Let's Eat

London falafel restaurant, Fafa's, has a very a northern flavour

A new eatery serving Israel’s favourite crunchy chickpea fritters is more Scandi than Sabra


Fafa’s — which opened in Covent Garden last month — is a Finnish falafel chain, with a strong Israeli connection. 
Founder Doron Karavani is a former Tel Avivian. How did he end up frying falafs in Northern Europe?
“I was a hippy at 14/15 years old” Karavani tells me over lunch at trendy London food hall, Arcade Food Theatre. “At 17, I went to India to travel and met a beautiful Finnish girl — Emma.”
The pair travelled together for two years, went their separate ways, but a few years later reunited and set off for Thailand where, she became pregnant. They returned to his home city, but life there proved too hard. “It’s a tough country, especially for beautiful blonde foreigners.” Two years later, at Emma’s request, they and their two year old daughter moved to Finland with $2,000 that Kavani had saved for his new life. “I spent it in the casino in a week.”  
With the self-knowledge that he wasn’t going to study the local language to succeed, he needed a plan B. Work in a pita factory lasted two days. The Finnish socialist system would have provided for him and his family, but that was not his way. “I hit up on the idea of delivering food from restaurants and cafes to offices.” 
He raised capital via restaurant advertisements on his menu, and Gastronauty (an early version of Deliveroo) was born. Five years in, it failed, leaving him a bankrupt, and waiting five more years before he could found another business.
Meanwhile he earned money working for an asset management company. “I hated the job, I hated waking up early and I hated wearing a suit.”
He decided he would found a falafel business. He found a site — a small mobile phone shop that had gone into insolvency — and invited the owner, Harri, to taste his food. “He loved my falafel, hummus and pita and we agreed work together.” But they couldn’t agree on terms, so Harri opened the pita place alone. 
Undeterred, Karavani waited a few months, then paid a visit to Harri’s falafel place. “I knew it was going badly, and offered to buy him out with my new business partners.” Harri accepted — “In a week we redecorated and changed the name to Fafa’s.”
The food was inspired by his Yemeni parents and his childhood. “I grew up in a house full of food and have a great passion for it. We had limited ingredients as we had little money growing up but we used a lot of spices.” 
“In Israel, I ate out a lot as food was good and cheap. Street food was everywhere — I’d buy it every time I had money as a kid. I’d eat pita and shawarma or falafel. It was unusual for a child to go and buy food, but I was fascinated. I wanted to work with food.” 
The recipes at Fafa’s were mostly his own — with one exception: “A Finnish friend gave me a dish that was haloumi and falafel, which I thought weird, but I needed more on the menu.” The chilli sauce is his mother’s: “she’s very proud”. 
The site was opposite a McDonalds in an area with busy nightlife. “I stayed open late and customers would come in to avoid the queues at McDonalds. Most didn’t know about tahina and falafel. Some foodie customers came in as it was new and different.” 
That all changed after a review in Helsinki’s main newspaper. “The very next day we had a line out of the door that never stopped. And 70% of them ordered that haloumi dish!”
Karavani was cooking everything, tweaking the menu to make service quicker. “I stopped overthinking what they wanted — I didn’t invent falafel — but we did it properly, like it would be cooked at home.”
The business grew. He bought the Israeli pita factory and opened a second Fafa’s at the factory in the industrial area. “It was on a pedestrian street, so people could just walk in.”
More branches followed as the street food movement burgeoned in Finland. In 2014, they opened their most recent store, in a prime spot in central Helsinki. The remaining new stores — there are now 41 Fafa’s across Finland — have been opened by franchisees. 
Why does he think his food has done so well? “It’s healthy and cooked in front of you. Our falafel are very crispy and soft inside, the magic is in the quantity of water you use in the recipe. They are also easy to eat and not too strong in flavour. The success of Israeli food generally is a lot to do with the atmosphere. You have so many burger places — how different can they be? The whole culture of eating out is changing, the more unique and crazy you are, the more publicity you get.” 
He feels the success of London’s existing Israeli-owned restaurants (spearheaded by The Palomar and The Barbary) helped him beat the competition for the Monmouth Street site in which Fafa’s has opened. “They have taken the food we grew up with, set it up nicely on a plate and charged more for it. We serve it simply in a pita. The Shaftesbury Estate [his landlords] are smart — they want the trends.”
The restaurant — not kosher — is aimed at takeaway customers, with some seating.  Don’t expect the deliciously doughy pita you find in Tel Aviv. 
When I met him, Kavani was visiting London Israeli bakeries, to taste test a thinner pocket to carry the various fillings. “Pita is designed to be eaten on the go”.
How the Finnish falafel chain does in London remains to be seen, but it should at least feel authentic. “The whole culture is very Israeli — that’s who we are!” 
Find out more here.

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