The UAE-based fast-food chain Just Falafel has become one of the fastest growing hospitality enterprises in the Middle East. Launched in 2007 with a single outlet in Abu Dhabi, the company today has 29 operating stores in six countries and over 650 signed franchises set to be in operation within the next five years. Bettina Quabius looks at the rapid growth of the concept and explores the transformation of the ubiquitous falafel from street food to the star of a multinational brand.
Just Falafel was started in 2007 when Mohamad Bitar together with his three partners Reema Shetty, Alia Al Mazrouie and Chef Ahmed Kaskas opened their first Just Falafel store on Abu Dhabi’s Hamdan Street. Originally coming from Lebanon where falafels are part of the culinary culture, Mohamad Bitar wanted to bring them to his new home in the UAE and give them a modern, global twist. The idea behind the concept was very simple; to adapt falafels to meet the wants of the 21st century lifestyle, and fill the gap in this food category.
In the Middle East, falafels have a trad-ition that goes back more than 1,000 years. The golden-brown croquettes, crispy and crunchy on the outside and warm and moist on the inside, are made of chickpeas or fava beans, fresh vege-tables and Middle Eastern seasonings and are usually served in a pita, which acts as a pocket. Derived from the word ‘filfil’ meaning ‘pepper’ in Arabic, they were originally eaten during Ramadan, the month of fasting, and soon made their way as a popular side dish, regularly eaten as part of ‘mezze’ or as a casual snack. Nowadays, falafels are highly appreciated as a healthy food offer and a vegetarian alternative to meat oriented fast food.
But there was more to the idea than just offering falafel sandwiches; the Just Falafel founders decided not only to serve the fried chickpea balls in the traditional Middle Eastern way with sesame oil and tahini paste, but also in various ethnic var-ieties such as a Greek-style sandwich with Tzatziki sauce and olive pesto or an Indian-style sandwich with cucumber pickles and a spicy Indian sauce to appeal to the large Indian community in the UAE. Meanwhile, the Just Falafel menu embraces tastes and flavours from around the world, offering not only the traditional falafel (Original) but an Italian, a Mexican, an Egyptian, an Emirati and even a Japanese take on the stuffed pita pocket. The American version comes as a burger and a ‘Quesadilla’ is served with tortilla bread and Jalapenos.
“Our timing is perfect,” believes Fadi Malas, the CEO of Just Falafel, who joined the company in 2011. “The menu engineering wouldn’t have been possible in the 1980s. At that time, if you came on any market – even the UK – and tried to sell them anything Japanese, they would not have been familiar with it. But we came at the right moment and created variations at a time when people were accustomed to Japanese and Mexican food. We belong to a global lifestyle where kitchens or food travel faster than anything else and we have a much higher tolerance to accept any cuisine.”
The success proves him right; less than six years after its launch in 2007, Just Falafel has 28 stores in operation in the UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar and Oman. In January 2013, the first Just Falafel store outside the Middle East opened in London’s Covent Garden. Three more Just Falafel outlets are under construction in some of the city’s prime locations such as Leicester Square while 20 further UK branches will open by the end of 2013. This drive is part of a strat-egy to establish 200 units on the island over the next five years -together with its partner and investor Centurion Holding.
Worldwide, Just Falafel has signed 650 franchises across 15 countries that are planned to roll out over the next five years and 25 stores are under construction. In 2012, a master franchise was signed for 125 outlets in Saudi Arabia with eight stores to be opened simultan-eously within the next few weeks. Master franchises have also been signed for 100 stores in Egypt, 50 stores each in the UAE and in Istanbul alone, and 50 new outlets in Mumbai. India, only a three hour flight away from Dubai and with an estimated 60 percent of its population being vegetarians, is considered one of the most important markets for the company.
However, numerous challenges had to be overcome when Just Falafel first entered the market. “Our greatest challenge at the outset was to introduce our menu to the consumer,” Malas says. “Before we sold falafels in any other flavour, it was offered all over the world as the traditional falafel sandwich with tahini sauce and pickles, salad and pita bread. The most difficult task was to convince people to have a Japanese falafel sandwich or to try it even.” Interestingly, the classic version accounts for only around 10 percent of all sales. “In other words, 90 percent are made with products that no one else sells except for us,” Malas is proud to ascertain.
To change the minds of mall oper-ators and developers to give them locations in some of the world’s most prominent retail environments such as the Dubai Mall, posed another challenge. “We were able to change the perception of this food category and -elevate it from its humble origins to a higher standing,” says Malas. “Today, retail operators have realised that if they don’t provide Just Falafel in the food courts, they have a shortfall in their food mix.”
