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How Just Falafel Made It Just So Big !

In 2007 Mohammad Bitar craved a falafel sandwich and while he found plenty of coffee shops he couldn't source the healthy vegetarian snack he'd grown up eating in any of Abu Dhabi's malls. Although falafel can be found on most street corners in the Arab world, no-one had ever taken the humble street-food into becoming a recognized brand, .Bitar- wondering why this was, and still craving his sandwich - set to work establishing his own falafel shop: Just Falafel was born. Today, the brand is a successful, franchised, global business, with 650 outlets in 15 countries around the world. The humble street-food has gone global. Taking falafel, a street food, into the mainstream was possible because "it provides the missing link in the fast food market," said Mohamad Bitar, founder and managing director, Just falafel. "It's always been a quick food to prepare. It was easier in this region to begin our initial growth with a demographic that was familiar with the ingredients. The UAE and its diverse demographic of people living here was the initial catalyst to the creative menu that appeals to all the cultural communities that live here," he said. "This was the niche," he continued, the rest of the brand's success was from the strong team working behind the scenes and the thousands of loyal customers "that continue to grow each day" he concluded. Many of the UAE's high-end malls, however, didn't accept that a falafel chain would be something popular amongst their shoppers at first - not even in its food courts. The brand found it difficult, initially, to change the perception of the meal as a street food. "We went from being perceived as a no-no for the food courts to being today if you have a food court that does not offer falafel as a mall operator you'll have a gap in your food offering. You have to offer it now. And the only people that offer it, which have adapted to this environment, is Just Falafel," said Fadi Malas, CEO, Just Falafel. "The beauty of this food category is the way it evolved from its humble origins - it's a street food, with a very humble background, but when you communicate a more sophisticated version to the right audience in the right fashion and manner, all of a sudden perception of a preconceived idea changes," that is what the company did to the humble falafel sandwich, said the CEO.
The food outlet re-invented the simple 'falafel' sandwich into becoming a globally recognized urbane brand, he continued. From the outset of the brand formulation, innovation played a key role. Bitar set up the first outlet in Abu Dhabi in 2007 with a modern, cosmopolitan twist on the falafel sandwich. Instead of serving the fried chickpea balls in the traditional way with sesame oil and tahini paste - which would primarily appeal to Middle Eastern tastes - Bitar presented the snack in a Greek-style sandwich to appeal to the European expatriate community as well as in an Indian-style sandwich. In March 2011 Just Falafel opened in Dubai and after a couple of years managing and testing the brand in the UAE, the company decided to go further with its expansion and venture into franchising. In March 2011 there were no franchised outlets of Just Falafel, but by February 2013 there were 650 across 15 countries. The franchises have been sold from Australia to India, across the Middle East and Levant, in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and the UK. The company is now looking at starting franchise opportunities in South America, Canada and the USA, to make the brand truly global. So how did they reach this success? Firstly, they used social media. "Once we decided to go down the franchising route, we thought we strongly believe that we have a great concept, we strongly believed that we'll attract thousands of clients a day. But how do we tell people we exist? How do we communicate our brand to people? How do we tell people that they have the opportunity to franchise and share our dreams and our vision?" Malas questioned. The answer was Facebook. "Facebook has completely innovated the way we use the internet. So we set up a Facebook page and started communicating our vision, our story, and the opportunity to franchise," he continued. The social networking site has also written a case study about the brand's use of its platform - the only company to feature in such a study in the Gulf region, Malas said. "We have almost a million users now on Facebook. It's a great platform, which paid off." Secondly, launching the business just before the credit crunch hit the world - and introducing franchising soon after - was actually beneficial for the company. Investors weren't interested in talking about stocks and bonds, Malas said, "So really the only proposition that they would consider would be a franchise of a real business, a cash business." Setting up in difficult economic conditions made it easier for the company to secure locations, he continued, "Because in times of economic boom it's more difficult to secure retail locations." The unique meal offering that Just Falafel provides is a third secret to their success. Currently it's the only healthier, vegetarian alternative found in food courts. Its competition, Malas pointed out, are the fast food chains that dominate the food court - including McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Subway, and Pizza Hut. These are the "tyrants" of the food and beverage industry. "Since we're competing with brands that have thousands of stores, by default we have to grow very quickly to be on par with our competitors. We're not the only ones who think this way, as many of our franchisees believe that yes this is a great opportunity to grow and expand by offering a meal that competes but also can complement other meals. We know that we have to keep up the fast pace; as there is nobody in this arena yet, so why should we slow down?" Malas questioned. With such success, then, what advice does Just Falafel have for other budding entrepreneurs? "As an entrepreneur you have to learn how to take a punch and there's a lot of skepticism in any new idea," Malas said, "People were skeptical about Facebook as a business, even when it went public at 100 billion, they were still talking it down, talking the stock prices down. So skepticism will always be there. I think it's very important not to listen to noise, instead of listening to the noise around you, ignore it and just go after your dreams... it will all fall into place," he advised. Just Falafel is currently rolling out 50 stores in Istanbul, 125 in Saudi Arabia, and 200 in the UK. They've also received 10,000 franchise applications in the past 18 to 20 months and their Facebook page gets up to 10 million impressions a day. Malas concluded: "As an entrepreneur you need to take every negative into a positive. Otherwise, get a job."