Three years ago, Iman Haggag was a housewife with two kids and a seemingly far-flung dream. Today, she is a burgeoning entrepreneur with her restaurant Pots, which specializes in vegetarian dishes and Egyptian street food, close to the intersection of Rainbow and Oakey boulevards.
“Before Pots, I never worked a day in my life,” says Haggag, who abandoned her privileged life in Egypt in search of a change. Using her own savings and will to succeed, she is now the co-owner and brainchild behind the fast-casual Pots — which she calls the city’s first Egyptian eatery — that celebrates its third anniversary this February. The modest location in a westside strip mall attracts vegans looking for a different twist on rice, beans, and vegetables.
Haggag acknowledges her serendipitous path in her business and personal life. Though she graduated with degrees in business administration and accounting from Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, she did not have previous practical business experience, nor did she know how to cook. “When I decided to move to the U.S., I was 23,” says the unlikely entrepreneur. “I hated the Egyptian government.”
In search of change, but with no clear plan, Haggag made her way to Las Vegas to go on a blind date with a man who was a friend of a friend. “When I met him, it was fireworks,” she says. Haggag stayed in Vegas for a week and then left for Arizona to stay with her uncle. The romance blossomed as the man traveled back and forth to Arizona to see her. They soon married, and Las Vegas became her new home.
The mother of two juggles the responsibilities of the restaurant and family life with the help of her younger sister, Ayat Kahlil, co-owner of Pots. Haggag emphasizes that the business would not have happened had her sister not urged her to take action. Kahlil followed Haggag to Las Vegas for her children to go to school, and within a few weeks became restless for something to do.
“The restaurant was my idea, but it was my sister’s push that made it happen,” Haggag says. “Ayat was the engine behind this place.” In February 2018, they opened their doors. Little did they know that they had transformed the former Pizza Hut location into a soon-to-be vegetarian mainstay.
Before tackling any kind of entrepreneurial venture, Haggag wanted to satisfy her desire to travel. So, at the end of 2014, she dropped her children off in Egypt to stay with her family and set off on a solo life-changing journey around the world. For a year, she explored the diverse cultures and cuisines of Africa and Europe. “It was a reset button for me,” she says. “That was the plan. Get married, have kids while I am young, travel, and then start a business.” While she was away, she honed her dream to open the restaurant.
Haggag explains that she wanted to open a vegan spot because the majority of Egyptian street food — mostly comprised of less expensive ingredients such as beans and rice — is naturally meat and dairy-free. Egypt’s North African location and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe also heavily influences Egyptian cuisine. At a quick glance, one could easily mistake the Pots menu for Mediterranean since it includes items such as hummus, baba ganoush, and falafel. As she traveled throughout the region, Haggag noted the similarities. “We have a combination of cuisines that I never knew were a combination in the first place,” she says.
One of the things that makes Haggag’s confidence so remarkable is the fact that her recipes are mostly self-taught out of necessity to feed her husband and her family, since eating out is not the norm in Egyptian culture. While she deciphered recipes with her mother in Arabic, she was simultaneously learning how to speak English. Haggag laughs out loud as she reflects back on her early days. “In the beginning, it was a struggle to know even the names. ‘What the hell is a cilantro? Or parsley?’ I had to learn how to translate,” she shakes her head with a smile. “There was no Google or YouTube. I didn’t even know what to search for. I had to work with my palate.”
The real test of her skills came when her parents came to visit. She prepared a big feast (“that’s how we do it in Egypt”) and got the validation and encouragement that she needed to further develop her ability.
From her original twist on the Egyptian street food staple koshari — a dish traditionally made with rice and lentils — to her cauliflower shawarma, a recipe she whipped up two days before their grand opening, Haggag’s food has drawn lines of hungry vegans, and it is apparent that the community has embraced her ambition and cuisine. And she has embraced them back. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Pots served up to 50 free nutritious meals a day to the community in need. Like many small business owners, Haggag had to lay off the majority of her staff, leaving only herself, her sister, and one employee. Instead of closing down completely, Haggag felt it was her duty to stay open. Despite their tiny workforce, she recalls, “My sister and I were doing meal deliveries, especially to the elderly.”
Her dedication to the community extended to the recent presidential elections, when Pots offered a free cauliflower or falafel sandwich to those with an “I Voted” sticker, and Haggag personally went to long voting lines to feed about 100 citizens — no matter who they were affiliated with — who were awaiting their turn to cast their votes.
Since the local economy reopened, Haggag and Kahlil work tirelessly to stay afloat, and they have been able to hire three staff members back. Pre-pandemic, the Pots dining room seated 22 diners, but to comply with the current mandates, it can now only accommodate 25 percent of that. To operate with limited staff, the sisters split their days in half and take turns. With public schools closed, Kahlil usually works the lunch shift during the day, and Haggag home schools both sets of children. Later in the day, the sisters switch places, with Haggag at the restaurant for dinner and her sister at home to care for the kids.
Despite numerous challenges, Haggag remains driven to simultaneously build her business while helping her surrounding community. She also has sights set on future expansion. Beyond eyeing a possible location in Downtown Las Vegas, she wants to share her vegan Egyptian cuisine beyond the limitations of a restaurant. “My dad started as a distributor for iron and then began manufacturing iron. Manufacturing is in my genes!” Haggag exclaims. “I think taking the brand to the next level is my big goal. With research and Google and people, we’re going to make it happen.”
• All Coverage of Pots [ELV]