The fast casual segment has come a long way from being made up of concepts like Pei Wei, Chipotle and Panera Bread. There are new sectors in this segment constantly emerging- whether it’s a particular culinary style like Indian or Mediterranean food, or focused around one offering like, the gourmet taco or the gourmet burger.
Now, consumers have a variety of quality, affordable options to pick from. And American foodies are always on the lookout to try something new. Enter Middle Eastern cuisine, the latest sector on the rise in fast casual.
Although the Middle Eastern culinary style has some foreign elements to the American consumer, bread, a fan-favorite, is often the base of these dishes.
A fast casual concept expanding rapidly is Naf Naf Grill, a restaurant chain currently with 25 stores, including one new location opening at the Mall of America this weekend. These restaurants are bringing Middle Eastern cuisine to the masses and the brand just recognized as a Hot Concept.
We sat down with one of Naf Naf Grill’s co-CEOs, David Sloan to learn why guests are lovin’ this style of food and what is to come for the brand.
Can you tell us a little about how Naf Naf Grill was started?
Sloan: We didn’t start off with a big chain, we started as a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Naperville Illinois back in 2009. We didn’t have air conditioning or heat, but we had good food. We have quickly grown the brand from those humble beginnings. It’s a story about what great food can do for ya, in terms of success. It’s something people like, that they’re aren’t supporting a big company that came in with these beautiful restaurants, but it’s by four partners who wanted to serve great Middle Eastern food together.
Why is Middle Eastern cuisine emerging as a popular trend, especially in fast casual?
Sloan: I think it’s primarily due to people wanting different flavors. The American consumer is tired of burritos and hamburgers. Ethnic foods are really popular; it doesn’t only have to do with Middle Eastern food. I think have Middle Eastern is leading that segment, but there is also Thai food and Indian food. You are seeing a lot of fast casuals taking an ethnic food and putting it into a type of format that Americans are used to. So they might not know the food, but they understand the process. It’s a great way for them to get introduced to new food and flavors.
What other consumer trends are you seeing prominently impact the fast casual market?
Sloan: The two big trends are ethnic foods, of course and then you are also seeing a higher level fast casual segment coming out. These restaurants are using some really different ingredients and sourcing the freshest ingredients. I think this whole fast casual segment is stepping up a couple notches in terms for quality and we are right there with it.
How has Naf Naf Grill stood out in this segment?
Sloan: We have a great product. Our menu is very simple, it’s just three items and we do it extremely well. We don’t take any short-cuts. We have a bakery in every store. You see the food being cook right in front of you, so consumers enjoy that. Plus, again, we are giving consumers a new flavor that most of them don’t get to experience. Probably a small percentage of Americans are ever going to travel to the Middle East and the Middle East has such a rich culinary tradition and we are giving them that rich culinary tradition in their neighborhood.
What do guests love about this style of food?
Sloan: Middle Eastern is not that far off from what Americans are already used to. Middle Eastern food is about great bread, everybody loves great bread and there are also great proteins. We have proteins not only for the meat-eater, but also for the Vegans and Vegetarians with falafel. Besides the meat and falafel, and the salads and sauces that compliment them really well– the flavor profile is unique but it’s not overwhelming unique to people. It’s a nice easy step to get some new flavors without being too intense.
What have been some of the challenges in expanding the brand quickly?
Sloan: When you’re growing as quickly as we are, we are growing at a 100% and plan to grow at another 100% next year, it’s about getting all your processes and procedures down. That’s been the biggest thing we have been focusing on. When you’re going 100 mph, you have to make sure you have those processes and procedures down or at the store level they are going to veer off the road.
Another thing is real estate. Every fast casual is going after the same footprint, so there’s a lot of competition. In a lot of cities, you’re seeing the competition turn into higher fix expenses on rent. So, that’s been another challenge.
What's the chain's growth plan?
Sloan: We will be at 29 stores at the end of the year and 15 signed leases for the following year. The goal is to get it pretty close to that 45 or 50 mark going into 2018.
What has been the recent focus of the brand's marketing efforts?
Sloan: We have never really done marketing. We have had a zero marketing budget. All of marketing has been Facebook and word of mouth. But we just hired a new VP of Branding, so we’re in the process of doing a big marketing research and branding effort that we are going to be starting in 2017. This will be the first time we will be spending some marketing dollars. We will be looking into all different aspects, social media, of course will be a big play for us, along with some other traditional types of medias.