Known for their singing and dancing as much as they are for their dessert, The Bearded Bakers are well, exactly that, bakers with beards. Traveling the nation in their mobile bakery that’s built out of a repurposed shipping container, the fellas have set their sights on conquering the world, one tasty treat at a time. The next stop... this weekend’s food truck festival, Off The Eaten Truck. BYO sat down with Ameer “AJ” El-Issa, the O.G. bearded baker, who gave us the scoop.
BYO: So, how did this all start?
AJ: Our family owned a restaurant, which we’ve since sold, where we put Knafeh on the menu. Traditional Knafeh is very heavy, so mum took her family recipe and we played around with it until we settled on what we have now, a lighter, creamier interpretation that was better suited to be had after dinner. We started to get a lot of interest and attention with the Knafeh. We were getting people lining up just for Knafeh, which was interrupting what was already a busy dinner service in the restaurant. We had two choices, we either had to take it off the menu or find an alternate outlet for it.
BYO: How would you describe knafeh to those who’ve never tasted it?
AJ: It’s best described as a sweet cheese and semolina pudding, covered in a layer of fine crumbing mix. It’s baked in our oven, where it comes out to be topped with finely crushed pistachios and drizzled with fragrant sugar syrup. The result is a crunchy topping and a hot oozing centre, a bit like a hot crème brulee!
BYO: Sounds scrumptious, so what made you decide to take up shop in a mobile, repurposed shipping container?
AJ: Well, I studied architecture and I’d always been inspired by the usefulness of shipping containers, and how they could be repurposed in so many different ways. I’d always dream of the many different things I could do with a container, and so when I started plotting out what I would need to bake Knafeh, I quickly realised I could easily fit it all into a shipping container. And the rest, well you can see it for yourself in front of you.
BYO: Off The Eaten Truck is one of the biggest gatherings of food trucks and vendors in Australia, why do you think people have taken such a liking to food trucks?
AJ: Restaurants and cafes are so commonplace now. As a society, we’ve come to accept dining out as such a normal thing. I mean for some people, it’s multiple times a week, whereas before it used to be a once a month treat, kind of thing. So, as a result, diners are now looking for a point of difference. They want their food fast, they want it cheap but they still want it to be good quality and an enjoyable experience they can share with friends and family. I think street food fills this need. People can even go to multiple locations in one night. They can have their entrees in one location, mains in another, and dessert somewhere else.
BYO: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Off the Eaten Truck food festival?
AJ: It’s the first of its kind in Western Sydney. We have spent a lot of time with the Rooty Hill RSL team on bringing something different to this event and building a very experience driven weekend for everyone. For example, one of the key elements will be in the Five Senses Laneway. There you’ll find sights, smells and an experience you don’t normally get at a food truck event or festival.
BYO: Sounds intriguing...
AJ: Yeah, it should be cool. Also, across the weekend, we’ll be joined by over 30 of Sydney’s most popular food trucks, who’ll all be coming together to feed the masses. There’ll be Mister Gee, Happy as Larry and Cantina Movil to name a few. We’ll also be raising much needed awareness and funds for the Movember foundation at the same time.
BYO: The Bearded Bakers are renowned for their singing and dancing as much as they are for their tasty dessert, how much of your success do you think is owed to the entertainment aspect?
AJ: We often say “we don’t sell a product, we sell an experience”. Yeah our product is fantastic, even if we are biased, but to really keep people coming back, and keep them talking about it, you’ve got to give them more than just a plate of food, so to speak. I think because everyone we have on board really loves hospitality and the concept of being hospitable. Really giving a good experience is what sets us up to really be able to entertain everyone that comes to visit us. You know, whether it’s enjoying the cheeky banter or the sincere engagement with the bakers they deal with when ordering or picking up, or the theatre of the singing and dancing and general camaraderie that is so evident between the bakers as they are baking. It’s never just the one action but part of a greater overall impact.
BYO: How do you recruit your bakers, are there any special requirements?
AJ: Our recruits have been handpicked, spotted either as visitors to Knafeh or someone who has approached us out and about. We joke and oversimplify it by saying, “must have a beard, must dance as we can teach you how to make Knafeh”, but what we’re really looking for is that ability to engage and to really enjoy giving people that experience we are known for. Interaction is everything for us, and the bakers are our brand, so we need to ensure everyone on the team fits within our brand. And of course the beard is mandatory!
BYO: Have there been or will there be female bakers dancing, singing and baking knafeh?
AJ: Only mum, and we can’t very well say no to her, it is her recipe after all. We have some other concepts in the pipeline which will have different focuses and staffing requirements, but Knafeh is very much about The Bearded Bakers.
BYO: This was all made possible by your mother’s special recipe, what does she think of it all?
AJ: She’s overwhelmed by the response, and humbled that she gets to share this with so many people. For us food is an expression of love, and sharing a mother’s love with so many, being able to bring so many people from different walks of life together is something really special for all of us, but especially for her.
BYO: What is your vision for the future? You currently only serve Knafeh, will the menu branch out to include other treats?
AJ: There are other ideas, but we like to do one thing and do it really well. We like to put our focus on one product. So, there are no plans for Knafeh itself to expand to multiple products.
BYO: You’re expanding and setting your sights on conquering the world, where would your dream destination be?
AJ: New York was part of our inspiration. As such, it is the first city in our global brand expansion. It’s an incredible city, and to see Knafeh flourish in one of the most influential cities of the world would really be our dream come true.