Running a collaborative food market
About Eish wa Melh
Eish + Malh is a culinary establishment located in Downtown Cairo offering a menu featuring new Italian and Egyptian cuisine, including pizzas, pastas, meats and fish, breakfasts, and desserts, as well as teas, coffees, and other beverages. Since opening in 2014, Eish + Malh has been involved in the Downtown Cairo social and cultural scene through supper clubs, live music, cinematic dinners, and other activities.
The Slow Downtown Monthly Event
About Eish + Melh
Eish + Malh is a culinary establishment located in Downtown Cairo offering a menu featuring new Italian cuisine, including pizzas, pastas, meats and fish, breakfasts, and desserts, as well as teas, coffees, and other beverages. Since opening in 2014, Eish + Malh has been involved in the Downtown Cairo social and cultural scene through supper clubs, live music, cinematic dinners, and other activities.
About Slow Downtown
In collaboration with Slow Food Cairo, Eish + Malh organizes “Slow Downtown: Farm to Form Menu & Market” the first Friday of every month. April 2018 was the 25th event. Each event features a unique seasonal menu using ingredients and products sourced from local small-scale producers and farmers, as well as amarket on the second floor of the restaurant where those producers are given the opportunity to showcase and sell their products.
The aim of Slow Downtown is to offer the freshest possible experience and support local producers. Eish + Malh seeks to build a community of aware consumers who know their food is clean and where it comes from. For producers, it aims to offer a space for the sale of artisanal, heritage food items that does not otherwise exist downtown and are not widely available in Cairo. And by creating a circle between the producer, restaurant, and consumer, the team seeks to connect customers directly to producers to taste products, ask questions about their history and origin, and build relationships with producers. The Slow Food menu also gives customers to the opportunity to taste the food, prepared in creative ways, before buying it.
Over 20 producers participate in the Slow Downtown market, offering a variety of packaged products including pastas, breads, crackers, jams, sauces, fresh and dried produce, cheeses, poultry and meats, honey, oils, spices, and pickles. Producers' products are variously handmade, locally sourced, healthy, traditional, and using natural processes and techniques.
Running the Monthly Event
In the beginning, the restaurant determines the most feasible options for finances and logistics. Questions may include fees for participation, what equipment is provided (e.g. tables, chairs, umbrellas, tablecloths), and where the producers are featured (e.g. inside / outside, upstairs / downstairs). They then discuss these options with the participating producers, working to find mutual agreements based on what is fair and appropriate for all parties involved.
Research & preparation
One month prior to the event, staff ask for confirmations from producers for participation. Brief one-sentence descriptions of each vendor are written to go alongside the menu. The team then asks each producer what products they plan on bringing, and if they have any preference of what products they would like to feature on the menu. Finally, the team explores what produce is in season by attending the local fruit and vegetable markets.
Planning the menu
Each month, the Eish + Malh team work to design a menu that is seasonal and integrates each of the participating producers' products. Many items carry over from previous months; some are new. The process for designing the menu is describing each item and also including where the different products are sourced from.
Once the menu is finalized, the team makes an estimate of how many of each raw ingredients are required based on previous sales. They determine which foods are perishable, and work to ensure there is enough space in their refrigerator or freezer. Orders are placed with the producers at least two weeks in advance, and scheduled to be delivered prior to the event. Some non-perishables that are used regularly (such as oils and canned items) are ordered one month in advance, allowing the producer to reduce delivery costs by bringing these items directly to the market.
Prepping the staff
Preparation for the menu takes place one week prior to the event. The chefs work develop the recipes for each of the menu items. Over the course of many Slow Downtowns they chefs have come to understand the ingredients and cooking times, and ultimately achieve a consistent level of quality and taste. The server staff, meanwhile, is trained to speak about each of the products that are featured on the menu – such as their heritage and tradition, nutritional value, and processing techniques – as well as to indicate where each of the products can be bought in the market upstairs.
The restaurant's customer bases for Slow Downtown varies. While many are repeat customers, many are also new, coming for the first time after learning about the event through social media, word of mouth, or curiosity when passing by.
