Wide Angle

Diaspo #111 : Youssef Nafaa, Morocco’s serial entrepreneur and Texas’ successful restaurateur

For more than thirty years, Youssef Nafaa has been contributing to the restaurant industry in the United States. The chef is a serial entrepreneur who opened several restaurants around the country.

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When he first considered leaving his hometown to study overseas, Youssef Nafaa wanted to «have his own journey». Born in the suburbs of Kenitra, a city in northern Morocco, the Houston-based restaurateur was 21 years old when he opted for Chicago to pursue his higher education.

But his journey was not an easy one. In 1988, shortly after he laid a foot in the United States, his father passed away. The bad news pushed him to drop out of college to find a job. «I had to support my mother and my siblings (…) and I went from wanting to pursue my education and whatever dream I had at the time to trying to find a job», the businessman told Yabiladi.

Nafaa worked in the restaurant industry, a field that he liked, and decided to make a career out of it. A couple of years later, the Moroccan went back to school but this time it was to get a degree in culinary arts.

Always in Chicago, Youssef Nafaa worked in different locations. And as a chef, he managed to attract the attention of a food chain that saw potential in his know-how. «I was hired as a consultant in Texas», he recalled. To focus on his new job, he had to leave Chicago for Houston.

A serial entrepreneur

Although he managed to get expertise by working with this company, Nafaa decided to play big and start his own businesses with the food he dreamt of serving. «With the company I used to work with, I managed to acquire seven restaurants (…) but they were family restaurants and that was  not exactly what I wanted to do», he said, adding that «however, it was a good bridge that took [him] to the next level».

Indeed, once out, chef Nafaa ventured in the world of food and restaurants. In 1998, he opened his first restaurant. «It was a tapas restaurant in Houston. It was a success», he proudly declared. One year later, the entrepreneur opened a second restaurant that he called «Mia Bella» in downtown Houston, serving Italian food.

His career took a successful turn in Texas, where he opened several other restaurants that had unique and different cuisines to offer. «I was a crazy chef and entrepreneur. I remember that at some point I had five restaurants in one block and they were all different», he recalled.

In 2004, the Moroccan chef started a new adventure; opening a French crêperie he called Coco. The latter was another successful project that managed to attract many clients. «Coco is a café that serves crepes and gelato. It became a very popular place in the neighborhood (…) right now we have ten of those locations and next year we will be opening others nationwide», he said.

A Moroccan fast-food chain

In addition to his food-related projects in the United States, Nafaa tried in the past to start a business in Morocco. However, his plans were faced with a couple of disappointing challenges. «A couple of years ago, I opened an office and started a project that was meant to help Moroccans export their products to the US but I found a lot of difficulties», he regretted.

«I spent a lot of money, almost a quarter million dollars, but I ended up leaving because I did not find the right business atmosphere (...) I just gave up and left», he argued.

This failed attempt pushed the chef to focus on what he knew best : the restaurant business. And that is good news for Moroccan-food lovers in the United States. In fact, Youssef Nafaa is launching, very soon, his Moroccan fast-food chain.

Called «ZOA», the project is the first of its kind. According to the entrepreneur, this chain would feature «authentic Moroccan flavors» in a way that is modern, fast, healthy and natural.

«We are trying to offer Moroccan food in a sandwich (…) like having batbout (Moroccan bread), stuffed with lamb, kefta or chicken», he explained.

ZOA is expected to open its doors in January 2020, with the objective of presenting Moroccan food in «a healthy way to the American market», Nafaa concluded.

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