James Walters is using his 17 years of falafel-frying experience to keep serving meze throughout lockdown in a weekly home delivery service. James Stagg tries it out
Arabica started life some 17 years ago with James Walters selling falafel from a stall in London's Borough Market. It's that entrepreneurial spirit that has seen the founder develop alternative routes to market for his Middle Eastern menu during lockdown.
Rather than immediately flipping to a potentially risky ASAP delivery model for the business, the operator of a deli counter in Borough Market, King's Cross and Selfridges offered the public the opportunity to pre-order a selection of his dishes, satisfying demand for his classics and affording a greater control of costs.
"The first thing we started was the charity work and then we thought if we're making food for the NHS on certain days, we can use others to do something for the business," he explains.
"I was also thinking about how we can get suppliers to come back, as they were struggling too. So I told them to supply us and I'd pay immediately."
Pre-orders from a seven-mile radius of Arabica's Camberwell production kitchen are taken by 11pm on a Tuesday for delivery – typically by Walters himself – on a Friday, ready for diners to enjoy in the evening.
"People who used to make a booking to come to Arabica every few weeks now plan in advance to have us at home on a Friday," Walters says. "People aren't coming in to the office – and may not come in on Fridays for some time – but they still want their meze fix."
As it is a meze offering in the main, most dishes are designed to be eaten cold, though there are reheating instructions for a few mains.
"I'm picker, packer and chef. It's hard graft," Walters adds. "I'm leaning on a couple of people who didn't get furloughed as well. We're juggling and trying to work out how we get through this."
The menu features a range of meze, including filo parcel mouthfuls of feta and spinach boregi (£10 for two pieces), and spinach fatayeh, stuffed with peppery long leaf spinach, citrusy sumac and toasted pine nuts (£10 for four pieces), as well as a range of salads such as lentil and bulgur (£7.50) and berbere-spiced cauliflower (£9 for two).
From the six mains diners can sample the likes of aubergine stuffed with lamb (£14), chicken and pistachio shish (£14) and chicken magloubeh (£20 for two). The magloubeh takes the form of slow-cooked Egyptian rice with headily spiced chicken, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom alongside caramelised onions and toasted almonds. It's a dish that translates surprisingly well to delivery, particularly once regenerated in the oven with a splash of water.
The dish features on both the meat set menu for two (£35) and the family set menu (£65). Each includes fattoush salad, smoked aubergine, Beiruti falafels, flatbreads and Arabica's celebrated hummus, a combination of chickpeas, sesame seed paste, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, sumac and parsley – a recipe that hasn't changed since the restaurant's inception.
Along with the set menus, one of the biggest sellers has been Arabica's DIY falafel kits. This takes a little cooking at home, but benefits from the freshness that only frying to order can deliver. Raw mix is supplied with cooking instructions, so that diners can fry the discs to recreate the fluffy centre and crunchy exterior of the restaurant favourite. The £20 kits are enough for five wraps and include salad, tahini sauce, chilli sauce, crunchy pickles and flatbreads.
"The falafel kits are really beginning to get a bit of traction," Walters says."I'm also beginning to explore what it could look like on supermarket shelves as a premium product. So I'm in talks with our designers to work up the packaging. It's how I started the business – selling falafel – so we have a great story behind us."
Since it's a delivery offer, rather than hot food takeaway, Walters is also marketing a range of Middle Eastern ingredients, cheeses, and a veg box. But what really catches the eye is the keenly priced wine selection.
He explains: "I looked at all the retail prices and realised I couldn't charge restaurant prices like on Deliveroo. We're not going to make money from wine, but it's a convenient add-on and it helps us get through our restaurant stock. It means I can pay suppliers and, if and when we reopen, we will be able to order fresh stock."
Although that opening is still uncertain, Walters has ensured that his brand remains front of mind for his regulars as and when he can once again fry up the falafel himself.
From the menu
- Meat meze platter for one: hummus, smoked aubergine, tabouleh, lamb kibeh, crunchy pickles, khobez flatbreads £12
- Butter beans in tomato sauce £6.50
- Batata harra (spiced potatoes) £6.50
- Lamb kabsa £24
- Aubergine moussaka £16
- Vegetable magloubeh £16
- Baklava tray £5.50
- Turkish delights £5.50
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