Marketing aims to both remind returning customers of the upcoming event, and attract new customers. This is achieved through several channels. Through social media, the restaurant begins posting on social media about 2 weeks in advance of the event. On Facebook alone, the restaurant posts approximately 40-50 sponsored posts, the bulk of which are the week before. Posts are in both English and Arabic, and include pictures of the menu items and producers' products, descriptions of products' characteristics (e.g. natural, pesticide-free), photos of the menu and producers list, and a continual "get to know your Slow Downtown producer" series. Most food photos are produced by a professional photographer. In addition, the restaurant puts clear signage for the event outside their door to attract passerby's.
Collaborative marketing is important to the event's success. The restaurant asks each participating producer to post on their personal and organizational social media channels at least once, and preferably several times, about the event. Cross-tagging organizations and using shared hashtags (#SlowDowntown) allows greater visibility and attracts a wide audience that includes not only the restaurant's clientele, but also that of the producers.
Coordination & entertainment
Prior to the monthly event, several logistical items are required to help it run smoothly. Scheduling is important, including clarifying with all producers exactly when the market starts and finishes. Space considerations include where the producers will be featured, ensuring adequate time is given for staff to set up tables and chairs beforehand, as well as being clear about where and when products can be dropped off and picked up. It is very important to clearly mark the market space through large signage and directions to ensure producers receive enough traffic.
Considerations should be made for how to both collect and provide payments between the restaurant and producers. Different producers may have different requests – some may wish to be paid for their orders up front (prior to the event); others during the event. The restaurant should also decide when producers will pay the fee for participation – before the event as a deposit, on the day of, or immediately after.
The restaurant may choose to feature certain activities and entertainment that can help create a community environment and attract clientele. Eish + Malh has featured live music, as well as a children's marionette show and craft activities around a relevant theme (such as spring plants). The restaurant must also remember to print special menus prior to the event. The team may also decide if they wish to take reservations in advance (Eish + Mah does).
Clear communication of these procedures with the producers is important to ensure smooth operations. Eish + Malh shares and requests information between the restaurant and producers primarily through a collective WhatsApp group, supplemented by phone calls.
Following each event, it is important to collect and incorporate feedback to improve future events. This helps establish a feeling of trust between producers and the restaurant, and a willingness to collectively improve and succeed. Eish + Malh asks for feedback through talking to people in-person, asking on the WhatsApp group, and direct phone calls. A representative from the producers' group may also come to be formally or informally recognized by the group as a go-between, collecting and sharing feedback and information that producers may feel too sensitive to share directly with the restaurant.
Some Lessons Learned
Creative, positive atmosphere
The main outcome of this event is not profit driven. Because of all of the work that goes into this one day event, the high costs of the raw materials from the producers, the cost percentage is low. he restaurant has found great value in the positive and creative atmosphere the events create. For the restaurant staff, the event offers an opportunity to develop more creative and playful platters than they would normally, and to present the food in a fancier and more beautiful way. This also creates a sort-of continual environment for innovation and creativity – some of the experiments have indeed led to new items on the restaurant's regular menu.
The event also fosters positive, friendly, and celebratory vibes between the customers, producers, and restaurant staff. Both customers and producers often express gratefulness to the restaurant for keeping up the event. This environment has also been shown to keep both customers and producers motivated, willing to continually participate and collaboratively contribute.
Awareness & connections
The event has proven a prime venue for customers to learn about new products and new recipes that can be made with those products. Customers will often ask the staff why a particular item tastes so good, and the staff will explain the product's naturalness, history, and/or nutritional value. With the producers, customers will have similar conversations about how to use the products, their heritage, and their production techniques. For the restaurant, these direct one-on-one connections and relationships not only raise awareness of Slow Food values, but has also helped to shift purchasing habits towards clean, healthy, and fair food.
