Dubai: Have you ever had to wait behind a line of cars before you realised it was the street-side eatery causing all the hullabaloo? Then, after you switched lanes, you couldn’t help but marvel at the hungry customers honking from their cars as you swerved past the commotion.
Cafeterias in the UAE have held on to their place in the hearts of the country’s residents, despite the restaurant boom all around – the food is affordable, accessible and tasty, with your next cup of chai karak never too far away. The Gulf News Food team spoke to some of the oldest cafeterias in the UAE on how they have not just stood the test of time but even thrived over the years.
One such eatery by the name of Al Ijaza Cafeteria sank its roots in Emirati soil so early that Jumeirah then just had a sandy stretch of beach on one side and a one-way street on the other – we are talking 32 long years ago.
Bespoke at a different level
Now that the scene is set, meet AK Abdurahiman – who came to the UAE in the 1980s from Kerala, India, and worked as a fruit vendor in the old Fruit and Vegetable Market in Al Hamriya, Dubai. As he sold fresh produce at the age of 17, he began dreaming of owning his very own cafeteria. Come 1990, Al Ijaza was officially open for business.
Today, the regulars of Al Ijaza Cafeteria end up parking in alleys and on gravel roads, when the store front gets too busy. The first branch sits on Jumeirah Beach Road, among other cafeterias that have popped up over the years, attracting a long line of customers looking for a quick bite. Most people prefer ordering their shawarmas and cocktails from the comfort of their cars, even if it means driving around for a bit, till the crowd thins.
If you are scratching your head at this, the recipe for Al Ijaza’s popularity is simple: juice blends, sandwich wraps and a whole lot of sincerity. Even on the cafeteria’s slowest days, the founder’s sons are always seen taking orders and serving customers alongside employees.
And, better still, every staff member will remember your exact order. Don’t like tomato in your burger? No worries, that piece of information has been filed away for the next time you come around. They will have it ready before you can even honk to grab their attention.
Even if they don’t have anything specific on the menu, they make it for you.
“We have a very big family of customers,” Azeem Abdurahman, son of Abdurahiman and the current CEO of Al Ijaza, told Gulf News Food.
“Abu Ali is our customer who has a sandwich named after him here. When he comes, we say, ‘Make two Abu Ali’s,’ because that is his personalised sandwich.”
This is an experience many cafeteria customers share.
“Even if they don’t have anything specific on the menu, they make it for you,” Urusa Moin, a 26-year-old Sharjah resident who enjoys cafeteria food, said.
“I was on a diet, so I couldn’t have cheese or oil; they made me a club sandwich without these ingredients. Or sometimes, the staff at my neighbourhood cafeteria will see my face and know I want extra garlic in my club sandwich – I don’t even need to say it. I moved to Canada for five years. When I came back to the UAE, they still remembered me.”
A sense of community and connection that has stood the test of time.
When the UAE implemented movement restrictions during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Al Ijaza, for example, offered a 25 per cent discount specifically for frontline workers. Abdurahman recalls that even though roads were normally quiet during movement restriction hours, the cafeteria still had a long queue of police cars waiting for their orders.
Cafeterias will forever be a crowd favourite in the UAE, says Abdurahman, because eating here will “not break your pocket”.
And so, you have them located on most street corners, with a fresh menu and endless snacking possibilities at budget friendly rates. This will, indeed, keep the pockets intact and the stomach full.
“There are many stories behind this,” Abdurahman added. “Some people say it’s the name of a football player or an Emirati customer who had ordered from a cafeteria here.”
Even though Al Ijaza whipped up the first Hassan Mathar shawarma 25 years ago, Abdurahman admits that the name might be a bit of a random selection.
For Ijaza, the cafeteria’s busiest days fall on Eid holidays, a time when the eatery sells 1,500 fruit juices and 1,400 sandwiches in a day, according to Abdurahman. Because the oldest of its four branches in Dubai lies along the Jumeirah Beach Road with limited parking space, customers in cars often have to be told to place their orders and circle back a few minutes later, in case they jam the entire street.
