The street food scene in Leeds has exploded and now a new wave of authentic mobile eateries are opening up. Neil Hudson meets The Falafel Guys
One has a degree in international business management, the other has a degree in mechanical engineering and a masters in business management but for the last 12 months brothers Abdalla and Ahmed Gouda have been making a name for themselves selling falafels on the streets of Leeds.
It might seem like an unlikely career choice for two graduates, especially when you consider academia seems to run in their family – their mother is a doctor, their father a professor and one of their brothers works as a surgeon in Leeds – but, as Ahmed, 24, who came up with the idea, explains: “This is like a miniature factory in a way. We source all the ingredients for the products, we make the products and then we sell them.”
And sell them they most certainly do. The duo, who are known as The Falafel Guys and whom can be found in their distinctive red trailer pod outside M&S on Briggate, have been number one on tripadvisor for four months.
But, as Abdalla, 29, explains, in the beginning they were unsure is the venture would work.
“I was working as an engineer in the Jaguar Land Rover factory, which was a good, steady, secure job. You might ask why I would want to leave that. In fact, people did ask me that. But I believed in Ahmed and in his idea.”
Ahmed came up with the idea part way through his degree course at Wolverhampton University, inspired partly by his Egyptian heritage and partly by his mother, Ebtesam’s, traditional homemade recipes for falafels, humous and other things.
“In Egypt, people eat falafels with everything.
They have it for breakfast, dinner and evening meal, even if you wake up at 2am and want a snack, you’ll eat falafel and it’s something I grew up with. Egypt is also known in the Middle East as having some of the best falafel but when I came to the UK, I just thought what was here wasn’t the same quality.”
Both brothers had grown up with their mother’s cooking and knew she could make some of the best falafel going but bringing the authentic street food to Leeds was harder than they thought.
“We had to get the pitch on Briggate, which took about a year,” says Abdalla. “But in the meantime, we had expenses, because we had to buy the trailer and all the equipment and ingredients and so on and we still didn’t know if it was going to work or what to expect.
“On our first day, we didn’t know if we would sell anything... but we actually sold out. That was about a year ago, because we opened on December 14 and since then we have been ranked on number one on tripadvisor and had so much good feedback from customers.”
When I pay a visit to The Falafel Guys to observe them at work, it’s not hard to see how they have managed to built up such a loyal following in so short a time. Both have the ‘gift of the gab’ and seem to find it easy to slip into friendly banter with their customers, many of whom they know by name. During my visit, Abdalla namechecks at least three customers, while Ahmed suddenly surprises all of those waiting in line by offering them a chance to taste the humous he has just finished making, holding out pieces of chopped cucumber coated in the dip, which (like everything on their street food stand) is made according to their mum’s secret recipe.
Although born in Leeds (their father, Ramzy, was teaching in Leeds at the time), Abdalla went back to live in Egypt at the age of three, only returning to the UK when he was about 10. Ahmed, meanwhile, was born in Egypt but came with the family and ended up making a life for himself here, to begin with living in Coventry.
“Dad moved about a lot with his work, so we were in Coventry for 17 years but we decided to open the business here in Leeds because it’s so vibrant in terms of culture and people actually talking to each other, which is not the case so much down south. In a way, Leeds reminds us of Egypt, because it’s like that here in terms of people stopping to talk to you and giving you the time of day. Leeds feels friendly and we’ve had a good reception from people.”
The Falafel Guys bright red trailer pod can be found on Briggate six days a week, from 11am to about 6pm, during which time they sell a “simple but complex” menu, consisting of falafels which cater for three different tastes: vegan, vegetarian and meat, but each is layered with sauces, spices and pickles, plus salad, so it’s certainly something you can make a meal of.
“Our mother always said ‘if you are going to do something, do it well and be generous’” says Ahmed. “Our motto is ‘come hungry, leave happy.’ We’re happy to make things to order, whatever people want. Everything we make is made from scratch, using our own recipes, which is what sets us apart really from other places. That’s also why keeping out menu simple works. I think falafel is one of those things that if you are going to do it, you have to be an expert at it. Our menu might appear simple, in that we only do falafels but the flavours in there are so complex.”
Abdalla adds: “We’ve learnt a lot over the last 12 months. In the beginning, we were working 20 hour days, running around here, there and everywhere, going to suppliers every day and sometimes forgetting things and having to go back but we have become more efficient, so now we do have time for ourselves.”
It’s a good job they get on with each other, too, because aside from spending seven hours a day cramped inside a tiny van selling falafels, they also live together. “If we ever do fall out, we’re friends again ten minutes later,” laughs Abdalla.
The pair plan to expand their business, perhaps opening Falafel Guys stands in other cities across the North and say they are planning something special for their first anniversary.
Falafel is believed to have originated in Pharaonic Egypt
It’s a delicacy across the Middle East, from Morocco to Syria
Falafel is a great meat substitute, high in protein, fibre and complex carbohydrates
McDonalds tried to tap into the craze in Egypt, making their own McFalafel
TripAdvisor: Falafel Guys Leeds
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