Bringing home the hummus: How MENA's food delivery industry reaped the rewards of post-COVID eating habits
Even as much of the international community seems eager to move on from the pandemic, restaurants in the Middle East and North Africa will likely be dealing with the economic effects of COVID-19 for years to come.
In the Arab world, as across most of the globe, few sectors felt the economic devastation of COVID more than the food industry: from Lebanon to Tunisia, lockdowns forced the closure of eateries that were already working with tight profit margins. In this challenging environment, however, a new generation of restaurateurs has learned to thrive.
"In a report on the impact of COVID on the food industry in the United Arab Emirates in 2020, the payment service provider Network International concluded that 'online transactions climbed more than 15% in May over reported volumes in March, growing further by over 30% in October as delivery became a popular and preferred choice following lockdown restrictions'
In the early months of 2020, regionwide lockdowns required restaurants to shut their doors to customers looking to dine in. Even so, many governments in the Middle East and North Africa continued to permit food delivery, a nascent service in the region conducive to social distancing because it required little physical contact.
Safae Zine, a student in Casablanca at the time, saw an opportunity. Her mother, Khadija Mifdal, had just earned a diploma in the culinary arts.
Safae suggested that Khadija, a homemaker, launch a virtual kitchen specialising in Moroccan cuisine. The restaurant would exist only on Instagram, where users of the social networking site could express interest in a variety of dishes; the mother-daughter duo would then deliver the takeaway to them.
When Khadija agreed to the idea, Safae repurposed an old Instagram account with several thousand followers, replacing the previous posts with pictures of her mother’s cooking. The two decided to name their delivery-only restaurant La Casa de Beldi.
“The pandemic gave us the push to start the business because we had nothing to do,” Safae tells The New Arab. “Everyone was just bored at home. We had a lot of time on our hands.”
Safae and Khadija employed a mix of techniques to build their customer base. They promoted the new venture’s Instagram account, @la_casa_de_beldi, by conducting outreach to users stuck at home during Morocco’s initial lockdown and by providing meals to influencers in exchange for publicity.
Clients could place orders by messaging La Casa de Beldi’s Instagram account or by calling or texting one of its two numbers on WhatsApp. Safae described Instagram, where the virtual kitchen now has well over 24,000 followers, as “the biggest source of orders.”
Safae, her mother, and an assistant work behind the scenes to coordinate food delivery with a network of freelance drivers. While she now has left Casablanca to pursue a master’s degree in business law at the International University of Rabat, the online nature of La Casa de Beldi has allowed her involvement with the business to continue even as she lives in another city.
La Casa de Beldi’s success has repeated itself on the other side of the Arab world. In a report on the impact of COVID on the food industry in the United Arab Emirates in 2020, the payment service provider Network International concluded that “online transactions climbed more than 15 percent in May over reported volumes in March, growing further by over 30 percent in October as delivery became a popular and preferred choice following lockdown restrictions.”
Rime, an expatriate in Dubai who declined to provide her last name, saw the spike in delivery first-hand when that city underwent a lockdown in 2020. “I think ordering food was the only possible activity during that time,” she told The New Arab. “I remember that, at a certain point, if you looked out the window, you would only see delivery motorcycles on the roads.”
A number of homegrown and foreign-owned services for food delivery in the Emirates predated the pandemic, including Careem Now, Deliveroo, Talabat, Uber Eats, and Zomato. Nonetheless, the spread of COVID led to an increase in the options available to the country’s residents.
“Food delivery was always around, but there were certain restaurants that you wouldn’t find that started offering it during the pandemic,” recalled Rime. “Also, not just ready-to-eat foods, but grocery delivery has become much more frequent as well. Before the pandemic, very few platforms offered that. But now almost everyone is doing it.”
Careem Now began offering the delivery of groceries and medicine in April 2020. “Careem’s pledge to assist the community, its partners, customers and Captains during these confusing times is our top priority,” the top Careem official Gheed El Makkaoui said back then. “This new product launch enables us to further meet the needs of the community.”
Two years later, the widespread availability of food delivery has turned into a lifeline for many in the Middle East and North Africa. Jack Carew, an American studying Arabic in Amman, contracted COVID in mid-January, forcing him to quarantine under guidelines set by Jordan.
"The more Arab governments ease COVID restrictions, the more virtual kitchens like La Casa de Beldi will have to compete not only with other delivery-only restaurants but also with traditional eateries, where customers can once again dine in"
“Luckily, I had gone grocery shopping before I tested positive, so I had some provisions,” Jack told The New Arab. “But midway through the week, I was craving chicken shawarma.”
He used Talabat’s mobile app to order a “classic chicken shawarma sandwich” from Shawermerz, a restaurant in Amman that Talabat users give 4.5 stars out of five. “I had never been there before, but the reviews looked good,” Jack recounted. “Probably 20 minutes after I ordered, the food arrived and I was able to eat my sandwich.”
Even if the pandemic recedes and situations like Jack’s grow rarer, a reversal in the rise of food delivery in the Arab world appears unlikely.
A summer 2020 survey of 841 Kuwaiti adults published in the academic journal Sustainability found that, after the outset of the pandemic, 74 percent of respondents modified “their food purchasing behaviour” and 42.8 percent employed “online food delivery services.” The authors of the study determined: “The closures, restrictions, and changes in food purchasing evidently influenced individual’s eating behaviours.”
When El Makkaoui, the Careem official, was explaining his company’s plans to partner with online grocers, he referred to “online grocery shopping” as “part of our new normal given the convenience, ease, and safety it offers.” According to a report by Derived from Data News, revenue from food delivery grew 41 percent in Qatar, 43 percent in Kuwait, 54 percent in Bahrain, 61 percent in the Emirates, and 173 percent in Saudi Arabia from 2019 to 2020.
“I know people who will order every day without fail, especially in the workplace,” said Rime, the Dubai-based expatriate. She herself uses food delivery at least once a week.
For all these successes, food delivery in the Middle East and North Africa has encountered obstacles. In September 2021, the Associated Press reported that the upsurge in online orders in Dubai had resulted in an increase in injuries and even deaths as couriers raced to deliver meals to customers on time.
The abundance of competition also makes for a tough market: Uber Eats stopped operating in the Emirates in 2020, and Glovo withdrew from Egypt months before the pandemic even took hold there. Talabat then expanded its presence in the country.
Smaller outfits face the competition of their own. “We weren’t the only people with this idea,” said Safae, the co-operator of La Casa de Beldi. “We saw a lot of similar pages and concepts.”
La Casa de Beldi outdid its rivals by prioritising customer service. “Many of the other businesses charged extra for delivery or asked customers to come to pick up orders, whereas we offered delivery for free,” she told The New Arab. “My mom is also really friendly.”
The more Arab governments ease COVID restrictions, the more virtual kitchens like La Casa de Beldi will have to compete not only with other delivery-only restaurants but also with traditional eateries, where customers can once again dine in.
In some countries, such as Iraq, clients were eating inside restaurants even when the pandemic seemed to be reaching its height.
Safae already has a plan for how La Casa de Beldi can outcompete its brick-and-mortar rivals in the post-COVID era: the virtual kitchen will open a complementary storefront in Casablanca for customers interested in viewing and buying goods in person.
Still, she expects La Casa de Beldi’s online presence to remain at the heart of its business model, given the role that food delivery and the pandemic played in getting the ambitious project off the ground.
“COVID helped us gain more fame and popularity,” she concludes.
Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired