A short chat with The Pizza Guys – aka Amber Haque and Rami Badawi – feels a bit like a lesson in the entrepreneurial arts. The husband-and-wife team, who set up their New York-style pizzeria in Business Bay in March, seem to tick all the ‘must-have’ boxes when it comes to starting your own business: product obsession, a focus on customer service, excellent relationships with both suppliers and investors and - last but not least - luck in spades. Above all, they are clearly having the time of their lives.
The idea for a neighbourhood joint that served great Neapolitan pizza, where the clientele knew the owners and felt comfortable hanging out, had been in Rami’s thoughts for at least a decade. Although raised in Abu Dhabi, he had spent a decade working in the US for Ritz-Carlton, and would often end up in the local pizzerias after lengthy night shifts.
“They were really the only places open at the time – people would go there to grab a slice or a calzone on the way home,” Rami recalls. “I noticed they had a cult following, and I remember thinking, wow, I bet these guys make a lot of money.”
Although the couple first met at high school in Abu Dhabi, Amber took a different career path, gaining a masters in human rights law before moving to Dubai in 2008 to work as a sales and marketing director for a local firm. But the obsession to create the perfect slice of pizza eventually saw them team up at the beginning of 2011 to set up their own business.
“Rami is a pizza fanatic, and he has been ever since I’ve known him,” says Amber. “Because of his background in the hospitality industry, he’s been exposed to a lot of food, so the idea to include ingredients like stracciatella cheese and wagyu beef came from him.
“He’s pretty militant about the oven temperature – we have a laser-controlled thermometer. He knows exactly what he wants and he’s thrown away pizzas that have come out of the oven in front of customers because they weren’t up to scratch.
“We’ve even had to turn away people because the oven wasn’t hot enough. He’s a little bit extreme, but that’s because this is something he’s been thinking about for a long time,” she adds.
Rami doesn’t immediately strike the casual observer as a “militant obsessive” but the softly spoken Palestinian soon reveals the depths of his passion for pizza.
“If somebody doesn’t like my product, it hurts my feelings,” he says. “I take it so personally that every time something goes wrong, it really hurts. But I don’t think you can be like that every time something goes wrong, because you can’t win every single battle – but we do really try to.”
Luckily for Rami, the feedback seems to have been almost universally positive. Much of the credit for that must stem from the preparation that the Pizza Guys put into their product. Building on Rami’s encyclopaedic knowledge of New York pizza and hospitality background, Amber took on a course at the US chapter of the Association of True Neapolitan Pizza, which has trademark protected the Italian city’s original methods for pizzamaking.
After that, it took the Pizza Guys 14 months to set up the company, with a series of trips to New York, planning the menu, finding a contractor and testing the product countless times. The final piece of the puzzle was completed when the team located a local investor.
“I consider myself to be quite a lucky guy,” says Rami. “I’ve been in this town for quite a while and through my network I was able to fairly easily raise the funds for this. We faced many other challenges but this was not one.
“We approached somebody and he had one question – was the pizza good? ‘Prove it and make it for me’, he told us. I said ‘I can, but we don’t have the oven’. He managed to get access to an oven – at Cipriani in Abu Dhabi. Their chef wasn’t very happy, but we went anyway. We made the pizza, our investor brought a whole group of friends, and it was a great experience – they loved it.”
“But I would say that you shouldn’t just look for money, look for people who are aligned with your way of thinking. We are so fortunate that we had our choice of investor; we didn’t go with one particular party because we knew it wasn’t going to fit in with my style. I have to be in the driving seat. You have to find somebody who’s aligned with you long and short term, who will let you do your thing.
With the funding in place, Amber and Rami then went to work on finding the right suppliers. They shipped in their oven (which operates at a frightening 900 degrees Celsius, cooking pizzas in just two minutes) from Valoriani, an Italian firm that has been building purpose-built wood-fired ovens since 1890. Their coffee and flour come from two other family firms that have been making the products for six generations. Even the grain that is fed to the cows on a handpicked Australian farm that provide the pizzeria’s wagyu beef is genetically modified organism free.
“Right from the beginning, we tried our best to create good relationships with our suppliers and contractors,” says Rami. “We negotiated some ridiculous payment terms; everyone is flexible, you just need to know how to negotiate that.
“One of our contractors got paid almost eight months after we got started and it wasn’t because we weren’t paying – it’s what we agreed. So that’s something I would encourage everyone to do; always give your suppliers a little bit now and again, because people not paying is a problem in Dubai, so if you can find a way to stagger it out for as long as you can, that helps you keep going.”
The Pizza Guys have also placed a premium on customer service, another area where Dubai doesn’t exactly have a sparkling reputation.
“We take out all the checks if something happens, like a delay,” says Amber. “First of all, we don’t charge them, but then the next morning, you have to follow up. What you find is that people are very forgiving, a lot more forgiving than you’d think. Every one of those people is potentially a hundred new customers.”
Business so far has been brisk but already the Pizza Guys believe they’ve learnt a couple of lessons about setting up a firm.
“We didn’t hire any external help, like consultants, which is unusual,” says Rami. “And in doing that, it’s very easy to overlook things. If I had one piece of advice for anybody, it would be to be as absolutely pessimistic as you can possibly be when putting together your business plan.
“And when you’ve reached the ultimate point of pessimism, then just add another 50 percent and you might be ok. Because there will be delays in construction – it happens everywhere, not just in Dubai - and we didn’t anticipate some of the approvals would take so long from the ministry.
“You can just simply forget about things. Why is it so important? Because of the budget. If you don’t have someone with you who’s done it before, I think it’s more fun, but there’s also a lot of room for error.”
They may only be ten months into the restaurant game but already the team is looking to open another outlet in Dubai by the end of 2014. Given their policy of limiting deliveries to only a few nearby neighbourhoods in order to make sure the pizzas are still piping hot by the time they reach the customer (there’s that focus on product again), it looks like there is plenty of room for growth. Rami says that their business partner is keen to expand outside of Dubai, but he’s also keen not to jump too soon.
A nearer target is that of balancing the books; the couple say they are likely to make an operating profit in January next year, with the aim of breaking even at some point towards the end of 2014. In the meantime, they are trying to get the message out via word of mouth, via social media and via more traditional marketing tools.
“Loads of people will just come and hang out,” says Amber. “It’s men, overwhelmingly; they love pizza. But we’re going to start going after women. They tend to worry more about low fat foods and calorie counting – but we don’t put any fat in our dough, it’s all handmade. Some of the cheeses are handmade – so it’s good stuff, it’s just about getting the word out there.”
“To me, success is about staying in the game,” Rami says. “Luck comes to all of us, but you have to stay around long enough for that to happen. Be prepared, when an opportunity comes, and make sure you’re still around to take it.
“Don’t go into business if you have a bad product; I think, unfortunately, that there are a lot of people who look at somebody else and think ‘I can do that’, and then open a business. I think if you have your heart behind it and really put your time and effort into it, and be responsive, it will work out.
“But if you can’t stay in the game, you’re not going to get lucky.”
So in the spirit of investigative journalism – it’s a tough gig working for StartUp – I headed down to The Pizza Guys outlet in Business Bay a few days after the interview. I’m no pizza expert, so I also brought along an American foodie with a particular penchant for New York-style pizza. And the verdict? “Best I’ve ever had outside the Big Apple,” came back the answer, through a large mouthful of dough, tomato sauce, and melted cheese.
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