Real (West) African taste! Dabali Xpress brings a local menu to the fast foods industry
Ivorian entrepreneur Olivia Akouba Angola sets a trend with a food chain start-up offering West African culinary delights
By Ange Kumasi, bird story agency
There is a steady flow of people into a fast food joint in Marcory Zone 4 in the suburbs of 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 the Dabali Xpress, which operates seven days a week, opening between 11 am and 10 pm to welcome a stream of 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 Cote 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. Their faces are alight with smiles as they tuck into the steamy meal, the activity punctuated by short interjections and bouts of laughter.
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 this town of Marcory, 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 others give gentle nods.
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," explained the holder of a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the University of Atlanta, USA.
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 Africa local dishes take longer to prepare, but we were determined to do it by finding a formula to serve these dishes quickly.”
Angola 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 dream come true.
After opening the first outlet, things moved very fast, as many people embraced it. This enabled them to open other outlets in municipalities across Abidjan, bringing the total in the city to three.
Angola, who on return from the US in 2015 set up an online women’s clothing portal that gave birth to Max 15 Fashion in 2020, said the enthusiasm from customers was phenomenal.
The chain offers a dozen Ivorian dishes, among them goat soup, seed sauce with agouti meat; hedgehog or fish, banana or yam foutou, accompanied by peanut sauce, or ''Gouagouassou'', placali accompanied by ''Kôpè'' sauce (with okra); foufou with red oil accompanied by light sauce, ''Kédjenou'' with chicken and guineafowl, Attiéké (cassava semolina), Garba, Alloco (fried banana) with fish or chicken grilled.
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 11 am. 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, thanks to its quality of service and growing reputation, Dabali Xpress received a rare visitor: the Ivorian Minister of Tourism and Leisure, Saindou Fofana.
Besides the honour and endorsement, the minister had good news; he announced the selection of the outlet 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.
For Angola, this was both a huge accolade and a vote of confidence in the business's future.
"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 excitedly.
The Dabali Xpress director added that the enterprise is working hard to diversify the menu to cater for diverse tastes.
"Our customers are satisfied and the feedback is good, because since the opening the customer base has grown. Ivorians are fond of local food and that is a source of pride for us," 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 their website or on phone. Outside catering now makes up 30 per cent of its daily sales.
The outlets have also installed state-of-the-art 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, who is also the general manager.
The fast food outlet, which has a capacity of more than 50 sitting spaces, has created direct jobs for more than 40 people, all professional chefs who are specialised in cooking local dishes.
There are also other non-professionals who because of their passion for cooking, learn on the job.
“I have been working here for a month and a half and I already feel like a family because at Dabali Xpress we are a family. When there are a large number of people, the boss goes to work”, says Aïcha Diomandé, an employee of Dabali Xpress.
Dabali Xpress also sources its supplies from local farmers and suppliers.
“Our supply is done locally. It includes meat (beef, chicken) to fresh vegetables and cereals..everything is local,” said Angola, adding that Dabali Xpress was keen to promote not only local dishes but also local farmers.
"I used to sell food crops in retail, but for some time now I have been delivering in bulk to Dabali Xpress, and this is paying more. I don’t have to worry about storage of the food which used to perish whenever it was not all sold,” explained Delphine Kouadia, a woman farmer.
“Even as we strive to excel and attract more customers, we are cognizant 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.
One of their recent customers, Awa Bakayoko, an Ivorian, discovered the outlet recently after returning from Morocco.
"It's a real pleasure to find food from home and I invite everyone to take a tour here," 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.
Following just a year of phenomenal success, that ambition doesn't seem out of reach for this go-getting food entrepreneur.
bird story agency