BEIRUT: Many Lebanese have fond memories of traveling abroad and having a taste of local street food from a truck – be it hot dogs and pretzels in New York or bitteballe in Amsterdam. But back at home, there are few opportunities to get a quick and simple meal from a roving cook on wheels. They might see a stigma attached to street food as being low end, or the concept seems too foreign, or perhaps they’ve just never had the opportunity to have good quality food from a truck.
Andre Gerges was banking on the third option when in April he launched “Spuds: the mobile potato bar.”
Now, six months down the road – with two employees and a food warehouse in Dikwaneh – his bet seems to be paying off.
Today he is almost at the point of breaking even on his investment and expects to be making a profit in about four months, sooner than he expected.
“People like it because it’s different – it’s not hotdogs or hamburgers,” says Gerges, founder of Lebanon’s first mobile baked-potato business, under the company Game Foods, which he co-founded with his friend Elie Abi Aad, who studied hospitality management with him at Sagesse.
The novelty of the concept is that it has no discernible origin: The business is internationally inspired with the idea of the food truck from the United States, the baked potato from England and the fillings from Turkey. However, Gerges is proud to say that all of the ingredients are locally grown.
But the originality of the concept isn’t the only draw for diners on the move. There are also the low prices, which range from LL6,000 to LL11,000. And then there is the key ingredient: a simple and reliable menu of potatoes and vegetables.
The menu also includes two types of Gerges’ own homemade cookies: large chocolate chip and Oreo-peanut butter (at LL4,000 each).
Whatever the reason, the Spuds truck attracts lines of eager street diners for lunch, dinner and midnight munchies.
“Sometimes people come back three times in one night,” Gerges says, somewhat in amazement at the popularity of his enterprise that is flourishing despite – or perhaps because of – its quirkiness.
The bright yellow truck – which takes up two spaces – is parked in different neighborhoods throughout Beirut, sometimes making appearances in other parts of the country such as Jounieh and Faqra, as well as big festivals such as at Wicker Park in Batroun earlier this month.
About three hours before the Spuds truck arrives in an area, Gerges alerts his 650 followers on Facebook and a similar number on Twitter of his truck’s next whereabouts so they’ll know where to get their hot potatoes. Once he gets there, he checks in on Foursquare.
Gerges’ favorite spot to park his truck is in Mar Mikhael. There, on the main street lined with bars and nightclubs, he gets the best business from late-night revelers who like to get a quick bite to eat between their evening drinks and late-night dancing.
He once tried parking his truck in front of the Four Seasons Hotel across from Zaitunay Bay, but he says an unwelcoming security guard told him to leave – even after showing his permit – so he returned to the more casual and friendly Mar Mikhael.
But it was a long road to the fun-welcoming streets of Mar Mikhael.
Gerges says he spent two years applying for a work permit and getting approval from the Health, Interior and Tourism ministries as well as from various municipalities.
Now that he has all of the required paperwork for his mobile food business, Gerges is looking forward to opening a second truck in the coming months. He says he would like to branch out into the region and also into other quick meals, such as sandwiches – but he doesn’t have plans to abandon the beloved tuber that put him in business.
“I love the potato,” he says. “It’s a simple, tasty food.”