Forget double dating - couples Rawy Rizk and Lilian Hanna, and John Basta and Marianne Hanna give us a masterclass in family business.
Cairo’s favourite bar and the only place where they know how to make real cocktails, who doesn’t count Amici (and now the new Amici Heliopolis) as their boozy home away from home? We caught up with social butterflies and our favourite married couple Rawy Rizk and Lilian Hanna to talk about Amici’s plans for world domination and the secrets behind their startling success. We even asked them what their plan is for when the bearded lot really take over. But that’s not all. Rawy is also a partner in the gorgeous Californian-style eatery Trio, alongside John Basta who, believe it or not, is married to Marianne Hanna - Lilian’s stunning sister. Keeping it all in the family, we talked to our other favourite married couple about the ‘slow food movement’, beef with competitor restaurants and what it’s like working so closely with your spouse…
What was the inspiration behind Amici?
Rawy: I was in London at a bar called Eclipse and I fell in love with the place. When I came back to Egypt, I organised a Marlboro event at Fairmont Nile City and I decided to get bartenders from Eclipse to make their signature cocktails and it was a hit. I loved their cool cocktails and it didn’t really exist in Egypt yet.
Lilian: Rawy used to tell me that he was going to open a bar and all I could ask was, “what’s new?” Then when he went to London he liked the concept of cocktails. In the beginning people thought it was weird; people here usually just drink whiskey and vodka but soon they grew to love our cocktails, especially the girls.
That sounds like a lesbian market: Amici for lesbians and divorced people. What did your family say?
Rawy: My family didn’t even know. I just invited them to the opening and told them when everything was done and finished. My parents were only invited to my own wedding just 4 days before it took place!
You weren’t scared?
Rawy: I’m a gambler, I like taking risks. I was working in the stock market before I ventured into food and beverages.
Were you dating Lilian at the time?
Lilian: He got the place because of me! I introduced him to Piko – one of the owners behind The New President Hotel – who told us he had some empty venues and told us to stop by and choose a space.
It’s a bit unusual for you to encourage him to take a risk like that. What kind of wife does that?!
Lilian: Yeah but he’s always been a risk-taker and so have I.
Rawy: But I also convinced her because she fell in love with me.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when setting up?
Rawy: We opened up in the same area as La Bodega and L’Aubergine and one of the biggest hurdles was competing with all these pre-existing hot spots.
Lilian: Not Tamarai though, it’s a club. People who come to Amici want to relax and have drinks and food, so La Bodega and Appertivo were our main competition at the time.
What makes a successful place?
Rawy: The vibe, the crowd, the service and the quality. Soraya Shawky – who came on board as our PR – helped us a lot and the foreigners behind the bar made a huge difference.
We’ve seen a lot of hot spots disappear off the nightlife circuit within a couple of years. What’s been your secret?
Rawy: Consistency. We also changed the way bartending is done. Usually in Egypt, when you order a drink from a local bartender they don’t understand.
Lilian: Outside of Egypt, people have a relationship with the bartender and here no one does. Conrad was the first person that people were able to have a relationship with.
Do you tell your bartenders to socialize as much as possible?
Both: Yes, of course.
How far do you tell your bartenders to go?
Lilian: As far as they wish.
Rawy: Michael, for example, has girls that will die for him!
Lilian: Conrad, Mike and Hunter all get so many phone numbers every night. I’ve never seen anything like it!
How do you strike the balance between getting people in every night and not having it overrun with teenagers?
Lilian: Different nights, I think. When you have different concepts – Happy Hour, guest DJs and sushi for example – you have a constant stream of people. Something like the ToyBoys event attracts the younger crowds, while weekdays are more for the older crowd.
It was a very bold move to keep operating during the revolution. Was it a decision you took together and how did it happen?
Lilian: I was in London and Rawy called me to discuss what to do.
Rawy: I thought of it in terms of business. I thought it was an advantage.
Lilian: He also brought up the fact that we had to pay people their salaries especially since the staff gets most of their money out of tips.
Rawy: I closed for just 5 days then I had to open again. Remember when we had a curfew starting at 9pm? People were coming starting at 5pm.
So now you have expanded to Heliopolis, tell us about that.
Lilian: It started because in Zamalek you have A LOT of bars concentrated in one place. It’s doing great in Heliopolis because, outside of hotels, there aren’t many nightlife spots.
