The Riverboat Tycoon
By Hoda Nassef
Mr. Johnny R. Zahra (who prefers now to be called Johnny Giovanni) is both Egyptian and Italian through both sets of ancestors. He is proud to be Italian, and proud to be Egyptian, thus treasures his twin citizenships. Mr. Zahra was born in Egypt on the 24th of November. If you ask him what year, he will smile and tell you to choose the date. True to his Sagittarius Sun Sign, he looks ageless. Take your pick: 35? 55? It doesn’t really matter, does it, when the Host and owner of this famous riverboat greets each customer personally when he can, day or night, interrupting his very busy schedule, and makes you feel really welcomed and right at home.
At first I used to love to take The Pharaohs’ Floating Restaurant, which is the first floating restaurant in Egypt, for invitations and parties. There was just the lunch and dinner cruises. The boat would float all the way past Helwan, then to the opposite extreme, and return quite leisurely and slowly. You had enough time to entertain your friends, have a good meal, see a show, and even dance to a live band. That was more than ten years ago. But when they started adding more trips to their schedules, in order to increase their revenues - (the extra trips included tea-time, sunset hours, midnight cruises -- you name it!) - the original ‘cruise’ schedule terminated faster, with less Nile scenery and mileage; therefore, you had to gobble your meal, then before you got to your dessert and said goodbye to your friends or relatives, you were suddenly docked back and forced to leave in a hurry! The same applies for Scarabee and the other lovely galloping restaurants… At least, at Le Pacha 1901, you can entertain, or be entertained leisurely, and take (reasonably) all the time you want about it!
§ First Impressions
However, luckily Le Pacha 1901 is also one of my own favourite meeting places for many events, and I was always intrigued by the “Legend” written on their menus and brochures (which I have copied above). It would be a scoop for the Gazette, I reasoned, to reveal the history and the makings of this ancient boat….
Now, before you get the surprise I got, let me tell you a bit about the Host; this modest man with courage, imagination and ambition. Let me surprise you and introduce you to the real Mr. Johnny Zahra I just discovered, and share with you his dreams that turned into an astonishing reality and smashing success!
§ From Alexandria, to Italy, to Libya
This caused a one-year setback, in a way, because at that time in Libya, the doctor in charge of issuing licenses had his own private pharmaceutical importation company, and apparently did not want any competitors in his field, so he delayed Zahra’s license for a whole year. Not one to be easily daunted, or idle, Mr. Zahra started importing foodstuff; beginning with eggs, cheese, then butter, and in fact all the basic needs in any kitchen or restaurant.
§ Forming his Agency in Libya
Finally, in 1967, Mr. Johnny Zahra got his license for importing pharmaceuticals to Libya, and gradually became a Bayer A.G., Eli Lilly (USA), and Leo (Denmark) agent, then was soon after in charge of covering the North African market. He had other Egyptian partners in this daring new enterprise.
In 1970, the Libyan government asked all the Italians to leave. At that time, Mr. Zahra had his Italian citizenship, but, he was the only Italian allowed to remain, not because of his joint citizenship (Egyptian-Italian), but because he was an investor there. In any case, he left Libya in 1970, and because of his good reputation in Libya as an agent, he joined Eli Lilly in Italy, as an employee, to cover the European market, at the end of 1971 till 1975.
§ Manager & Co-Owner of President Hotel
In 1975 till 1976, he became the Sales Manger for Eli Lilly, and was in charge of Egypt, Libya and Sudan. During that period, Mr. Zahra, together with some of his friends, built the President Hotel, with the famed “Cellars Bar” (and restaurant) in Zamalek, Egypt. (They had, and still have the best “filet mignons” there!) This probably accounts for the roots of his hotelier and catering business.
That was the turning point of Mr. Zahra’s career, and even life. He found his real aptitude, I believe. He resigned from Eli Lilly and the pharmaceutical business and returned to Egypt as co-owner and manager the President Hotel’s “Cellars” bar and restaurant, from 1977 to 1981.
§ Manager and Co-Owner of Presidential Nile Cruisers
In 1981, with his same partners, they started building boats in Egypt. By 1989, they formed the Presidential Nile Cruises (now comprising eight big floating hotels), and became, at that time, the biggest chain boats company in Egypt - (cruising to and from Luxor and Aswan, along the Nile River) - in which he was co-owner and the Manager.
§ The Turning-Point
In 1989, although still co-owner, he left the management of Presidential Nile Cruises. Now here’s a quiz for you: guess what he started to build, in 1990? Le Pacha 1901! Exactly on the 15th of January in 1990, Mr. Johnny Zahra started building Le Pacha 1901. It was inaugurated two years afterwards. He is the CEO and Owner of this famous ‘ancient’ new boat. “But, what about the ‘legend’ on your menus or brochures?” I asked, puzzled. He smiled, and said that it is just a publicity gimmick, to attract tourists, “who simply love mysterious old places”! Clever man. Don’t be too deceived by his innocent baby-faced smile!
When the idea first came to him to build the boat, he said that at first his friends (his lifetime partners) made fun of him, and told him that a boat that doesn’t float is ridiculous, and a bad investment. To quote Mr. Zahra, they also said that he was “trying to kill a moth, with an elephant”! Mr. Zahra added, “Even Mr. Youssef Gaafar - (Zahra idolizes him, and considers him the dean of tourism in Egypt) - said: ‘Johnny is either a genius or crazy! In my opinion, he’s crazy!!’” He added fondly that Mr. Gaafar also asked how one could build so many restaurants in a boat, without a hotel on top of it. Mr. Johnny Zahra apparently proved to be a genius, after all! At present, all along the Nile banks, there are several similar immobile floating restaurants, after Le Pacha 1901 was built. Good for you, ‘Johnny-come-lately”!
