BAGHDAD — Iraqi businessman Zaid Nazo has always been sure of his nation's deep passion for food and wasn't afraid to dream big when he transformed his small Baghdad coffee shop in 1999 into a casual dining and takeaway restaurant. Today, the 41-year-old father of two has opened four branches and his chain is one of the most popular in Iraq.
Many Iraqi entrepreneurs are finding restaurants and eateries a safe business bet, despite the country's slumping economy, prevailing violence and an ongoing war with the Islamic State group.
The food business is growing quickly. There are 40 percent more restaurants in Baghdad today than there were in 2013 — when security and economic conditions in the country were much better —according to Shakir al-Zamili, the chairman of Baghdad Investment Commission.
It's unexpected when the city still faces almost daily bombings, large swaths of the country are under control of the extremist Islamic State group and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is embroiled in a political crisis over stalled reforms and allegations of rampant corruption.
It's also a testament to Iraqis' determination to triumph over violence.
Nazo and his business partner, his close friend Marwan Rassam, established their first eatery — Saj al-Reef or "Country Bread" in Arabic — in the upscale Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada 18 years ago.
Then in 2007, they opened a second branch in Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, and a third in 2009, in the nearby town of Sulaimaniyah.
This February, he opened a new place in Baghdad's upmarket Mansour neighborhood.
"I bet on the mentality of Iraqis," he told The Associated Press. "The Iraqi people love to live ... and they make the most of every day because they don't know what tomorrow will bring," he added.
The food boom has seen new establishments open all around Baghdad, from city rooftops to the banks of the Tigris River. Local businessmen are pouring millions of dollars into buying or renting property, bringing in foreign chefs and staff, competing with one another for the fanciest design, best decoration and most attractive cuisine.
And though suicide and car bombings regularly target large gatherings — including restaurants — the boom has not slowed.
"Baghdadis live under huge pressure," said al-Zamili, the chairman of the Baghdad Investment Commission. "Restaurants are the best place to vent daily frustrations and that's the main catalyst behind the spike in these projects."
The government offers significant tax breaks for up to 10 years for new ventures, and expedites entry visas for foreign staff at such businesses.
After the Islamic State took much of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, investors' appetite for restaurants, entertainment and hospitality projects slowed down considerably, said al-Zamili.
Then it picked up and started to skyrocket, he says.
Four out of 10 proposals that land before al-Zamili's commission are for restaurants or coffee shops. Baghdad has now more than 100 restaurants, coffee shops and eateries that are licensed by his commission — and twice as many are in the planning stages.
Nazo likes to trace the Iraqi passion for food to antiquity.
Last century, archaeologists discovered what is believed to be one of the world's oldest cookbooks — three clay tablets written in cuneiform script, dating to about 1700 B.C. Housed at the Babylonian Collection of Yale University, they give cooking instructions for more than two dozen Mesopotamian dishes, including stews made of pigeon or lamb, a turnip dish and a kind of poultry pie.
Culinary arts flourished when Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, from the eighth to the thirteenth century, and many cookbooks have been preserved from that period.
Iraq's signature dishes include masgouf, a grilled fish, as well as lamb kebabs and fire-roasted chicken. But many Baghdad eateries now offer American-style fast food, with added spice to appeal to the Iraqi palate.
Nazo remembers when he started in Karrada, they offered mostly traditional shawarma sandwiches wrapped with saj — traditional, unleavened flatbread baked on a dome-shaped metal griddle over a wood fire.
His latest branch cost more than $1 million and can seat 500 clients. Its menu touts nearly 70 Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Chinese, French and Italian dishes.
At a recent lunchtime, uniformed waiters briskly navigated through the packed, two-story establishment as families and young people huddled over wooden tables. There was a line waiting for a free table.
Anas al-Sarraf, 28, runs the Baghdad Restaurants Guide, a Facebook page he has run since 2012. It keeps Baghdadis updated with the latest, attracting nearly 200,000 followers.
"I have adored food since my childhood," said al-Saraf as he waited for his order in the popular Scosi restaurant in Baghdad. "My dad and my grandmother used to take us to restaurants on weekends as a reward, and since then, my love for food has grown."
Al-Sarraf, who works for a private company, visits restaurants and coffee shops daily, spending nearly one-third of his $1,200 monthly income on what he describes as his "hobby."
But his passion and postings have caused problems with some restaurateurs, a few of whom have threatened him after he criticized their establishments. In one instance, he only just avoided a beating and arrest after photographing an eatery in the Shiite Sadr City area where Sunni extremists often carry out attacks.
The war, plummeting oil prices and austerity are hitting the Iraqi budget and have led to a slow down for most businesses. Baghdad has also been hit by an increasing number of bombings and suicide attacks.
But that bleak picture of a nation at war has not deterred restaurateur Salam Mijbar Mohammed.
The 40-year old has just inaugurated the third branch of his Scosi chain, which also offers a range of Middle Eastern and Western dishes. He is investing nearly $2 million in the venture and believes that future for Iraq's food scene is promising.
"Whenever there are bombings, we expect a slow business day, but hours later we see a big turnout and that's what encourages us," he said, with a slow smile.
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