Do you truly savour the food you eat? If your answer to this question is no, Arwa Abou Shakra is here to make you change your mind. The twenty-four year old Egyptian developed an innovative catering concept for her family’s business that aims at improving the diet of the Arab world.
Long, curly hair, a welcoming smile and lots of positive energy: Arwa is twenty-four years old and the Head of ‘Varak’ – “Egypt’s newest, finest, trendiest, and most distinctive catering & events company”. “Varak is a word in Sanskrit language. It’s the edible gold leaf that they use to decorate chocolate and food. For me this is the perfect, finishing touch,” she says. Her eyes lighten up and she goes on: “With Varak, I want to introduce fine dining catering to Egypt and create culinary experiences that cannot be repeated. I would like people to savour the food they eat. Especially in the Arab world, people tend to focus on quantity rather than the actual taste. This is where I step in.”
Varak was launched in 2016. Arwa developed the business plan on the premise to treat food as art. “We love to constantly re-invent dishes and get inspired by the experimental food and beverage scene,” she explains. If you follow VarakEG’s Instagram account, you see what she means: caesar salad shots, lychee ginger tart, or cranberry, maple and balsamic-roasted chicken are not the typical catering dishes.
Building on family legacy
Varak Catering & Events is a part of the Abou Shakra Group, which started off as a single restaurant on one of Cairo’s highstreets in 1947. The restaurant’s strict quality control — from the meat to the spices to the coal on which it was grilled — were unseen. Hussein Abou Shakra, Arwa’s father, heads the Abou Shakra Group in Cairo. He explains: “My father treated this first restaurant like a precious diamond. ‘There is only one Parisian Maxim’s in the world. And I only want one Castle of the Nile in the world!’ is what he used to say. But me and my brother had lots of ideas and energy at that time.”
And so, in 1985, the transformation of a single restaurant into what is known as Abou Shakra Group today, began. Abou Shakra were the first to introduce tent celebrations and oriental nights for tourists, the first Egyptian fast-food brand (‘Shakra 2 Go’), and the concept of franchising to the Egyptian market. The Group is also active in the realm of hospitality training and food production. Fish & Fisher, an additional restaurant chain, focuses on seafood, while Arwa heads the catering & events business for a good reason.
Turning perspectives, networks and passions into a career
The second eldest of three siblings studied hospitality management in Glion, Switzerland and returned to Egypt in the beginning of 2016. During her studies, she learned that perfection lies in the details. Furthermore, she is of the opinion that her generation seems to be “career-shifting,” as she coins the term. As a result of the early exposure to international studies and technology, the Millennial observes that her friends have broad perspectives, networks and passions. “In our careers, we try to nurture these. This means that we push ourselves into various different fields as opposed to following just one path.”
Leaving her mark on the family business
With Varak, Arwa managed to translate her passion for experimenting with food into a business. Did she do so by following her family’s leadership style? “I think that I am more courageous in taking risks. Previous generations in Egypt were cautious and halted the projects they envisioned or were working on due to the changes that were happening in the country. My generation, however, took this opportunity into their hands and founded start-up businesses altogether. We gained confidence in applying the revolution to everything, even the professional field.”
“Being involved in a family business can be tricky. You want to leave your mark on the company, but you also don’t want to affect the heritage of older generations. If there is one thing I wish to be acknowledged for, it would be transforming the simplest act of eating into a more enjoyable experience. I would like people to experience that choosing an item on the menu can be mouth-watering, that reading the ingredients of an item can awaken our taste buds, and that a highlighted simple commodity such as salt can develop into an aromatic flavour that fills their imagination.
Food is really magic. Egyptians have long forgotten how their ancestors, the Pharaohs, or previous dynasties like the Ottomans treated food and dining. Having said that, my aim is the following: quality, rather than quantity; experience, rather than duty; and five senses, rather than simply one. This is dining.”
‘Career-shifting’ into unconquered territory
Both father and daughter hope for the Group to undergo a transformation from a family business into a listed company. Additionally, they are working on the expansion into the Gulf countries and Europe, “Insh’Allah,” adds Hussein. The Group is also analysing the possibility to enter the field of food production for super markets, restaurants, and hotels with a new factory in Egypt.
And how about our Millennial CEO? “We are actively pursuing these objectives, but as I mentioned before: Millennials are ‘career-shifters’. In Switzerland, I discovered a new passion. I do hope that one day, when you visit Egypt again, we can organise a tasting in my gourmet chocolate shop, or have lunch in my farm boutique restaurant. You never know where your passions take you!”
Video production: Scott McNamara
This article is a part of the ’Millennial CEOs’ series in which we zoom into Millennials’ lives and ask ’What drives the next generation of business leaders?’