding it around our area because we’re not in a big city like NY or Philly. So we said we need to make the food the way we love it, and people will either love it or hate it. So far, everyone has loved it, thankfully!
There are also vegetarian items on your menu. Tell us a little about those and why you decided to offer them.
First, many Egyptian foods are automatically vegan/vegetarian, so that was easy to sell. More importantly, veganism and vegetarianism are extremely popular in the US, especially with the clientele that we are targeting, which is the white-collar businesses and university market. We also offer gluten free, which basically means that we can serve many items without the aysh (bread). Many people in the US have celiac disease, which causes them to have digestive problems due to the amount of wheat gluten and flour in many items in the US. So it was a no brainer to highlight these types of items on the menu, and as we said, many of the items are naturally vegetarian.
We also highlight that we prepare and cook all of our meat and vegetarian items separately because we wanted to be sure anyone who has these dietary restrictions would be satisfied. Finally, we also wanted to offer separately prepared and cooked meat/veggie items because our Muslim community can then eat the vegetarian items as well. Halal meats are very challenging to obtain because they are very high priced, so we keep everything separate, and our Muslim patrons can happily eat much of our food as well.
You must be following events here in Egypt. What’s your take on how things are playing out? Do you feel your truck could serve to promote Egypt or raise awareness about any misconceptions people in the West may have about us?
We are very aware of what’s happening and feel saddened every day by much of what is happening to the people. Much of Hala’s family is still in Egypt. People in the US are curious about the situation in Egypt, but for many Americans, it is a distant place that has little connection to their daily lives. Unfortunately, the US news agencies are terrible at reporting the full story, so most Americans care, but they will always have misconceptions of the world unless they are vigilant about where they get their news.
We believe we are raising awareness of Egyptian foods and the beauty of the culture, but have made it a point to keep politics out of our food and business. We believe one of the most unifying factors across cultures is food – there are no politics in enjoying good food, and when people enjoy our food, it hopefully gives them a good feeling without thinking about the troubles of life.
Here in Egypt, politics aside, there is a noticeable boom in the food culture since the revolution, with more and more people eating out — and there’s a sudden flood of ‘traditional’ Egyptian offerings. Do you think that had any bearing on your Taza project? Could it be that Egyptians, both here and abroad, are feeling the need to reconnect with their culture and go back to their roots?
That’s a good question. Not sure if it has had an effect on our business, but we just know that people always need to eat, which is why we thought a food business, especially a truck which is a popular trend in the US, would be one that could be successful, and Egyptian food because Egypt always piques people’s interest here because of the incredibly old and influential nature of the culture. We think Egyptians have always loved food and now that we have several Egyptians eating at our truck, we’re hoping that the trend continues, of course. et