Foodies are hot on the meals on the wheels. Hungry customers flock around food trucks seeking a delicious, economical alternative to the typical stuff. Hasan al Lawati meets truck owners to get a taste of the treat on the streets of Muscat
As dusk falls a stretch of road in Al Hail slowly comes alive as foodies gather around the Salsa food truck to savour the delicious dishes served at reasonable prices.
Like Salsa several food trucks are popping up in Oman eager to dish out appetising meals to share a slice of the sizzling street food market.
Many young Omani entrepreneurs are taking the street food business to a whole new level by serving scrumptious dishes from kitchens mounted on specially designed trucks.
It is a familiar picture in Muscat and elsewhere in the country now as hungry families and harried office staff line up outside the food trucks to gorge on the treats whipped up by young Omani boys.
Ahmed Al Huzaib and his cousin Ali Al Busaidi who started Salsa 14 months ago are excited with the response from foodies.
Ask any street food enthusiast in Muscat about Salsa, and he or she shall tell you all you need to know about it, from the menu to the location to the peak hours of business. Salsa serves a variety of delectable dishes, and it attracts around 300 costumers every weekend.
“We are delighted to receive a great response from food lovers. With Muscat becoming more and more cosmopolitan, the food truck business is certain to grow big over the next few years,” says Al Huzaib.
Young entrepreneurs in Oman are attracted to the food truck business for multiple reasons, including low start-up and overhead costs.
“It is really easy and affordable to set up a food truck here. It takes only three weeks to fully set up the business once you have a truck. The best part is that you do not have to pay any rent,” explains Al Huzaib.
Meet, chat and eat
Friends and families flocking around food trucks and tucking into their meals cooked in no time in front of their eyes are a common sight in Muscat’s busy localities now.
You get to dig your teeth into an awesome variety of food, from burgers to grills to barbeques, all whipped up within a few minutes of placing the order as you chat with your friend or family.
The business is picking up after the government legalised the food truck sector, allowing ambitious entrepreneurs to pitch their carts.
The Omani government gave the green signal to food truck businesses in 2016, and a year after Muscat Municipality issued a list of health and safety requirements to regulate the mobile eateries.
Rules and regulations
Just like the brick-and-mortar restaurant, one needs to get a business licence to start the street business. That means food truck owners must obtain a one-year, renewable municipal licence.
After getting necessary approvals from the authorities concerned, food trucks can be parked in any public place, including beaches, stadiums, Eid habta locations and parking lots of public parks. Rules, however, stipulate that the truck should not be parked within 200 metres of a restaurant.
Qais Al Kushri, Director General of the Directorate General of Health Affairs at Muscat Municipality, says: “Last year the rules related to the food truck business were amended and now the kitchen cabin has to be separate from the part of the vehicle where the driver sits.”
The rules also require that the owners should guarantee that the trucks are not be used for any other purpose but cooking and selling food.
Open to Omanis only
At the moment the food truck business is open only to Omanis registered with the Public Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises.
But Ahmed Al Huzaib is not happy with the 100 per cent Omanisation norm for employing staff as well. “I think allowing expats to be employed in this business will help us Omani entrepreneurs. It is difficult for us to find Omani employees. We hire our cousins who join us after college to cook and serve,” he says.
He points out that Last Exit, a popular street food truck park in Dubai, has expat workers and it’s now a tourist destination.
“I think the authorities should rethink the rule on employing workers. Expatriates should be allowed to work in the street food business. This will help us function better and contribute to attracting tourists too.”
The food truck business is thriving because of the vision of entrepreneurs like Abdullah Al Houti, founder of Oman Food Trucks, a consultancy and food truck designing company. The company was established two years ago to cash in on the growing popularity of food trucks.
Al Houti’s team designed more than seven food trucks last year. He says: “There is no doubt that the food truck business will continue to grow. I guess it pays off to have a food truck design that delivers.”
The trucks come in many sizes and different exterior designs, depending on the scale of operation and the cuisine served.
“Many Omanis came up with exceptional ideas and business concepts when it came to designing the trucks. More people here are looking for new food experiences as you can see a restaurant with a new theme opening in Muscat almost every day,” says Houti.
Oman Food Trucks also takes part in events. “More than 9,000 people showed up at the Muscat Eat event organised recently. Several food trucks participated and food lovers responded positively,” Al Houti added.
Friendly regulations, please
Al Houti also wants some amendments to the current rules related to running of the business. “The law stipulates that food truck business owners should be working full time on their project and that they should not have any other business registered under their names.”
Al Houti argues that such laws restrict Omani businessmen who want to compete locally and export their brands to neighbouring countries. “I think they should allow Omanis to expand their business ideas.”
Though food trucks started by selling only meat barbeques, locally known as Mashakeek, they are now offering chicken, seafood, vegetarian and sweets dishes.
Marine Station, one of the latest additions to the country’s portable food scene, serves juice, burgers, soup and seafood grills and barbeques.
Emad Said al Battashi, founder of Marine Station, decided to open a food truck business because it was cheaper than opening a restaurant. “Rents are too expensive in Muscat. A food truck costs less and so we are testing the waters with this project. We might think of starting a restaurant later.”
The 33-year-old businessman works with a team of six, all from the same family. The new brand took part in Muscat Eat and received a great response. “We will have another truck near Al Mouj Muscat as soon as we get our municipal licence.”
So, is it all that easy to set up the business?
Of course not. There are challenges, starting from finding the right truck to getting the staff required. It took seven months for Al Battashi to find a truck that was not expensive and fit the local standards.
Hisham Al Jabri, owner of Change, a burger restaurant in Salalah who is set to open a branch in Al Khoudh, rented a food truck for a couple of days during the Muscat Eat event to run a teaser for their upcoming venture.
“We decided to rent a food truck to promote our upcoming restaurant. But we were surprised by the demand. We made more money from the truck than we normally make from our restaurant business,” he says.
This experience has made Hisham and his partners Ahmed Al Kindi and Salim Al Yahyai to think of entering the food truck business one day.
The food trucks business is a happy situation for everyone concerned. While the customers get delectable food at reasonable prices, the owners enjoy low start-up expenditures and rent-free space, and the portable advantage makes it easy for them to pop up just about anywhere they get good business.