Monday December 6, 2020 – By: Alexandra Kinias
Iman Moussa moved to the US in August 2011. After settling in Maryland for few years, she started her company, Misteka, LLC, to produce and distribute packaged Mediterranean inspired desserts and snacks. Misteka’s products hit the shelves in cities like Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Over a span of four years, she gained experience about both the food industry business and the American market that enabled her to develop and open her first casual dining and take away food stall, Koshary by Misteka, in 2018. KBM is located at The Common Kitchen, a newly developed food court, established in one of Maryland’s most affluent cities, Clarksville. The Common Kitchen nests 11 unique businesses representing foods from all over the world. Iman is proud to be the pioneer who introduced Egyptian street food in Clarksville.
WoEgypt: We don’t see many Egyptian restaurants in the US., not to mention that we hardly see Egyptian women in restaurant business. What inspired you to start a business in the food industry?
Iman Moussa: The lack of representation of our unique, healthy and delicious flavors was definitely one of the main factors to start a business in the food industry. When I moved to the US, I was already in my mid 30s. It was not an easy transition, but I quickly learned how powerful, universal and profound the food language is in enabling me to establish new connections. Over meals conversations start, ideas are exchanged and people eventually bond, collaborate and find common grounds. This was my inspiration. That if I can introduce myself to this new world through my food, I’ll be able to grow new roots and invite others into my world and my culture.
WoE: Are you also the chef?
IM: I develop all the recipes and decide the menu items, but I am not a professional chef. I just love to cook and have a working sense of flavors and how to create and incorporate them into the food we create.
WoE: Any of your chefs/staff Egyptians? Who taught your chefs to cook koshary?
IM: My kitchen staff are Iraqi and Palestinian refugees who have exceptional cooking skills and are very familiar with Egyptian food. I taught them how to cook my beloved mom’s version of koshary that now has many admirers.
WoE: What other Egyptian food items are on your menu?
IM: Next to koshary, we introduced to our customers the delicious Egyptian version of the falafel (fava beans), besara, baba ganoush, lentil soup, karkadeh (hibiscus tea), grilled kofta ( vegan version made with beyond meat (plant-based meat substitutes). Very soon we will introduce the vegan hawawshy.
WoE: Was cooking something you enjoyed before you opened your restaurant?
IM: I do enjoy cooking but I am not a fan of spending hours in the kitchen. What I enjoy is following food trends and finding out how they relate to the Egyptian cuisine and how can I keep recipes updated and relevant but still authentic and original. It’s a challenge that I enjoy.
WoE: Did you face any challenges as a new comer to start a business (personal or professional)?
IM: I encountered the challenges that face any person who is starting a new business, like finding mentorship, affordable accounting and legal resources, strong business connections, etc. But it’s all a part of the journey and the effort to figure out the way.
WoE: Why we don’t see many Egyptian restaurants in the US as opposed to other Mediterranean restaurants, even though the cuisine is quite similar?
IM: This is a question that I am still struggling to find an answer to. During my initial market research, the most popular comment I would hear when I spoke to people about the different cuisine options was, “I don’t think I’ve ever had Egyptian food before”. This answer made me obsess about changing that rather than focusing on figuring out why haven’t anyone decided to capitalize on the amazing flavors of the Egyptian kitchen.
Today, every time one of my customers walks in with a guest or more in their hands and starts saying, “This is the Egyptian food place and everything on the menu is delicious,” I just can’t help but to feel so much pride and joy.
WoE: Did you have prior experience in restaurant business before you started your restaurant? If not, how did you prepare yourself for this move.
IM: I have never had experience in restaurant business before, but my four years of creating wholesale products in shared kitchens around Maryland and DC prepared me a lot for this huge step. I was around so many chefs, makers and entrepreneurs who’ve been in this space for a long time. Their advice, shared wisdom, kitchen hacks and overall knowledge taught me so much and that is part of the journey that I am very grateful for. It was a very hard part of my journey, buy turned out to be so worth it.
WoE: What is the significance of the name Koshary by Mestika?
IM: One of the things I learned is that if you are introducing a new product, concept or idea you cannot overwhelm people. You need to focus on ONE thing and then branch out. I decided that since I want to introduce koshary to my target audience, I will name my brand after the dish and I will sell nothing but koshary for the first 6 months, which I actually did before expanding the menu. As I mentioned before, Misteka is the company which the brand falls under and this company was already known to many, so I wanted to attach it so my existing base of customers draw the connection, and I don’t lose the reputation and recognition that I gained over the previous four year and this is how Koshay By Misteka became the name (KBM).
WoE: Restaurant business is a laborious job, not to mention starting a restaurant requires a lot of resources. What advice can you give to someone who wants to start a restaurant business in general, and specifically to immigrants wanting to start ethnic restaurants in America?
IM: One of the best pieces of advice I received and I would like to pass it on to anyone considering an entrance to the restaurant business is the following: Test your concept and flavors in farmers’ markets first. The amount of information anyone will gain about themselves, their offerings and the consumer is invaluable and will help so much in determining the next steps to take. It will open doors like catering, events and eventually brick and mortar if the offerings gain traction.
WoE: From your experience as a restaurant owner, can you tell us 3 tips for running a successful restaurant?
IM: First, Invest heavily in staff training and re-train, re-train and re-train again. Your team members are the face of your brand. Find the good ones, train them, love them and they will love your brand and love serving your customers.
Second, stay relevant. Don’t lock yourself in your own space. Be aware of the market, the trends and the updates. It keeps you sharp!
Third, have a purpose other than making money. Attach a good cause to your business. Support a charity or a cause you’re passionate about. People love businesses that care about the community not only about profit.
WoE: Are there any other Egyptian restaurants in your area?
IM: None that came up in my research. The closest ones I know of are in Virginia and one of them just opened a new location in DC.
WoE: How was your restaurant, and Koshary, received by the locals when you first opened it?
IM: Because I tested my products in various farmers markets I knew people would receive us well, but I wasn’t expecting the HUGE excitement we received. It was a mix of joyful and nerve wrecking. We started the business with our #donteatalone ongoing donation campaign where we donate one free meal for every three we sell. To excite our customers and create a little challenge we announced that we are setting a high donation target for ourselves. That is 750 meals in the first three months, October 5th, 2018 (our opening day) to December 31st 2018. We achieved the goal of 750 free donated meals by November 27th. That is 2250 meals sold in less than two months! Not in my wildest dreams had I thought this would happen. A little more than a year and we are still going strong and grateful for it every minute of every day.
WoE: What are your next moves/future plans?
IM: I have two big dreams for this year. First, packaging our koshary’s signature tomato sauce for wholesale and being able to get it into large retailers like moms and wholefoods. Second, we are looking for our second location! Our hope is to have an opening date by early 2021.
Photos credit Koshary By Mestika
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