StartUp Spotlight: Mexicana Garden
We’re launching a new monthly series at Re:Coded House: StartUp Spotlight. The series is designed to highlight the entrepreneurs behind local startups in the region, hear about their ideas, and build a community around their stories and struggles. Read more about our first event with the vibrant Mexicana Garden Food Truck, started by the sister duo: Dina and Zainab Al-Safi.
The smell of freshly made tacos wafted through Re:Coded House as a packed audience gathered last Tuesday to hear about the rollercoaster startup journey of the fabulous food truck duo: Zaineb and Dina al Safi.
Zaineb and Dina are of Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen origin and grew up between Baghdad, Erbil and the United States. In 2014, they settled permanently in Erbil and in 2019, they took the leap to entrepreneurship by founding Mexicana Garden - Erbil’s first Mexican Food Truck. The business was partly inspired by their upbringing and exposure to diverse food cultures as well as a desire to do something different.
“We were never satisfied by working in our corporate jobs” Dina proudly stated. “ I worked about 10 years in UNESCO, UKH, all over. I’ve always wanted to create my own thing.” Zainab said. However, it wasn’t until they attended a food truck festival in North Carolina in 2011, that the idea to start something with food started to resonate. There, they were exposed to the range of different culinary cultures: from Sushi, to Thai, Chinese, Indian, and of course, Mexican.
Zainab proposed to the idea of starting their own food truck to Dina, who had already started thinking about a falafel truck. However after reflecting on their exposure to so many cuisines over the years, they decided that they wanted to create something new. Something that didn’t exist. Soon after, the idea was born: Iraq’s first Mexican Food Truck.
It wasn’t completely new either. Zainab had first learned to make tacos while working in a restaurant in the US and they loved the idea of bringing the concept back to Iraq. They also loved the fact that Mexican food, whilst different to the traditional Iraqi food, still has some similar elements. “It's still meat, rice and beans. It’s healthy too. If you want it without carbs, you can adjust it, you can make it vegan or vegetarian.” Zainab said enthusiastically. “It's a very flexible system.”
But the journey to go from the idea of starting a food truck to actually making Mexicana Garden a functional business hasn't been easy. The concept is so new, there’s no precedent for a lot of what they are trying to get approval for. “In Iraq, you can’t have a mobile food truck yet. There still aren’t any rules about it.” Dina stated. They faced many problems from complicated bureaucratic policies to problems they had with the construction of their food truck. It took much longer than expected. “We were supposed to launch a month before Ramadan. The trailer, the kitchen, everything was done, just the approval was left. We didn't want to start working without an approval and put ourselves in a situation where they could shut us down. We were supposed to open in front of Sami Abdulrahman Park, but we weren’t able to secure a permit there.” Dina calmly explained.
They’re now trying for a spot in the neighborhood of Ankawa. “We thought about being in a different neighborhood each day, but it wasn’t possible. But there’s hope in Ankawa.” Dina said.
They set out with the intention to offer an affordable, quick and healthy alternative for lunch. “Our prices are easily accessible to all, so that everyone can taste it. It’s not like you have to go to a restaurant and sit down and pay for a whole meal. It’s easy, fast and affordable to all. Our vegetarian tacos are just 1,500 for one taco. If you eat two you will be full!” Zainab cheerfully explained.
Despite the challenges, they are full of hope and inspiration for the next generation of entrepreneurs in Iraq. Their lasting piece of advice was: Don't give up. Keep going until you realize your dream.