“It happens every Eid,” he added.
Refuel yourself while you refuel your car
Many of these cafeterias can be found next to petrol stations as well. It’s the perfect location for anyone who has a few minutes to spare and could be tempted by the idea of a quick bite.
One such cafeteria, which is situated in the heart of the residential hub in Al Qassimiya area in Sharjah, is the Al Qasmia Cafeteria. For the everyday commuter, it is the perfect pit stop for a tea or food break. It is a small set up, and has – in fact – stayed that way since it was established in 1989 by Sharjah-based Indian expatriate KH Moideen. That may be because while the area may have been a quiet residential district back when it was first opened, today it is one of the bustling hubs of Sharjah. So, despite a limited menu – which includes karak chai, parotta roll, samosas, boiled egg sandwiches, and some hot drinks – there is always a fleet of cars waiting to refuel at the petrol station, while the drivers hop over to grab a quick refreshment.
For Moideen, the idea to open the cafeteria spun off from a tiffin service that he had started among family and friends, after a short stint working at a supermarket in Abu Dhabi, which did not completely satisfy his entrepreneurial spirit.
The tiffin service, initially, sold only a ‘parotta roll’. It was a simple combination, but an instant hit – minced meat placed on layered flatbread, with mayonnaise and hot sauce.
Soon, Moideen wanted to establish a more permanent set up. He took all his earnings and set up a brick and mortar establishment – the Al Qasmia Cafeteria.
The restaurant continues to serve the famed ‘parotta roll’ and karak chai among other items on the menu and the best part of it all is that no item on the menu costs more than Dh6. And that price, too, is if you want to upgrade to a ‘special’ roll, which has fries and cheese added. Skip that, and it will only set you back by Dh5.
“Our karak chai and parotta roll are very popular and we have customers who have been having the same items for a very long time,” 53-year-old Samruddin, who has been working at the cafeteria for 11 years, told Gulf News Food.
He added that the convenience of picking up a quick bite was particularly attractive for working professionals on the go.
“We cater to delivery riders, those on long road trips and even those who are going to the office early in the morning,” Samruddin added.
One such loyal customer is Indian expatriate Thomas Chacko.
"There's never been a day where I skipped a cup of tea before I headed to work. This place serves one of the best cups of karak and it's just priced at Dh1. A lot of things have changed in the UAE in the past 26 years, but not Al Qasmia's tea. It remains close to my heart, especially because it is a part of my daily routine,” he said.
A personal connection
This ability to build enduring relationships with their customers seems to be another reason for the success of the cafeteria business in the UAE. Over the years, many cafeteria chains have gone on to build a loyal customer base. The Jabal Al Noor cafeteria, which originally started with a shop on Al Diyafah street in the Satwa area, is another such chain of eateries.
Basit Siraj, whose grandfather was one of the founders of the first cafeteria, spoke about how while the cafeteria was popular initially with an Emirati clientele, today the customers come from every nationality and walk of life.
“Five partners started this cafeteria together in 1987 and now it has around seven branches. We have another cafeteria chain – Kafayef – which has six branches,” Siraj told Gulf News.
The other partners, too, have their sons taking over the mantle of running the popular chain. Saifudheen Ponnandy, who is the son of one of the founding members, said that the popularity of the chain is also because of the personal approach that the owners have towards serving their customers.
“They like our food but they also come here because of how we treat them. It is like you would treat a guest in your own home. No matter where I go, even if I work in any other field, I don’t think I will be able to achieve what I have achieved through this business, so I’m very thankful to our parents and to this business,” he said.