Rawy: I’ve been holding Christmas events in Heliopolis since 2007 because there’s a big Christian community there. I know a huge crowd over there and they’ve been waiting for ages for us to make this move. The sushi is a big plus too because there aren’t many restaurants in that part of town serving Japanese food.
Lilian: We have plans to open up Amici in other areas too, like Maadi and the 5th Settlement.
Now that the Ikhwan are in power, are you worried?
Rawy: In the beginning I was scared because I thought the business would go down, but I honestly think they will do anything to please everyone. That’s why I think that tourism will actually boom.
Lilian: When you think of the taxes we pay yearly, I doubt they can close the hotels. We pay a lot of money in taxes for each and every bottle we buy. Imagine what would happen if they closed down hotels or bars.
Rawy: And honestly I also have a plan B. We have Trio and we’ve taken over the food court in the Maritime Academy ( College I dont know in English.
Okay, speaking of Trio, how did the name come about?
Lilian: Because its three partners Rawy, John, and Mohamed Farouk.
Where did you guys find your Chef Jane?
Rawy: My friend was a chef at the Four Seasons and he told me that he knew an amazing American chef that we just had to meet.
Lilian: She came, she organised a tasting and she was amazing. She’s the one who suggested the slow food and organic movement.
John: We didn’t even know the concept beforehand. We had a concept in our mind close to what she was saying, but it wasn’t the slow movement itself. She introduced the concept to us and we read about it and decided it was a great idea to go with.
What are your future plans for Trio? What are the objectives?
John: Right now it’s just to reach everyone. We want more people to know about the restaurant and its quality.
How do you feel about working with your wives? Do you hate it?
Marianne: I’m sitting right next to him, you cant ask that!
It’s kind of turning into a family business…
Marianne: It creates a lot of problems if everyone wants things from their own point of view and so there are definitely clashes. But the most important thing is to keep the family relationship on a higher level.
What are your favorite dishes at Trio?
Rawy: The corn is my favorite.
Marianne: The Red Thai chicken is really good.
John: I love the wings.
Do you guys have beef with any other restaurants or bars in the area?
John: I think competition is good. It’s not like, oh my God there’s another place I have to compete with and I’m going to panic! It’s good to have competition and attract more people.
Rawy: The thing is, Trio is also a different concept to a lot of other outlets in Zamalek where it’s more about fast food and quick bites. Trio is a proper restaurant.
Lilian: You get to dine, sit with your friends and have a proper conversation. For example, at Mince, you can go grab a sandwich after work, but at Trio you can savour time with your friends.
Okay, which other institutions similar to yours do you really respect?
Do you have expansion plans for Trio?
John: Definitely. Maybe in Heliopolis or the 5th Settlement or Maadi.
What makes a really annoying customer?
Rawy: Complaining about everything. That, and refusing to understand where we’re coming from.
John: I hate people who come in and give us fake feedback. Our aim is to make everything better and to do that we need feedback. It helps us improve.
What are your big dreams?
Marianne: Mine are completely different to John’s. I’m an artist, I’m a wedding planner. I would want to build a wedding planning school here In Egypt.
Lilian: She’s actually the one who decorated my wedding. She was my sister, my maid of honor, my friend and my wedding planner.
John: My general dream is to have a huge construction company.
Lilian: He’s the one who executed Amici Zamalek, Heliopolis and Trio.
Rawy: Honestly my biggest dream is to lose weight. Before the wedding I told Lilian that I was on a diet then I went to the Hilton and literally ordered the whole menu of sandwiches.
How does working together affect your marriage?
Lilian: It’s good actually.
Rawy: No one will be worried about you or care about you more than your wife or husband.
Some crazy guy walks into Trio and says I want the best imaginary steak you have and he will pay for it. What will you do?
Lilian: We will give him the knife and fork and plate. But I wouldn’t charge him though.
Have you ever closed the doors to Amici, just the 4 of you, and got hammered?
Rawy: LILLIAN DOESN’T DRINK. It’s just me and John.
If you guys had a tab at Amici from the beginning, how much would it be by now?
Lilian: For me it will just be 500 LE. I don’t eat and I don’t drink. I think for John and Rawy, it would be much more.
Rawy, you own a bar for God’s sake, don’t you ever think of how much action you would get if you weren’t married?
Rawy: Tab3an (looks at Lilian and laughs).