The rumour goes that there is a burger place in Dar es Salaam that can keep up with the best burgers served in the United States.
It is Burger53 at the Dar es Salaam free market, a place that is unique not only for the quality of the food, but also its origin.
It was in October 2016 when the religious leader of the Bohora community, a sect within the Shia Islam, chose Dar es Salaam to address his followers in the yearly Ashara commemoration. The Bohora community in Tanzania was all excited, 45,000 people convened in the city to mark the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad. Among them were five friends, Idris Khanbhai, Hussein Zavery, Mustafa Ebrahimjee, Aliakber Hakimjee and Murtaza Taibali.
After pondering how they could contribute to the event, these friends decided to put up a burger stand. At the beginning, business was slow. They sold 60 burgers on the first day and 50 on the second.
And then it took off. The faithful started talking about the burgers, and at the end of the 10-day-festival, the five friends had sold nothing less than 8,000 burgers. And the talk didn’t stop after the event was over.
“We got viral to a point of fanatic fans calling us after the religious aftermath to encourage us to continue making burgers,” Hussein Zavery, one of the five friends, recalls. And that’s exactly what they did. They put their money together and decided to open an innovative burger place in Dar es Salaam. In March this year, Burger53 opened its doors, the number 53 making reference to the 53rd religious leader of the Bohora community that stood in some way at the beginning of this endeavour.
Mr Zavery sits in the backyard of his burger joint, wearing sun glasses on this hot day. There is a mixed crowd sitting on wooden benches that are connected to the tables: a group of African women in their 30s, an Indian couple in their 40s and a Westerner wearing ear phones watching his iphone. A couple of trees in the yard provide much-needed shadow. In the background, there is discreet chill-out music playing.
The centrepiece of Burger53 is the seven-metre container that can be easily spotted from the main street. It hosts not only the kitchen but is also where customers order and pay for their food. Originally, it was mainly a way of getting a roofing for a good price.
Meanwhile, the container has become a defining and eye-catching characteristic of Burger53. Mr Zavery recalls the difficult beginning of the business. Money was scarce, the five lads in their late 20s had hardly any capital to bring in.
“Our equipment was very basic when we started,” Mr Zavery says. “With every burger we sold, we bought new machines.” It was also a challenge that none of the five young men had any experience in hospitality management. Especially on Sunday, long waiting lines emerged and it could take nothing less than 45 minutes to get a burger.
While Mr Zavery talked about the challenging start, his business colleagues would show up one after the other to say hello. It’s not evident that they are all here. Despite the success of Burger53, each of them has still another professional life. Mr Zavery being an economist, there is an artist, a pharmacy owner, a chemical engineer and a fabricator in the group.
“We all wished the day had more than 24 hours,” Mr Zavery says. The 28-year-old himself works around 16 hours a day. He is convinced that it is this devotion that makes the difference.
“’It’s blood, sweat and tears that has made our business so successful,” he says.
Mr Zavery says they are humbled and thankful for the achievements they have made. Asked for the reasons, the 28-year-old is unequivocal. It’s simple, he says. “Before us there was simply no one who did good burgers in Tanzania.” What follows is an extensive commercial spot; about the careful selection of meat, the selected spices, the exclusive bread, the freshness of the products, the high standard of hygiene, the home-made sauces. “We are very passionate about food and are not ready to compromise on the quality,” he promises.
The customers present that day seem to share Mr Zavery’s enthusiasm. Sarah Smiley is a geography professor from the United States, the home country of burgers. “This is the best burger I have ever eaten in this town,” she says without hesitation. For her, the crusty buns are much better than at other places, “and the meat really makes you think of a barbecue,” she says.
Local people seem to be equally satisfied. “This chicken burger is very nice, I love it,” Dar resident Felix James says. He has eaten a lot of burgers in town, “but the quality here is just better and the ingredients are fresher,” he says.
It’s not only about the food though. He also likes the buzzer that tells the client when the meal is ready. “I have seen this only on TV, I think it is a clever ordering system,” he says.
Another argument comes up with a group of students from an international school based in Masaki. “Compared to other burger joints the prices are rather cheap,” says Veer Visaria. He thinks Sh6,000 for a burger is fair. Especially for the quality. “The burger tastes fresh because it doesn’t lie around before it gets served,” Fatema Bhalloo says.
For the future, Burger53 has big plans. “We all have a common vision,” Mr Zavery says. “Our goal is to have multiple branches, not only in Tanzania, but in Eastern Africa.” They plan to open a second restaurant in Dar es Salaam.