Ever increasing circles

When two friends found their local community lacking the café culture they craved, they did something about it and launched Circle Cafe. Now Rama Mamlouk and Mira al Naimi have also opened Sushi counter and are stepping out into the bold world of franchising
Rama Mamlouk.
By Neil King
Sat 30 Mar 2013 11:49 AM

If you speak to entrepreneurs, many of them will say their business is their baby. Having breathed life into their ideas, and grown them from tiny operations to fully-fledged and profitable companies, these entrepreneurs find it hard to imagine that anybody else should have any control over their beloved brands.

But while aspects of these feelings may ring true for business partners Rama Mamlouk and Mira Al Naimi, they have a different point of view when it comes to franchising.

Founders and owners of Circle Café and Sushi Counter, the two friends have recently started to franchise out their brands in a calculated move to grow their business and help it reach places it may never have otherwise reached.

Rather than wanting to keep their ‘babies’ entirely under their wings, the duo want them to go out into the wide world and flourish.

The story of their company, Radius Group, is an interesting one, seeing tremendous growth in a short space of time, having initially spent years not looking to expand. From bagels to sushi, and on to franchising, the company has found a recipe for success which promises to continue for years to come.

Having met in Dubai in 1999, Mamlouk and Al Naimi – both from Lebanon – bonded over their love of good food, and four years later opened their first outlet, Circle Café, in Media City.

“We started in 2003. Mira had moved from England and me from he US,” says Mamlouk “The market was emerging – there were no cafes or anything. In the US I used to crave bagels, and we both discovered we had a love of food. I wanted bagels and Mira wanted a café culture.”

Al Naimi adds “We only had six-star hotels or fast food to choose from, but we wanted something more home-grown. So we started Circle.”

Investing their own money, and taking business advice and recipes from friends and families, the duo soon put together a strong team, and set up shop.

“The first year was very small,” says al Naimi “We had kids and didn’t think that much about growing the brand. That only came with time.”

But grow they did. From their first branch in Dubai Media City, they opened a second café in Jumeirah in 2009, and another in Dubai Healthcare City, before embarking on a new venture, Sushi Counter.

Opening their first two Sushi Counter branches in Media City and Sheikh Zayed Road last year, the businesswomen are confident about the reason the new brand has met with early success.

Mamlouk says: “Because there’s no cooking on the menu, we can be creative with our recipes, where we set up, what the interior is like, and so on. We’ve got a Middle Eastern twist to our sushi at the moment – things like tabbouleh roll and chicken tikka roll.

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“Things like this have really helped us stand out from the crowd. We plan to take inspiration from various different parts of the world and create sushi with a twist.

“We love quality, and we want everything we do to be quality. We want to have the best staff, the best service and to keep inventing and creating the best recipes. It’s definitely our passion. We try to bring out another dimension.”

Al Naimi adds: “Visually everything has to be beautiful. The look of the cafes and the food has to be great. People notice that and it makes a real difference.”

On the back of their growth, the duo decided to consider something that had been knocking on their door for a while. Franchising.

A decade after opening their first café, Al Naimi and Mamlouk began to look at how to franchise Circle Café – acting upon a demand that had existed for years.

“We have had so much demand for franchise,” says Al Naimi. “It’s now the in-thing, but we’ve had people asking to franchise our café for ten years.”

Franchising has become a watch-word for the food and beverage industry, with numerous brands from America and Europe keen to set up in the Gulf, as well as an increasing number of cafés and restaurants from the region looking to expand operations overseas.

Franchising allows companies to expand their market share quickly and inexpensively, as well as allowing franchisees the opportunity to use an established brand’s business model and product.

The franchisees usually pay an initial fee to acquire the right to the use of the brand, and also pay  a percentage of their sales to the franchisor on a regular basis. Most franchisors will be particularly selective over who taken on the franchise, and will have a stringent process in place to find the best people to take on the business.

Al Naimi continues: “The demand was there for Circle, but initially we weren’t ready for it. When we became ready for it, it was a case of finding the right people.”

