Restaurants on wheels are thriving businesses in Baghdad amid high youth unemployment
Baghdad - When Mohamad Ali graduated from Baghdad University, he was unable to find a teaching job. Instead of joining the ranks of unemployed Iraqis, he decided to start his own business — a mobile snack restaurant.
“We did not have much choice. All doors were slammed in our face after graduation,” says Ali, who started his Master Burger with the help of friends and funding from expatriate relatives.
“We invested in the purchase and refurbishing of an old caravan-style car, which we transformed into a restaurant on wheels,” Ali said. “We offer easy-to-cook popular Iraqi dishes in addition to Western-style takeaway bites such as pizzas, burgers and hotdogs.”
Ali’s food truck is regularly stationed on Karrada Street in one of Baghdad’s well-known neighbourhoods. It is painted in bright colours with lit menus. A few tables and chairs are set on the pavement next to the truck, proffering a welcoming ambience.
“It reminds me of the jolly atmosphere in Turkey during the holiday I spent with my family last summer,” says university student Hala Youssef, a regular customer whose favourite hamburger is prepared by Ali from fresh Iraqi beef.
“I think that we will all end up like Ali. Employment opportunities are almost nonexistent. We will have to look for ways to secure a living, a future,” Youssef said, adding somewhat jokingly: “In fact, with some friends, I am already planning to establish a female-only restaurant to keep us busy once we graduate.”
Mobile takeaway restaurants have multiplied in Baghdad in the past year while the official unemployment rate in Iraq topped 12% in 2016, according to the Ministry of Planning.
“The figure comprises university diploma holders and average citizens. But there is a different type of unemployment, which we call ‘incomplete,’ and this covers people with irregular and short-term jobs and those who are working in fields not related to their speciality or studies,” said the ministry’s spokesman, Abdul Zahra al-Hindawi.
“The public sector cannot accommodate the large numbers of university graduates, hence the need to bolster the private sector, the best guarantee to resolve the problem, which is worsening every year,” he added.
University graduates and students in Baghdad are credited with being the force behind the growing Western trend for food trucks, selling everything from steaks to falafel.
“I come here in the afternoon after my morning courses at the faculty of technology. The place has become very popular and I have become an expert in preparing chicken sandwiches,” says 21-year-old Haidar Slim about his part-time job at Chicken Burger, one of the mobile takeaway operations occupying Baghdad’s street corners.
“Our prices are affordable and the dishes are popular. A falafel sandwich is less than a dollar, and a chicken burger is almost two dollars,” he added.
The low cost of starting a mobile food stall is another likely reason for the business’s rapid growth in such a short time. Food truck owners don’t have to pay rent and because of the relatively small size of the operation, they do not need to employ many people.
In most cases, young entrepreneurs join forces to raise enough money to start a food-truck business, which costs 5 million-10 million Iraqi dinars ($4,000-$8,000).
Hakim Abdul Zahra, an official with the Baghdad municipality, argued that “resolving unemployment problems requires large government projects, employment strategies and funds to absorb the large numbers of university graduates.”
“Unfortunately, efforts and limited funds are reserved to security issues in light of the economic crisis plaguing the country. However, the municipality is facilitating paperwork required to start businesses, especially mobile restaurants,” Abdul Zahra said.
A draft bill for the establishment of a fund to support young graduates was downplayed by economic expert Bassem Antoine as a “mere electoral propaganda by certain political parties.”
“In fact, there is no allocation for implementing the bill in the general budget, which already suffers a huge deficit of 20 trillion Iraqi dinars,” Antoine said.
Under the proposed bill young graduates who are unable to find a job would get a monthly allocation of 250,000 dinars ($200), which they would pay back once they are employed through the deduction of 10% of their salary.