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The 15-year-old chain is expanding beyond its Midwestern roots

While the demand for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food is not new, there has been a recent rise in popularity among consumers. Amid a changing consumer set that prefers flavorful foods, restaurants like CAVA have seen the impact — just look at the chain’s IPO last year.

Along with the Mediterranean diet, Middle Eastern cuisine has been booming in the U.S. over the past decade or so not only because of its health halo but because of its robust flavors.

That’s allowed consumers to discover brands in a cuisine category that they may not have tried before. After all, as people say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

The Chicago-based fast-casual brand Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill has been around since 2009. The recent increase in eyeballs on its concept is only helping push the brand to higher heights.

“I think certainly [Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food] is becoming more ubiquitous,” said Greg Willman, CEO of Naf Naf. “People are more familiar with it and [restaurant owners] are more willing to trade in that segment or that little slice of the category of the restaurant industry than they were 10 years ago.”

The brand began as many do, founded by an immigrant who wanted to share family recipes with the local community. In this case, it was Sahar Sander, who immigrated to the Chicago area from the Middle East. It’s his family recipes that are still used in all 40 Naf Naf stores across the country, over 15 years later.

“[Sander] was a force of nature,” said Willman. “His mission in life was to share these flavors and this food with people in suburban Chicago and to share his hospitality as well…He was a very friendly, very outgoing guy. Early on a lot of people’s introductions to the brand and introduction to the food in the flavors was directly through him right in the restaurants.”

Willman said Sander would bring food to people’s tables in the original Naperville, Ill., restaurant, and subsequent units, that they hadn’t ordered but he wanted them to try. Especially since the food was new to much of the population.

The Naf Naf leadership team led with its roasted chicken and fresh baked bread for flavor-weary guests and watched consumers’ palettes change in front of their eyes. They watched when hummus went from a regional favorite to mainstream. Consumers’ mindsets shifted toward falafel and shawarma.

“Once people experience the food and experience the service model and the hospitality, they tend to get connected to the brand and the food pretty quickly,” said Willman.

For decades, Chicago-area food was marked by heavy German and Irish influences, since they were the main settlers. Bratwurst, beer, and lots of meat have been commonplace in the city for decades. It defines the culture.

Sander wanted to bring something new to his local community — and it was a hit.

By 2015, Naf Naf had 13 restaurants expanding well beyond Naperville.

Though the food is flavorful and unique, Naf Naf shares one thing that the most successful fast-casual chains share: the menu is designed so most ingredients go together.

However, that led to a wide range of ingredients that caused menu bloat during the pandemic.

Originally, the team had been producing 50 proprietary ingredients. Under Willman’s leadership, that was lowered to 10. Same with the total SKUs, which were lowered from 200 to 140 to help the brand replicate each item exactly at the new locations.

“We spent about two years working on all the components [to build the menu at scale] before we really got aggressive about franchising to make sure that we could scale it without losing any of the integrity of the brand,” said Willman.

Naf Naf began franchising and the chain’s first franchised unit opened in Carmel, Ind., on March 16, 2020.

While admittedly not a great time to start the brand’s franchising efforts, it picked up over the following four years, including with a deal with Love’s Travel Stops, a chain of truck stops across the country, in 2020.

Now, the chain has three units in Love’s Travel Stops locations in Illinois and Indiana. Three more will open by the end of the year in Greenville, Va., Barstow, Calif., and a Tennessee location to be announced later.

This will mark Naf Naf’s debut in California and Virginia.

Willman said that Naf Naf plans to have 45-50 stores open by the end of the year.

Source: NRN – Holly Petre

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