Chris Khalifa, Founder and CEO of Zooba: My Morning Routine looks each week at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Chris Khalifa, Founder and CEO of Zooba, the restaurant that plays a big part in the morning routines of so many of us here at the Enterprise office.
My name is Chris Khalifa and I’m 35 years old. My wife, Salma Sabry, and I have been married for 10 years and have two beautiful children: Malek, who's six, and Jylan, who just turned one.
I'm the founder and CEO of Zooba, a position I've now held for seven years. Over that period, my day job has included everything from changing light bulbs in our Zamalek store and obsessing about how dim or bright they were to making sure the stickers on our off-the-shelf items were all facing the right direction — and explaining to my team why I thought that was important. Then there were the meetings with investors to make sure we didn't run out of money before we had actually built our dream company (something that has almost happened a couple times too many)…
I've been waking up pretty early since we had kids, and it’s been even earlier since we moved to Manhattan and no longer have a live-in nanny. Our whole house is up between 6:30am and 7am. Sadly, I start the morning by checking my phone. I check the Zooba WhatsApp group and quickly scroll through my emails to make sure there's nothing urgent that can't wait a couple of hours to get to. There usually isn't. My wife and I will spend the next hour getting ourselves and our kids a quick breakfast, and then I walk my son to school every morning at 8:15 am. Our house is two blocks from his school, but we're still somehow 2-5 minutes late every day. After I drop him off, I walk to a coffee shop down the street that I like working from (still don't have an office here), order a green tea, and spend the next couple of hours getting caught up on emails and news (usually the NYT, Enterprise, Morning Brew, and the Apple News App). This is also the time for me to make any calls that I need to have with the team back home.
I don't really have a routine for the rest of my work day. I'm in the process of opening Zooba in NY. It’s a dream and a new world for me. Every day is different. From design and branding meetings, which I love, to technology meetings, which have become my new obsession, to legal and tax meetings, which I could do with a little less of. I try as much as possible to schedule my meetings around my son's school pickup time. So at 3:10 pm on most days I pick Malek up and then either work from home for the rest of the day or continue my meeting rounds. Salma and I have been experimenting with cooking lately. We're both average at best, but we make it a point to all have dinner together most days of the week. I squeeze in a run or workout as often as possible, either very early in the morning — at 6 am — midday between meetings, or right before dinner.
I don't watch very much TV, so when I do it’s usually something light and happy, and usually while I’m doing something else on my laptop. I recently watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which was great. My reading lately has been very entrepreneurship focused. I just finished reading Onward by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, which is also great. I should be reading more books, but I find myself reading many more articles than books. I read Wait but Why quite religiously.
What's the origin story of Zooba? As street food as a concept was becoming a central food theme around the world, and authentic global cuisines with unique flavor profiles started to become a culinary trend, Egyptian food wasn't on the global map and was barely even present in Egypt. Recognizing the unique, wholesome nature of Egyptian street food — but also aware that there were often quality issues on the street —I approached Moustafa El Refaey — my partner and Zooba's executive chef — and pitched him the idea of Zooba. The aim was to challenge the prevailing mindset that Egyptian street food meant compromised quality and a lack of innovation, and to create a brand that we could be proud of. Zooba launched its first branch in Zamalek, Cairo, in March 2012. The Zooba brand became an immediate success, based on the simple idea that traditional Egyptian street food could be offered using only the freshest natural local ingredients, with attention paid to cleanliness, safety and hygiene. We wanted our clients to engage with their food, and to take pride in the wholesome, nutritious, unique tastes of the Egyptian street.
What's Zooba's niche? Our culture.
People think we're in the food business. We're not. We're in the hospitality business. We're in the business of experiences and culture building. The great companies in our industry create value by building brands that have a culture of hospitality. Food is just a part of that culture; it has to be great, as a prerequisite, but it's ultimately not just about the food.
What one internal or external force will create the most change in this industry? In the short / medium term, delivery. In the longer term, robotics. The rapid growth in delivery as a contributor to total restaurant revenues is changing the way people experience food and changing the economics of restaurants. The addition of rapidly growing and heavily funded third-party delivery aggregator platforms — like Uber Eats, Otlob and Grubhub — are making this dynamic even more complex and forcing restaurant companies to invest in their own technology to stay relevant. In the long term, the transition to robotic labor in an industry that employs a substantial percentage of the labor force around the world will transform the industry and general labor force. You can argue that this is not unique to the restaurant business, but it will nonetheless be transformative.
I spend most of my free time with my family. Food is a central theme in our planning. We seem to plan our free time around new restaurants to try. I mostly spend my "free time" doing more work for Zooba. I'm not very good at disconnecting. If I have time, I spend most of it researching something or reading something related to Zooba somehow. I do run at least three times a week and recently started playing soccer again for an amateur team in NY.
The best piece of business advice I’ve ever been given? Employees first. Brands are emotional. Make sure you have the right cash, and enough cash.
How do I stay organized? Very difficult. I need a personal assistant. My mission is to grow Zooba enough to fit that into our budget. For the time being I rely on iCal, Asana and my mother, who's Zooba's chief people officer and continues to keep me in check.