Jabir Poyikara, another one of the founding member’s sons, spoke about how despite the low costs, cafeterias were good business for him and others, too. Speaking about the sheer scale of operations, Poyikara said: “Back in the 1990s, we used to have so many customers, that it would block the roads. In a day, we would sell over 1,000 shawarmas, over 2,000 burgers, and even make the juice in big buckets, because of the amount we had to make. Four workers would just be assigned to making the cocktails and juices. Five workers would make the sandwiches. In a day, we would have a business of over Dh20,000, with the burger costing just Dh3, the shawarma costing Dh2, Dh5 for the juice.”
In a day, we would sell over 1,000 shawarmas, over 2,000 burgers, and even make the juice in big buckets, because of the amount we had to make. Four workers would just be assigned to making the cocktails and juices. Five workers would make the sandwiches. In a day, we would have a business of over Dh20,000, with the burger costing just Dh3, the shawarma costing Dh2, Dh5 for the juice.
Over the years, the prices may have increased marginally, but the business owners have also adapted to ensure they continue to offer value for money.
“Back then, we were working out of a small space, from where we sold these three items at first – shawarmas, burgers and juices. Then, we expanded the menu and also our shop. We added items like charcoal chicken and other grills. The most popular grills are pepper charcoal, green chili charcoal, regular charcoal. At our main branch, alone, we sell over 200 chicken charcoals in a day. Alhamdulillah, it is good businesss,” he added.
For Saifudheen Ponnandy of Jabal Al Noor cafeteria, the criteria for coming up with a name for a milkshake is simple – it has to be interesting.
“Because if the name is interesting, people will ask ‘what’s that?’ then we give an explanation, and they might want to try it. That’s the first step,” he said.
The marketing strategy seems to be working!
A part of everyday life
Despite the boom in the food sector in the UAE, which has seen new restaurants, delivery apps and food ideas crop up across the country, cafeterias continue to be a part of everyday life of most UAE residents.
38-year-old Dubai businessman Huzaifa Shabbir Kalimi said that he stops over at his neighbourhood cafeteria almost every day.
“It’s close to home, you have a drive-through experience and is accessible. I’ll sit in my car, order the chai and it will be delivered. It’s simple and convenient. So, I stop over practically every day on my way to work. On most days I order a karak chai and sometimes get a chicken sandwich. It is filling enough to be a good breakfast. Even though I could order breakfast on an app, I still prefer going and getting it myself. It is just more convenient and a routine that works for me,” he said.
Having grown up in the UAE, cafeterias also hold a slight sentimental value for Kalimi.
“Back when we were young, we would go to the cafeteria with friends. I still remember getting a banana milkshake and a burger. This was back in school, something that we would always do. It is a very fond memory of mine,” he said.
Back when we were young, we would go to the cafeteria with friends. I still remember getting a banana milkshake and a burger. This was back in school, something that we would always do. It is a very fond memory of mine.
Food on credit
“There is a cafeteria in Sharjah in Al Azra area that gave us their menu when they had newly opened in 2006,” said Muhammad Riaz, another expat who has lived all 25 years of his life in the UAE.
“My siblings and I started ordering chicken burger and shawarma from them because my parents would be at work. I was 11 years old. When my parents travelled to Pakistan, we ordered food on credit for seven months. No other restaurant did that. I still go to the same cafeteria every time I’m in Sharjah. It just feels healthier than other fast foods.”
My siblings and I started ordering chicken burger and shawarma from them because my parents would be at work. I was 11 years old. When my parents travelled to Pakistan, we ordered food on credit for seven months. No other restaurant did that. I still go to the same cafeteria every time I’m in Sharjah.
This ability to go above and beyond seems to have done the trick for these little food businesses peppered around the city’s roads.
In the short while that the Gulf News Food team was at the Jabal Al Noor cafeteria, for example, we saw numerous cars stopping over, rolling down their window and giving a quick order. Inside, a municipality worker walked in to grab a cup of karak. At a table nearby, two female saleswomen munched on a club sandwich and spoke about how they often came to the cafeteria when they had a short break at work. Around an unassuming corner of Al Diyafah Road in Satwa, here it was – a snapshot of the many people who make the UAE.