Mamlouk adds: “We had to get it right in-house first and put all of our systems into place. Then we were ready to franchise it.”

“We have a lot of criteria for people who want to take on the franchise,” says Al Naimi. “From obvious things like they should be from the food and drink industry, down to much more specific things. It’s very important that we are confident in the people taking it on.

“There are a lot of people in Dubai with a lot of money but we have to make sure they are right for us. Having money doesn’t always mean they are good for the business. They have to reach and stick to certain standards, criteria and rules.”

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While interest and interviews are still coming thick and fast, there has already been a breakthrough for Circle Café, with the first franchise opening in Abu Dhabi. And this year promises to see even more branches set up.

“We have six outlets at the moment and we hope to have twelve by the end of 2013,” says Mamlouk “All of a sudden things are growing really fast.”

The duo are particularly hopeful for the franchise potential of Sushi Counter, citing the simplicity of the concept as the main reason it is possible to grow quickly.

Mamlouk continues: “Sushi Counter is such a simple concept. For every ten Circles you can set up, you can set up 30 Sushi Counters. It really just has to be a counter. That was definitely part of the business plan – how best to use the space in order to offer people what they want and in order to run the business in the best and most efficient way.”

Al Naimi adds: “The move to franchise for Sushi Counter should be very easy. We have a great chef who comes up with brilliant ideas, we have a concept which allows people to get something quickly and easily, we have quality food, and it looks good too. It’s a simple concept to establish and run, so it should do really well.”

So why did the business partners consider franchising at all?

“After all these years in the business, we found that going the franchise way is the safest way to grow the business,” says Mamlouk.

Al Naimi adds: “For the people taking on the franchise, everything is given to them on a platter. We’ve made the mistakes and dealt with them already, so there won’t be any bad surprises for them.

“It’s a good brand with good systems in place and it should be a ready-made success for anybody who takes on the franchise.

“We went to a seminar a while ago where we learnt about franchises for three days. We learnt that usually 90 percent of start-up businesses fail and ten percent succeed, but if you take franchises then ten percent would fail and 90 percent succeed.

“It really helped open our eyes and gave us some great information.”

But working on franchises is not the only thing Al Naimi and Mamlouk are doing to help maintain healthy business.

They have made efforts to improve their online ordering and delivery systems, giving customers more access to their food.

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“We want to perfect every aspect of the business and this definitely includes the delivery system,” says Al Naimi

“We put a lot of consideration into this,” adds Mamlouk. “We have tried to make the online system simple and straightforward. I’m not so hi-tech, but even I can order from it. And my seven-year-old can do it too.”

Workforce is also key to the continuance and development of the operation, and is something Al Naimi and Mamlouk are keen to invest time and energy into.

Mamlouk says: “Dubai attracts a lot of people who want to work. Most are already well trained and ready to work but sometimes there is a challenge to get them ready. We try to put them on the right track.We like to promote from within because it’s better for us and better for the staff. We have a waiter who became  a manager at Circle – this is something we really like to do.

“I think we are quite relaxed here. We try to treat people fairly and equally. We want them to come to work happy and feeling like they are a part of Circle or Sushi Counter.”

Looking to the future is clearly an important part of Radius Group’s thinking, and there are already plans to establish new ideas away from Circle and Sushi Counter.

Mamlouk says: “We have a concept that we’re working on at the moment in the pasty industry. It’s totally different to what we’re doing now. People like new ideas, but they also like big established names, so we really have to fight for our place in the market, which is a big creative challenge.”

Al Naimi reveals: “We’re trying to get ahead of the game. We want to look at health food and push that.

“It’s been happening globally for a while now, and Dubai is starting to follow it.”

Mamlouk adds: “Ten years ago people weren’t that receptive to it, but now they like healthy and organic food, which we both love.”

Growth is clearly still on the freinds’ minds. If it’s hard to imagine the size of the growth their business so far, perhaps this figure will illustrate it. Starting with one café and seven employees, the group hopes to have 350 members of staff by the end of the year across its twelve outlets.

Not bad for two women who just wanted a good bagel and coffee.

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