Legend has it that when Abdu Talawos (or Abdu Pollution) was still a humble food cart selling liver sandwiches in the street, a cat fell into the tahina bowl. Hajj Abdu, the owner of the food cart, removed the cat and squeezed the tahina from its fur back into the bowl.
He then proceeded, as the story goes, to spread the tahina onto a sandwich he was preparing.
Hajj Abdu laughs at this and other urban legends that have circulated over the years about his audaciously named food cart.
Abdu Talawos is synonymous with delicious sandwiches.
In 1998, Abdel Rahman Hassan, better known as Hajj Abdu, starting selling liver sandwiches from a simple food cart in Tayyaran Street, located in the upscale neighborhood of Heliopolis.
With exquisite sandwiches and a catchy name, Abdu Talawos became a popular hangout for university students looking for a good, affordable bite. It also didn’t hurt that they gained some street cred by eating off a food cart, which was seen as, let’s say, unbecoming for the upper-middle classes.
Fast forward 15 years, and Hajj Abdu is now the co-owner of the Abdu Talawos trademark food chain, comprising two restaurants with ambitious expansion plans.
His face still lights up when talking about his food. Now in his 40s, Hajj Abdu’s charisma and sense of humor, the same traits which made him so popular with customers, are easily noticeable.
Despite his restaurant’s unappetizing name, Hajj Abdu says the reason behind his success is his high standards for quality and hygiene.
“It is called Abdu Pollution, but when the customers observe me, they see the opposite of pollution,” he told Mada Masr in a recent interview at his newest branch, located on Mohandiseen’s busy Gameat el-Dowwal Street.
Growing up in Upper Egypt, Hajj Abdu finished a diploma then came to Cairo in 1991 looking for a job. His father was an excellent cook, and taught Hajj Abdu everything he knows.
He worked in a restaurant for seven years, but was unsatisfied with the quality of the food and the use of ingredients that were not fresh. He himself wouldn’t eat from the restaurant.
When a coffee shop owner offered Abdu to man a cart in front of the coffee shop to attract more customers, for him, it was a dream come true.
At the time, he didn’t have the business education or the money, but his passion for making tasty sandwiches set him apart from hundreds of other liver sandwich carts scattered around the capital.
For the first years, Hajj Abdu would work in the restaurant during the day then operate the food cart at night, where he would then sleep.
Eventually, he started making enough money to quit his day job and found a place to stay near his cart, where he still lives with his wife and four kids.
“I went through some rough days but God has rewarded me,” he says, while recalling his humble beginnings.
What’s in a name?
The food cart gained a particular reputation for its quality of meat. In the first week, his sales doubled every day as word reached nearby Ain Shams University students. The young customers took a quick liking to the cheerful Hajj Abdu, who would prepare the sandwiches for his special customers himself, even when he hired employees.
The Abdu Talawos cart also became a favorite for some celebrities, and the name started as a joke with customers.
Nameless for three years, some of his regular customers, who had always joked that the street cart was rotten and polluted, made him a sign that said: Abdu Talawos.
The name stuck.
Despite the fables, Hajj Abdu says he is finicky about hygiene. He has never lit a cigarette near the food and has always thrown away anything that was subjected to dirt or of low quality.
“It’s better to lose LE100 than to lose my future and my customers,” is the philosophy he has employed.
Behind the big sign that declares the place’s bizarre name in the Mohandiseen branch is a spotless glass window. The inside of the restaurant is impeccably clean.
Hajj Abdu talks about sandwich making like an artist revealing the secrets of his craft. He sometimes dreams of new recipes, and tries them as soon as he wakes up. That’s how the Abdu Texas came to be, for example.
“I was once having dinner with my kids when I suddenly got an idea for a sandwich. I wrote it down and the next day, I gave it to my partner and told him this is our new sandwich. He asked me what it was, and I said I don’t know but it’s written down,” he recalls.
Innovation is his key to success. “I want what people eat in my restaurant to be like nothing they can get anywhere else,” he says.
As all food carts in Egypt operate illegally — part of the country’s massive informal sector — Hajj Abdu’s cart was shut down by the authorities in 2008. Three years later, he was approached by a businessman who wanted to partner up and open a new restaurant.
The first shop was in Nasr City, and the pair teamed up with a third partner to open the second branch in Mohandiseen.
Hajj Abdu still takes as much of a personal interest in his food as he used to when he was selling off a street cart. He is always present at one of the two branches and spends a lot of time teaching his chefs tricks and making sure the food is up to par.
Sometimes, he sits at a nearby café and orders from his own restaurant to test the quality.
The Abdu Talawos menu expanded when it turned into a chain. Besides its signature liver sandwiches, prepared in a variety of ways, the restaurant now also offers other sandwiches and meals.
Hajj Abdu’s signature desert is the “Sakalans,” a mix of halawa, honey, jam and cream.
Although the clientele has changed, Abdu Talawos’s prices remain relatively low.
The sandwiches cost between LE5 and LE9 and meals do not exceed LE20. While this is an increase from the LE1.25 that a liver sandwich cost at Abdu’s old cart, it is remarkable for a two-storey, well-decorated restaurant in one of Mohandiseen’s most commercial streets.
As Hajj Abdu says, “I started as a popular place, and no matter how much I grow, this is how I will remain.”