Bringing Mandi to the masses

When Fayez Al Nusari decided he wanted to change his career and follow his love of food, he delved into the traditions of the Arabian peninsula to provide something new for the region’s market
By Neil King
Wed 05 Jun 2013 09:51 AM

When the majority of people start a food company they are dealing with straightforward recipes, straightforward marketing, established cuisine, and a customer base which is in the know.

Things weren’t quite so easy for Fayez Al Nusari.

When the former sales and marketing manager decided to follow his foodie passion and live the entrepreneurial dream, he couldn’t just buy a unit, set up shop, and start selling food.

His chosen cuisine was mandi, a traditional Arabic dish of meat and rice which is usually cooked inside a clay oven dug into the ground. But how was he to bring this slow-cooked taste of the Middle East to the fast-paced modern market?

As he explains, the key for Al Nusari and his business, Mandilicious, was education.

“This is my own food, from my own part of the world,” he says. “I’m a foodie and this is the food I know. But nobody had thought to do it in the malls before.

“Very quickly there appeared to be logistic complexities in terms of preparing this cuisine. It takes between four to six hours for each meal to be prepared. So if you’re cooking for somebody who wants it right away, it’s impossible. And if you cook it somewhere else in preparation, then how do you keep it full of taste and fresh for so many hours?

“This was a hard thing to solve at the time. Because I had to keep the project confidential, it was important that I educated myself. I studied, read a lot, did the hard work, and solved the problem. When you understand the technology and the food, then it’s very simple. It’s all about preparation. We were able keep the food for up to 24 hours without losing moisture. We overcame that challenge.”

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Mandilicious launched in Times Square mall, Dubai, earlier this year, offering a range of starters, mains and desserts inspired by mandi and other similar regional dishes, including kabsa, thareed, sayadiyah and mugalgal.

Al Nusari explains what took him from a successful career in marketing to the risky world of entrepreneurialism.

“It was simply through love for food. I think it also helped that the last job I took meant I did a lot of work in a shopping mall. I realised there was a gap in the market and a need to bring something new in.

“For many years I was in marketing and the sale of destinations, and when you sell a destination you have to look at the whole picture, including things like logistics. So I knew I could look at all the parts of a food and beverage business. In fact, working on a single product rather than a range of products was much easier.”

Ready to put his money where his mouth was, Al Nusari explains he put up the initial capital for the business, but when it came to talking to potential investors, he couldn’t have asked for a smoother ride.

He says: “There are three business people from the region who are investing in the company. The main one is a very prominent Omani businessman of Yemeni origin. It took me three minutes to convince him to invest. Literally! It was the most important three minutes of my life.”

With the money and the concept in place, Al Nursari faced one more test. With so many expats living in Dubai, how was he to convince them to try what for many would be a new type of food?

“It is a bit of a challenge,” he admits. “The good thing is that we’re not serving our food in a restaurant far away – we’re selling it where the people already are and where they will already be looking for food.

“We also have a thorough marketing campaign, and our staff have been well prepared to help people understand the menu, the food, and how it is prepared. They can help anyone who doesn’t know what mandi is.

“Our website also carries a lot of information. There’s so much history to the food, and it’s good for people to know about it. As an entrepreneur it was vital that I knew the history too. This food has been in the region for a very long time, but this is an opportunity to introduce it to a new part of the market.”

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He adds that he is conscious that different customers will want to know different things about the food and the businesses, especially coming from different parts of the world.

“If the person in front of the staff is Arab, then they will want to know what the meat is, and where it came from. People from India want to know different things, and westerners want to know different things again. It’s important the staff know this so that they can help the best they can.

“We also give free samples to help people understand the food. It’s interesting for people to taste a small sample so they can learn not just the history or the way it’s cooked, but the way it tastes too. Even if they are unsure, when the food is in front of them they say ‘why not’!”

Education and planning are recurrent themes for Mandilicous. Al Nusari even reveals that he went to villages in Yemen where they have no electricity in order to find out how they cook it in the authentic way.

“It took two years of planning and learning the different ways people cook it,” he says. “Getting it right took a lot of time, but I always knew there was something special about this project. But I needed the understanding. I studied hard and gained that understanding. It was so important.”

When he boils the process down, Al Nusari claims that the secret is in the food’s simplicity.

“Ultimately it’s just meat and a very few spices. It’s not very complicated, but it has to be done in a certain way.

“Other things then come into play, such as cutting the meat. Brits know how to cut meat very well. People in this region don’t do it so well – here it’s about the measurement of meat, not the cut of meat. I had to bring in lots of different experts from different places for different aspects of the business. I needed somebody to make it look good, somebody to preserve it properly, and so on. But it’s worth doing it right.”

Indeed it is, and the proof is in the pudding. When I spoke with Al Nusari the business was three months old, and had already seen a twelve percent increase in customers since month one.

On top of that, contracts have been signed with Dubai Festival City and Jebel Ali – two of the seven new outlets that are already in the pipeline – and franchise plans have been drawn up as well.

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“When I started Mandilicious I wanted to go big with it.” Says Al Nusari. “I always planned to go global. I want to be going global by February next year.

“The UAE is just the start. This is a very good test market. The population and market dynamics are very good and can tell us a lot.

“We’ve been blessed with very good people who work with us, and from being involved every day for the first two weeks, I now don’t need to come to the mall very often. They can run it very well without me overseeing it all.

“We’re doing new trials all the time on dishes for the menu, which we hope will grow. For example, we’re adding local beverages – Arabic beverages which will be more authentic than what we have at the moment.

“So things are moving very quickly.”

The pace of development is something Al Nusari is very pleased about, but it shouldn’t be read as a sign that he wants to build the brand and exit as soon as it is established across the world.

He explains that he plans to work with this project for “quite a while” and plans to help each new franchise find a firm footing in its locale.

He says: “Every time you talk to people about franchising in different countries you find different solutions are needed, and having done this here, I think I’m the best person to judge what needs to be done in each country.

“We’re the only people doing this, so there’s nobody to compare us to. There’s no food and beverage business in the UAE that I can think of that we can be compared with head to head.

“I’m very happy this is the case. And I’m very happy we started in the UAE. It gives us so much space and the ability to study a really diverse market in a short space of time. I’m sure it will help us develop more and more.”

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