Securing locations with high footfall in retail environments meant competing with the giants of the business. Very quickly, Just Falafel had to come up with marketing guidelines, standard operating procedures and supporting manuals. Malas says: “We needed to deliver quicker sandwiches, faster sandwiches, provide customer care and customer services that were on par with companies like McDonald’s which serves 70 million people a day.”
Competition for Just Falafel is every fast food restaurant, whether in the food courts or at any other location. There is no such thing as a typical customer though younger people with an open mind are more likely to visit a Just Falafel store and give it a try. “For a lot of people falafel only means Just Falafel,” Malas describes the strong brand equity of his company.
The healthy image of the falafel has positively contributed to the popularity of the concept. “We are not trying to be vegetarian, we are the first vegetarian concept by birth,” Malas points out. The menu is served made-to-order from fresh pre-mium vegetables and low-fat ingredients which are procured in one of the com-pany’s central kitchens that are set up in every country where Just Falafel is present.
“The supply chain is done 99.9% locally,” Malas says. “That way, you instantly get a local taste and you have local adaptation of your menu to the local palate. Because we don’t procure very complex things we only use all healthy natural foods. We want to try to maintain as much of that as possible, even if it’s of a higher cost to us because this is an edge that we want to retain for as long as we can.”
In the UAE, prices for the falafel sandwiches range from ?2.50-4.20, sides and salads start from ?1, a 6 piece Value Meal is available for ?2.90 and the Family Meal with 24 pieces costs ?9.40. The ‘Healthier Option’ is sold with baked falafels and adds ?0.50 to the bill. The average ticket is ?4.60 per person.
A matter of good timing was also the decision to start franchising in March 2011 when, according to Malas, due to the aftermath of the financial crisis investors were highly interested in franchising opportunities. Locations for new stores were much easier to secure because malls were eager to sign deals at the time. Today, Just Falafel works solely on a franchise model. The company has divested itself of managing any stores including their first outlet which was sold to a franchisee.
“We believed in our concept and so we knew how to sell it as a franchise and how to grow very fast,” says Malas. “Sometimes, we are getting more than 100 requests per day. With that much interest, why should I go and grow organically? I might as well grow faster and share the profits with my franchisees.”
A franchisee has to invest between ?115,000 and 150,000 per store, which includes the initial franchise and training fee of ?12,500, and pay royalties of 6 percent of the monthly gross sales as well as a marketing fee of 3 percent. The company offers mainly individual franchises and may grant an area franchise or a master franchise to interested and qualified partners on a case to case basis. The profile of interested franchise partners has changed over the last 18 months and so have the criteria for the selection of the franchisees, for example, now-adays, an individual Just Falafel franchisee needs to invest in a minimum of three stores.
Locations are usually selected according to the local conditions and opportunities. “When looking at any particular market, we look at covering the whole area. Our motto is: If you feel like having a falafel sandwich, whether in Dubai or Abu Dhabi or in any other place, Just Falafel should be there to serve you,” Malas says. Stores are set up in retail environments, residential areas, commercial districts, airports and gas stations and have to complement each other, for the comfort of the consumers.
100 Percent Social Media
When it comes to marketing, Just Falafel is most closely associated with social media and particularly Facebook. Being confronted with the huge advertising budgets of the established foodservice oper-ators, social media provided the only option for the young company to reach people in a cost effective and efficient way. Malas says: “We have a huge advantage by only using social media because our top management doesn’t come from a media background. For us, social media is very scientific: We get an instant response and impact on any campaign that we do.”
In 2012, Just Falafel became the first Facebook case study in the Gulf region after having generated more than 3,500 franchise requests from 70 countries using a targeted social media campaign. In comparison to the
Facebook ex-perience, the company’s Twitter engagement is still in the starting blocks. Having focused their efforts on using one platform and developing a deep understanding of it rather than diluting the activities across many platforms, the team has only started looking at Twitter a couple of months ago and is still learning.
Facebook is also used as a means of field supervision and control. The feedback from customers is very helpful in making sure that the franchise partners are managing the brand the way it was agreed upon in the franchise agreements with respect to responsibility, cleanliness, customer services etc. “Facebook allows us to communicate directly with our customers who tell us every experience as soon as they can,” Malas says.
Just Falafel’s Facebook page reaches 10 m impressions per day. Just recently, the company celebrated its one millionth ‘like’ with the launch of the ‘One Million Fund’, an initiative to support education across the region and internationally. Franchise enquiries from all around the world continue to roll in. The market for falafels is far from saturated. www.justfalafel.com.