Search ‘#cleaneating’ on Instagram, and more than 32 million posts of vibrant green smoothies, rainbow acai bowls and more will flood your feed. Tapping into this trend for fresh, wholesome and unprocessed food is Seasons UAE, which touts itself as the country’s first health-conscious food truck.
Launched in October 2016 by Emirati entrepreneur Hamad Abu Shousha, Seasons specialises in pressed juices, fresh smoothies and healthy snacks, and aims to challenge the perception that healthy eating is bland or boring.
Sourcing many of its ingredients from Al Mina Fruit and Vegetable Souk, the Abu Dhabi-based food truck opts for almond and coconut milk over cows’ milk and adds superfood boosters like spirulina and cacao powder to its recipes. “We don’t use any artificial sugar, but we do have ‘cheat healthy’ smoothies with cacao powder or peanut butter – anything that is a natural sweetener because a lot of people have a sweet tooth, including me”, says Hamad.
On the menu are colourful concoctions bursting with flavour, such as Shot of Magic – spinach, cucumber, apple, lemon juice, ginger and chia seeds – and Epic Sunshine, which blends mango, peaches, carrot juice and coconut water with a sprinkle of flaxseed. The recently expanded food offering, meanwhile, includes creamy chia puddings, crunchy granolas and crisp salads.
Yet despite the growing popularity of healthy eating, the UAE has some of the highest rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in the world. According to Abu Dhabi’s Health Authority, around 70 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women in the UAE are overweight, while nearly 30 per cent of children are classed as overweight or obese.
That’s something the socially minded start-up wants to change. One of its key aims is to educate the community and encourage people to adopt a healthier lifestyle, using social media to engage people with bite-sized facts about the benefits of ingredients such as blueberries and dates.
Seasons has also teamed up with a community of like-minded bloggers to promote healthy habits, including Sarah Al Nowais and Abeer Amiri, co-founders of #theADmovement, a series of health- and fitness-themed events for women. “We’re trying to push the community to start their own thing too, no matter how small or big it is”, says Hamad.
The food truck sells Sarah’s range of FitNut Eats, including a guilt-free alternative to ma’amoul date cookies, while cross-fit trainer Abeer, who began her fitness journey just a couple of years ago, was named Season’s inaugural brand ambassador, or ‘seasoner’. The brand will choose an inspiring yet relatable role model each quarter to create a bespoke drink, connect with people at events and engage followers online with Instagram stories.
The ‘bike blender’ is another interactive initiative whereby customers can blend their own smoothies using pedal power. “We don’t want to be a corporate-style business – we want to teach people that there’s a fun way of doing things as part of a healthy lifestyle. We’ve even had a couple of older people in kanduras who you don’t expect to see on the bike”, Hamad says.
The idea for a health-conscious business started in 2015, when Hamad was completing his military service. “I wasn’t the healthiest guy during university, and I didn’t really watch what I ate or know much about fitness. So military service had a big impact on my life, in terms of fitness and health”, he says.
With his newfound knowledge, coupled with a burgeoning food truck scene and the UAE’s slow shift away from international restaurant chains towards homegrown concepts, Hamad spotted a gap in the market. “I used to go to events and find there were no healthy food trucks, just things like burgers, tacos and pizzas”, he says.
In the UAE’s highly competitive food and beverage market – which boasts the highest number of dining outlets per capita in the world – the lower start-up costs associated with a roaming restaurant are attracting a growing number of first-time food entrepreneurs. In the first two months of 2017 alone, Dubai Municipality issued 134 permits for food trucks, compared with 203 permits for the whole of last year.
After an interest-free loan from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development stalled due to the economic slowdown caused by falling oil prices, Hamad decided to pump AED400,000 of his own money into the venture. He imported a truck from the US and secured the necessary approvals from four different government departments.
His hard work and tenacity has paid off. The Seasons truck attends an average of 4-5 events per month and operates from a semi-permanent spot in Khalifa City the rest of the time. During the quieter summer months, the truck pitches up at Yas Marina Circuit for the popular weekly training events. Meanwhile, Hamad juggles the demands of the growing business with a full-time career as an investment analyst for a major real estate developer.
While the first few years are tough for any small business, Seasons has already progressed from survival mode to profitability. Despite the small margins – Seasons’ prices range from AED15-26 per drink, whereas competitors charge around AED30-35 – the brand has recently opened a permanent juice bar at Titan Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi. Next up, Hamad plans to invest in more food trucks and expand into other emirates.
So can we expect to see a wave of food trucks and restaurants encouraging us to #eatclean? Not just yet, says Anurag Bajpai, partner and head of retail at KPMG. “Although healthy eating is growing in popularity, it is still a niche in the UAE”, he says. “While the food and beverage industry has a key role to play in educating consumers, healthier options won’t have mass appeal until they can consistently match the price, taste and convenience offered by some other formats”.
Still, given Seasons’ commitment to the cause, the homegrown food truck will no doubt be leading the way.