Over the years, Eish + Malh has learned that the customer base for its Slow Downtown is quite varied. Many come from existing Slow Food networks or are followers of certain producers – and are thus already rather aware about the values the market promotes. Others, however, are entirely new and know little about principles related to heritage products, natural production, or health value. For all, the event provides an avenue for learning about new products, heritage, and processing techniques – as well as accessing artisanal food products that can be difficult to find in Egypt. And for producers, the event has been shown to be a solid avenue for creating both new and repeat customers.
In the early days, the market was variable – sometimes worthwhile, other times very slow. The restaurant worked particularly with producers to market online collaboratively, helping to increase the collective reach of the event. In addition, in Eish + Malh's case, the best place for the producers has been in the upstairs section of the restaurant. Initially there were fears by some of the producers that this would receive limited visibility. But the restaurant's staff worked to continually indicate to customers where the market was, and what products were featured, to ensure customers were adequately informed of the opportunity to visit the market.
These efforts have helped to create a trusting environment between the restaurant and the producers. So much so, that in the second year, the producers themselves came together and collectively agreed to raise the fee of the event – to ensure it was a price that matched the market, and to reward the restaurant for its efforts.
In the beginning, coordination and collaboration between the producers and restaurant was often tricky. The restaurant would contact each producer separately to confirm participation, share details of the event, and place orders. In this process, many details – such as the timing of the market – were lost or forgotten. The team worked to consolidate communication primarily through WhatsApp, ensuring a clear channel for soliciting participation, sharing information, and sending reminders (e.g. for collaboratively marketing).
The event has also led to opportunities for the restaurant staff to learn and grow in the quality of its products and services. In the first events, food would often arrive late, orders incorrect, and with variable quality. As they continued running the event, though, the team became more efficient and systematized. Staff learned to increase the quality of their products and service delivery.
In addition, the event has provided staff with the unique opportunity of learning about certain values, heritage foods, and local and seasonal ingredients that they had not otherwise been aware of – as well as how to speak about them. In a way, this has turned staff into "advocates" for the local food movement.
To date, the restaurant still faces difficulties in convincing all producers to work collectively for the event. Regarding online social media marketing, while some are quite proactive, and others require simply a nudge, some fail to hardly ever compose a post. Some producers are variously unresponsive, disorganized, and not always committed. Coordinating delivery can be a hassle, as many products arrive late or with the incorrect orders. Certain producers also sometimes drop their participation in the market at the last minute. In total, the restaurant invests far more resources into online marketing than all the producers combined. Eish + Malh has not yet found an effective mechanism that can help ensure "accountability" among all producers to equally contribute their share.
While it would be logistically very hard for the restaurant to have a seasonal menu, Slow Downtown offers an opportunity to do so. Since the event has become very popular at the past few events there has been a long waiting list for tables in the restaurant. This demand has led to comments by certain customers about the delays in speed of the service and food delivery. Other comments, however, note that the positive atmosphere of the event far outweighs any slow wait times. One method of addressing this is by joking with customers about it being “slow” food and thus also it takes while to get the food because it just arrived from the farm. The restaurant may benefit from slightly more expectations management – helping customers understand that Slow Downtown is an event where everybody learns together and supports one another.
Criteria for participation
The restaurant has also reached near capacity in the number of producers they can host in their space. While they started with 5-6 producers, they are now have more than 20 , and likely unable to integrate many more requests. To date, most participants have been accepted to join as long as they align generally with some of the Slow Food values, and the restaurant and producers have a "good feeling" about them. As demand grows and there is less capacity to include all producers, criteria may need to be developed collaboratively to help make decision-making fair and clear.
Integrating more rural, marginalized
Initially, , Eish + Malh found it difficult to integrate rural and marginalized producers from remote regions; however, over time they have incorporated 4 producers from the Siwa Oasis, Fayoum, Sinai, and most recently Luxor This is likely due to a multiple of factors: capacity of the producers, variance in quality of their products, challenges in transportation and overhead costs, and lack of access to networks. The restaurant may need to forge certain partnerships to help find ways to valorize and integrate the talents and know-how of small-scale farming communities.
Facebook • @eishmelh • #SlowDowntown
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