Côte d’Ivoire: Fast food chain finding traction with its West African menu

Olivia Akouba Angola, director of Dabali Xpress, at the chain's outlet in Marcory Zone 4, a neighbourhood in Abidjan.

Olivia Akouba Angola, director of Dabali Xpress, at the chain’s outlet in Zone 4, a neighbourhood in Abidjan.

By Ange Kumasi, bird story agency

Ivorian entrepreneur Olivia Akouba Angola started a fast food restaurant chain with a West African menu. 

There is a steady flow of people into a fast food joint in the Zone 4 neighbourhood in Abidjan despite the time – 11 am – often a time of respite in the catering business when business tapers off between early coffee-and-breakfast customers and the lunchtime crowds.

This is Dabali Xpress, which operates seven days a week, opening between 11am and 10pm, to welcome customers “to be served quickly and to eat well” according to the company’s slogan, in a joint whose name means “fast food” in Ivorian slang.

On the menu at the outlet, which opened its doors in September 2021, is diverse African cuisine, mostly from various regions of Côte d’Ivoire and more recently from the wider West African area. The meals are also served with local desserts.

Among the first customers served on this day is a table of four at the back of the fast-food outlet. They all work for a local company and have become regular customers at Dabali Xpresss.

“Before, it was a little difficult to eat locally between noon and 2 pm, because here in Zone 4, all the restaurants offer Western dishes. So it’s a breath of fresh air for us to have this beautiful Dabali Xpress where you can be served in less than 10 minutes and enjoy your good palm seed soup,” said N’guessan Honoré, one of the four.

The brains behind this concept is Olivia Akouba Angola, 30, a mother of two, who co-owns it with her husband, Daniel Aggré.

“The name Dabali Xpress came from brainstorming with my husband and we wanted the name to reflect the concept of fast food. We settled for “express”, which is a Nouchi word, which in Ivorian slang means “fast food”. It captures the aspect of food served quickly,” she explained.

Angola says it took her and her husband seven to eight years of reflecting and assembling before finally, in September 2021, their idea came to fruition.

“This idea was borne out of my husband’s experience as a student abroad where he had to work in fast food restaurants to pay his fees and bills. We said to ourselves ‘why not replicate the system at home in Côte d’Ivoire but with our local dishes?'” she said.

“It took longer because African local dishes take longer to prepare, but we were determined to do it by finding a formula to serve these dishes quickly.”

Angola, who returned from the US in 2015,  said once they had settled on the concept, it was easy for her to put her business skills, knowledge and experience to use to make their plan become a reality.

After opening the first outlet, things moved very fast, as many people embraced it. This enabled them to open other outlets in Abidjan, bringing the total in the city to three.

Besides Ivorian food, Dabali Xpress is now serving dishes from other countries in the West African sub-region, such as fried rice, ‘red-red’ (a Ghanaian dish of black-eyed peas and plantain), and many other dishes, all with a price of around US$5.

On a good day, Angola said, they are able to serve an estimated 300 customers, both local and non-local at their three outlets.

She added that they are keen to tap into the diverse clientele by offering dishes from other African countries because Abidjan is a city of all nationalities, including expatriates from the rest of the world, who are often keen to savour African food.

Although work starts early at Dabali Xpress, it opens for customers at 11 am.

“Early in the morning, we start cooking the ingredients so that all the menus are ready by 11am. There are days like Saturday and Sunday when we have a lot of work, but we have everything we need at our disposal because our supply is well kept in a cold room and this makes our work easier,” said Olivier Kouame, one of the chefs.

A year after opening, Dabali Xpress received a rare visitor: the Ivorian Minister of Tourism and Leisure, Saindou Fofana.

Dabali Xpress' outlet in Zone 4, Abidjan.

Dabali Xpress’ outlet in Zone 4, Abidjan.

Besides the honour and endorsement, the minister had good news; he announced the selection of the chain as one of the outlets chosen to cater for guests and officials of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, set to be hosted by the country.

“It is a real pleasure to see that our government is part of the dynamic of supporting the local entrepreneurs and we are happy with this news while hoping that it will always be so,” she said.

To meet the growing demand for its food, Dabali Xpress has launched outside catering services and deliveries, with customers able to order their food either on its website or by phone. Outside catering now makes up 30% of its daily sales.

The founders have also installed technology to enhance the outlet’s ability to serve “quickly and with good food”, in line with its motto. “When the customer arrives, there is the display which presents all the menus on offer and this makes it easier and faster for them to check and place orders. Once the order is ready, they are alerted by beeper notifying them to pick their food,” explained Angola.

Dabali Xpress sources its supplies from local farmers and suppliers. “Our supply is done locally. It includes meat (beef and chicken) to fresh vegetables and cereals … everything is local,” said Angola.

“Even as we strive to excel and attract more customers, we are cognisant of the fact that we face stiff competition from global brands selling western meals, a space they have occupied for long and established a clientele, especially among the urban elite,” said Angola.

The wider market, however, is there for the taking.

“We present these dishes which in the past were not necessarily presented in ideal sanitary conditions or in an environment which does not compete with other exotic restaurants. We, therefore, try to do this so that non-locals can appreciate it, too. Great ambience and hygiene are key elements in the food industry and at Dabali Xpress, that is key,” she said.

Angola now has plans to extend Dabali Xpress to several cities in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as further afield in Africa and even globally.

/bird story agency