3 fast casuals selling the Middle East

DUBAI — Executives of several America-based chains pitched their business models to a room filled with possible franchisees last month at the International Franchise Forum in Dubai. Three of those execs were Rome Gregorio, president and founder of Camille's Ice Cream Bars; Paul Steck, president of Saladworks and Alex Garland, managing director, Europe, Middle East and India of Earl Enterprises, the company behind Earl of Sandwich. (Click here to see photos of all three concepts.)

"It's a thriving market here, and the people here are interested in different brands and we feel the sandwich market is really strong," said Garland, who hopes to open in the Middle East by the end of the year. "Subway is thriving out here; they're doing very well, so we feel there is room in the marketplace for us."

All three men addressed the franchisees in separate presentations, explaining how well their companies support their franchisees and why their concepts were worth backing. Their ultimate goal was to find the perfect franchise partners to help exapnd their concepts in the United Arab Emirates.

"American brands enjoy a high degree of acceptance in the Middle East," said Steck, president of Saladworks, the 103-New Jersey-based salad concept. "The Middle East is rapidly becoming interested in enjoying the benefits to living a healthy lifestyle, and as the leader in the salad restaurant industry, it is natural for such strong interest in our brand to exist."

Dubai's flair — with skyscrapers, beaches, exotic cars and upscale
shopping — makes it a perfect fit for trendy American brands.

Although Salaldworks already has a 10-unit agreement signed for Dubai, Steck is looking for others to help expand Saladworks' UAE presence.

"We commit ourselves to supporting our (international) franchisees in a similar fashion as our domestic franchisees," he said. "Obviously there's a higher cost in doing that, so one of our goals here is to back fill in — to bring in other franchisees in the GCC marketplace to help support, not just the one, but the few. Once you are in the GCC the other countries are only a hop, jump and skip away."

Steck, who met with 19 potential master franchisees in Dubai but hasn't yet named his next partner, chose the Middle East for Saladworks' first international push because the area seems ripe for concepts that offer healthy, fast options.


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"As we were interviewing potential franchise candidates, they were talking about how the eating habits here in the Arab culture are not great. There's a monstrous issue with health — diabetes, high blood pressure — and although we don't view ourselves as a health food concept — we view ourselves as a concept that serves great-testing food that happens to be good for you — we think it's a great fit."

The Hollywood of the Arab Nations
Another "great fit" for Dubai is Camille's Ice Cream Bars, said Gregorio, who calls the area the "Hollywood of the Arab Nations."

"Dubai has tremendous flair with their skyscrapers, gorgeous beaches, exotic cars and upscale shopping. It is a place to see and be seen," he said. "Lavish malls, fanfare of restaurants, and the likes of beautiful people from all over the world crowding every venue, is unlike any other area in the Middle East."

More importantly, the area has a great demand for ice cream and provides a strong economic climate, not to mention that it is hot," he said. "Our frozen desserts in the desert climate would make a lot of people happy. Camille's is an innovative concept that is attractive to markets looking for trendy or 'fashion-forward' additions to their lavish malls, hotels and quality retail centers"

Gregorio will announce his Arab franchise partners in the next 90 days and hopes to open his first unit there by the end of the year.

"We received an overwhelming response of interested franchise partners from multiple countries," he said. "These groups were interested in developing the UAE with significant interest in Dubai and Qatar. We even have several groups interested in developing the entire GCC and MENA regions."

Elevating the burger experience
One fast casual brand that's already seeing success in the Middle East is Elevation Burger,

Elevation Burger CEO Hans Hess and Cherryh Butler,
editor of fastcasual.com

which has already opened the first of at least four units in Dubai. Two restaurants are also open in Kuwait with plans underway for more units throughout the area, said Franchisee Khaled Waleed Albuaijan, director of TABCo International Food Catering KSCC. That success stems from the quality of franchisees Hans Hess has chosen and also the CEO's dedication to supporting the international units.

"We pick extremely good franchisees," Hess said. "There's a lot of training leading up to an opening and we bring a whole team over to help open the units."

Albuaijan agreed, saying that he and his partners rely heavily on the corporate team.

"We get a lot of support from them, and that's important because it makes it easier to make sure our customers here have the same experience that they might in Philly," he said.

A 'fresh' take on fast casual
Another Western brand already succeeding in Dubai is Freshii, a Canadian-based chain

Spouses Michael Boocher and Jennifer Ridgway,
pictured with their son, have found success in Dubai
with Freshii.

specializing in high-quality, fresh cuisine. From wraps to bowls, customers go down the line and tell employees what they want in their meals.

Franchisee Michael Boocher of Georgia has opened two units there with his wife, Jennifer Ridgway, who hails from Canada. They believe their success is due, in part, to their passion for hiring dedicated, skilled workers who can help their customers.

"We like to go above and beyond to treat our staff well and provide a positive work environment," Boocher said. "We we are able to attract and retain a higher caliber staff capable of meeting the needs of a demanding clientele and a customizable menu format, and they are paid accordingly."

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