§ “United Company for Touristic Establishment: Le Pacha 1901”
Now you may think that “Le Pacha 1901” is actually 10 years old, and not one century old. Here’s another bonanza for you: wrong again! His boat is TWO years old! Exactly two years ago, this boat was rebuilt, from scratch. In fact, this is not the same boat.
“How could a boat be rebuilt, inconspicuously, and where did you build it?” I asked. He answered that it was built 20km upstream from Cairo, and tugged back to berth, minus one floor, in April 1992. Then, the top deck was added, and made out of wood. He explained that to be able to pass beneath the bridges, the height must not exceed four and a half to six meters. Four meters, if the Nile is “flooded” (in February-March) and up to six meters, when the water has subsided. (Not all the bridges are capable of opening up, to let high boats pass by. Qasr El-Nil Bridge has always had this capacity, unlike the 6th of October Bridge, which is quite high, but not high enough.) His boat has three floors, therefore considered high, which explains why the top floor was built after docking. “Le Pacha 1901” was officially functioning on the 15th of October 1992.
§ Boat & Yacht-building
The boat engines, by the way, are similar to big truck and lorry engines (of various brands) ranging between 350 to 500 horsepower, depending on their size. There are many boat and yacht builders, especially in Sinai, but according to Mr. Zahra, the best yacht builders, is the “De Birs” company. They build beautiful sophisticated 25-meter yachts. “The company is totally Egyptian,” he added, “but with Italian, French and English expertise.” He recently visited the yard the previous week, and commented that it was very clean, neat, organized, and typically European.
My ignorance preceded me when I asked him what type of wood did they use in building riverboats. He answered that all riverboats are made of iron, and not wood. Le Pacha 1901 is made totally out of iron, but of course with padded inside with wooden panels, décor, etc. Despite the cast-iron, Zahra said that the boats are built in Egypt without excess sophistication, and almost exactly in the same way the pharaohs used to build them, except that in the pharaoh’s time, other material was used instead of iron. My next question was, “Could Le Pacha 1901 take off, that is, navigate, if you wanted it to?” He said that it would be very easy to make it navigate, by adding an engine. As an afterthought, added that it could not go so far, in any case, due to the low bridges.
§ The Pacha Employees; Government Bureaus; Nile Pollution
Apart from that, like any 5-star hotel, all his employees (a staff of 350 employees; some working on a rotating-shift basis) are sent to government bureaus to take training courses in industrial safety & vocational hazards’ prevention, and hygiene, security, crises management and firefighting, at a ratio of six new employees each year. Also, personnel from various government bureaus make routine check-ups on Le Pacha 1901.
§ Outlets & Happy Events
15 years ago, Le Pacha 1901 had only two outlets: “Johnny’s Pub” (a bit like the Cellars), and “Le Steak”, which speaks for itself. A month after, he opened an Italian restaurant, called “Piccolo Mondo”. They now have ten outlets. The latest addition is a restaurant for purely Egyptian cuisine, called “Akl Zaman”, and is becoming extremely popular, amazingly without any written publicity. The Johnny’s Pub has recently been transformed into a restaurant, named “l’Asiatique”, with delicious cuisine from India, China, Thailand, and Japan (with authentic Chinese and Thai Chefs) as well as cuisines and dishes from other far-eastern countries. To replace “Johnny’s Pub”, a new bar (and restaurant) has recently opened, named “The Tycoons’”.
Mr. Zahra proudly admits that Le Pacha 1901 has its own clientele; the customers. They choose Le Pacha 1901 to celebrate their special events, as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter & Sham El-Nessim, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Greek Nights, Salsa Nights, Happy Hours, Halloween, to name a few, and with the holy month of Ramadan coming soon, Le Pacha 1901 offers “Iftar” and “Sehour’ for the fasting clientele. They also have special menus for home/outside deliveries. They are self-sufficient, with their own bakery and fresh bread, and now do a lot of catering outside, ranging from birthdays, to desert safaris, to weddings, etc, handling up to 3,500.
§ Tragedy Strikes
Although I did not want to mention his personally tragedy, telling you about it will enlighten you more on Mr. Johnny Zahra’s inner strength and religious beliefs. Almost all of us have read about his beautiful son’s tragic car accident just a couple of years ago, along with the untimely death of his friend, before their graduation celebration. Mr. Zahra had the support and love of his other son, family, and thousands of friends. Even from strangers. He then turned this personal tragedy into a public campaign against speeding truck drivers, driving while intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, and how to avoid such accidents and tragedies in the future. He had the courage to accept this tragic fate, and even use it to help other people, or at least create public awareness. And, he had the courage and faith to go on, and continue to greet you warmly with his kind smile, as if you are part of his dear family.
§ New Projects…and boat!
Lately, Mr. Johnny Zahra has purchased another REAL restaurant boat that sails in the Mediterranean Sea! Currently it is docked on the shores of Cyprus. Furthermore, he has added a few more restaurants in his Zamalek boat. Good for you, Mr. Johnny!!!
§ No Regrets
“I love my job. I took up this career because I like people, and love my friends. All the customers have become my friends. I wouldn’t change this lifestyle and vocation for anything else in the world. Since I’m not rich, money-wise, I think I am rich with friends. That’s my wealth. That’s my true fortune.”