Street food has been sold around the world by vendors since ancient times, but it’s a relatively recent trend that has seen the emergence of high quality offerings. According to thefoodpeople, the global food trends agency, street food is now consumed by an estimated 2.5bn people worldwide each day. One of the most ubiquitous forms of street food, and one that hails from the Middle East, is of course falafel.
“AWJ Investments is an investment group which was founded back in late 2013 with a couple of concepts in mind. The main idea behind founding AWJ Investments was to introduce a very vibrant and effective system of change to the look of Arabic street food,” explains Rami Nasr, Head of Procurement and Logistics.
Operation Falafel is the flagship brand of AWJ Investments, with the first branch opening in March 2014 at The Beach at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR). The Beach is a retail complex constructed on the actual beach in front of JBR, a waterfront community located against the Persian Gulf in Dubai Marina. “Operation Falafel offers the authentic Arabic street food. Once you enter any of our Operation Falafel outlets, you feel the industrial and urban ambience with the interiors of the shops. Operation Falafel is the company's flagship store and it is our mainstream brand,” Nasr says.
“Since we started Operation Falafel, we’ve had a great acceptance from the local market and the customer feedback is amazing. At the moment we are running 10 different locations for the brand. We recently opened one branch in Riyadh, and Operation Falafel has been registered in 82 countries all around the world. We’ve already signed many franchise agreements obtaining the rights to operate Operation Falafel abroad in different countries such as the US, the UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands.”
The Beach is also home to a number of other concepts operated by AWJ Investments, such as Awani – a contemporary restaurant serving the best of classic Levant cuisine. Catch-22, a seafood fusion restaurant, alongside Chicks ‘n’ Friends, which specialises in fried chicken and accompanying sides, join the selection at The Beach, as well as Yalseh, the latest concept operated by AWJ Investments. “Yalseh is the first Emirati beach lounge in Dubai,” states Nasr. “It has been operational for one year now, and we offer most of the traditional Emirati food items where a person can go and have dinner and a hookah directly on the beach.”
AWJ Investments also operates Smoky Beach, Surf Bite and Lulu & Murjan, and is the sole franchisee of Filicori Zecchini Italian Coffee in the UAE. In order to maintain such an array of brands – each specialising in different types of cuisine – AWJ Investments works hard to maintain a robust supply chain. “Managing our supply chain is a very complex process, taking into consideration that we have many concepts that we cater to,” acknowledges Nasr.
A competitive advantage
In order manage its supplies, AWJ Investments has a main centralised warehouse that functions as a hub. “Everything gets delivered to this warehouse. We have a very proficient team there who takes care of segregating the items based on the specification of every item that they receive, and then it gets dispatched to each outlet based on their requirements. Our consumption of the raw materials is really remarkable, taking into consideration the number of outlets that we have, so this puts us in a position where we have a competitive advantage over the other competitors in the market to receive better pricing,” Nasr remarks.
AWJ Investments is well known in the market for having a very transparent strategy. “Economy of scale allows us to be more competitive and to be ahead in the market. Having our own logistics team where we cater to all our outlets gives us the responsibility of getting all the items to each and every outlet, based on their timelines, so this is what puts us ahead,” explains Nasr.
“We have a centralised procurement system, centralised production facility and a centralised warehousing unit. This definitely gives us an added value and an advantage against other players in the market. Also, we have a designated team for each concept that we own, and that team is well trained on the requirements of each concept that they are taking care of.”
Data is power
Technology also plays a substantial role in managing the complex supply chain at AWJ Investments. “Using technology in the supply chain is crucial for any firm nowadays. We are using a very advanced ERP system, which connects all our divisions together in our company. We have a very solid software system, which is being solely used for our supply chain,” Nasr states.
“Our warehousing system is also connected to this, as is our logistics side. We can monitor and control our deliveries through this advanced system and this also enters through our delivery process where we have centralised deliveries. Of course, data is power in our current times, so having the latest technology enables us to use the data in the best possible way when we plan our supply chain – whether the forecasting or the actual order placing or opening any RFQs, it all goes through this technology.”
An extensive journey
It's a very extensive journey for any raw ingredients to make it to the plate at any AWJ Investments location. “From the moment that we choose a menu and we start creating the menu items, we start collaborating with a chef and design the menu item or the dish,” comments Nasr. “The journey starts from the chef choosing the best match for his recipe, after which we go through item sourcing and getting the product entered within our sample production facility, where different chefs observe this single ingredient.
“After this we start sourcing that supplier in a very clear frame process, where we invite the suppliers to get the total specification achieved, which should comply with external regulations, the governmental regulations of the food items and internal quality standards that we use in the company. Once an item is chosen, it then gets into an approved items list, which is totally systemised. Being a supplier or being a trusted vendor with AWJ investments is a privilege. We've been lucky to work with different vendors throughout the local and international market.”
AWJ Investments’ suppliers are evaluated almost quarterly. They get rated on different levels, including the consistency of their service, the quality of the product chosen, how consistent the quality is, and how fast their delivery was. Choosing a supplier for an item for AWJ Investments goes through a cycle that starts with selecting a menu item, until this ingredient gets to be supplied on a daily basis to the company’s state-of-the-art production facility located in Dubai.
“We have a collection of vendors that we are meeting with and they are our partners of success,” continues Nasr. “Quality comes at a certain cost, so it is always a challenge having the best cost and maintaining the best quality possible.”
Eye for detail
Exploring global opportunities, AWJ recognises the potential of a rapidly evolving food and beverage market, with the aim of acquiring and growing a brand that is internationally recognised and loved. In order to leverage on such global opportunities, AWJ Investments is seeking to draw from the key factors behind its impressive success so far.
“There are many factors of our success during the past four years in which AWJ Investments has been operational. One of them is basically the eye for detail that you can witness if you visit any outlet that is owned or operated by AWJ Investments,” Nasr observes. “We ensure that for each client that enters any of our outlets it's a very pleasant journey from the moment they enter until the moment they leave.”
In order to provide a pleasant experience for all customers, AWJ Investments strives hard to maintain the highest standards. “Our key success is our customers and the view that we get from customers, and that underscores many processes,” acknowledges Nasr. “Making sure that every single item is consistent for every client whenever they come to try. Making sure that our standards maintain the highest level possible. Making sure that once the customer receives their food it’s exactly as if they are eating it out of the chef's hands.”
Despite already operating myriad concepts, AWJ Investments is already working on its next restaurant. “Coopers is our newest project and it is yet to open,” Nasr reveals. “Coopers is a beach urban diner. The food presentation is very simple yet the taste is very flavourful. It is a grab-and-go concept that has been in the making for the past seven to eight months.”
Within the next five years, AWJ Investments plans to travel and explore markets across Europe, North Africa and the US, experimenting with new tastes and old, and infusing traditional flavours with a fusion of traditions. “Our future plans are to expand regionally and internationally with the different brands that we have. At the moment our expansion plan is towards many territories or countries. Our first franchise branch of Operation Falafel opened in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia last month. This is one of many units that we are looking to have in the Saudi territory,” Nasr enthuses.
“Of course, our next step will be the United States and we are going there very soon. We are almost done with the preparations for Operation Falafel to be presented to this market. In 2018 we are planning to have 47 outlets spread over the Middle East with one outlet in the United States. Our strategic vision is to operate 97 outlets by 2020.” Having achieved much already in such a short space of time, AWJ Investments certainly shows no signs of slowing down in the foreseeable future.