What’s Cooking in Cambridge?

Food truckPhotos by Sasha Pedro.

If you asked Mohammad Abo-Sharkh what sets his food truck apart from the rest, he’d say it’s the koshari.

The Egyptian dish, also known as “kushari,” usually consists of rice, lentils, chickpeas, crispy onions, and macaroni served with a tangy tomato sauce. Zaaki Food Truck offers a unique spin on it, removing the macaroni to cut back on carbs and offering customers two vegetarian sides to accompany it. Customers also have the choice of adding meat to the dish.

Abo-Sharkh runs the food truck with his sister-in-law, Samar Abdalelah. By trade, he’s a software engineer, while she’s an experienced cook who graduated valedictorian from culinary school. Abo-Shakh says neither of them knew much about starting a business. 

But thanks in large part to a program that the city plans to expand in the coming months, Abo-Sharkh and Abdalelah were able to find their bearings and establish what he described as a successful business with close ties to Cambridge.

“Our best locations are in Cambridge,” Abo-Sharkh says. “Our best customers in are Cambridge.”

The city’s Food Business Incubator Program was announced in late August. It combines elements of an existing program focused on removing barriers to starting a food truck business with a new series of workshops meant to provide lessons focused on different aspects of running a food business.

“We have a really nice suite of services that we now offer these really great businesses,” says Christina DiLisio. DiLisio is the associate economic development specialist at the Cambridge Community Development Department and has spearheaded the food truck program and its predecessor, the food truck pilot.

DiLisio explained that the program’s predecessor was met with widespread success and well-received by the community, and that the city was looking to build on that success by expanding the program.

One of the main goals of the pilot that blossomed first into the food truck program and later into the food incubator program was to support business owners without prior experience in the food industry, or those who did not own a food business in Cambridge.

The program was also meant to assist minority and women business owners specifically, who might otherwise face roadblocks in starting a business because of how they identify.

She says that the program is hitting those goals, with 70 percent of the 26 applicants to the food truck program for the 2019-2020 year identifying as women or minorities.

Muhammad Faheem Anjum was one of those applicants. He was a gold and silver smith in Pakistan before he came to the United States as an asylum seeker to escape sectarian violence in his home country. He started his food truck business, Kebabish Food Truck, in 2017.

“[The food truck program] is very good for us,” Anjum says. Anjum says he also plans to participate in at least one of the upcoming workshops.

The incubator program is part of larger efforts by the city to buoy the retail scene which is informed by the findings of a 2017 report it commissioned.

The report recommended the city take steps to support small businesses and keep business districts within the city vibrant and engaging for residents as a means of combating a number of storefront vacancies.

The findings of the report led to the expansion of a grant program for small businesses, as well as the creation of programs for businesses in Harvard Square and Inman Square to combat the effects of construction in those areas, among other efforts.

CDD Economic Development Director Lisa Hemmerle says that the overall goal of the programming being rolled out by the city was to make it easier for businesses to get off the ground in Cambridge, and that in her eyes, that’s exactly what those programs have accomplished. 

“I think that’s where we’ve been very successful,” she says. 

The program arrives at a moment when retail in general is facing uncertainty, both in Cambridge and nationwide.

Store closures have been widespread across the country, prompting some to describe the situation as a “retail apocalypse.”

Meanwhile, closures and vacancies among stores in Harvard Square have spawned concerns within the community about how the area is performing.

At the same time, restaurateurs in the area have complained about the tight labor market. As of August, the unemployment rate sat at 2.9 percent.

In many ways, the workshops within the incubator program are meant to address some of those issues.

One of the upcoming workshops scheduled for April looks at examining ways to hire and retain staff. 

Another scheduled for March looks at options for businesses that go beyond traditional brick and mortar offerings, as food delivery services like GrubHub become more prominent and the concept of a “virtual kitchen”—a food vendor without a physical presence—becomes more mainstream.

Theodora Skeadas, the head of local business group Cambridge Local First, says that she and her organization both support the attempt to bolster food businesses in the city, though she noted it might be difficult to ensure attendance due to the demanding nature of running a business full-time. 

“I think it’s great,” she says. “We want to offer educational workshops and resources to food businesses in the city… so thumbs up from me and Cambridge Local First.”

This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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