A hidden gem

01/07/2013 - 14:51
Dubai-based Just Falafel, an emerging Middle East restaurant brand, has come to London with its flagship store in Covent Garden and has big plans to expand even further. Maria Bracken met the new CEO, Mike Biggins.

Tell me about your background

I began my professional life with McDonald’s Restaurants as an hourly employee and turned that into a 25-year career. I worked in diverse areas of the business including operations, human resources and labour relations, training and development, site development in the United States, Western Europe, and Latin America.  

I then joined the MetroMedia Restaurant Group where I was promoted to vice president of International Business, leading their franchise business in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Canada. I later joined IHOP (International House of Pancakes), the largest Family Dining chain in the USA, as Division Vice President where he was responsible for half of their US business.

After leaving IHOP, I went on to form The Urban Restaurant Group with two partners to develop a new restaurant concept and consult with fine dining operators in California and Chicago. I continued to develop my consulting skills upon moving to France. I was later recruited by the Kout Food Group in Kuwait as the chief operating officer. There I was responsible for 175 restaurants representing 11 different concepts in Kuwait and the UK. The restaurants included global brands such as Burger King, Pizza Hut, Applebee’s, and Taco Bell, regional brands such as Kababji and Maison Blanc, and local brands such as Ayyame, Kitchen Italia, and ChaChaMoon.

What does your day to day role involve?

I will spend time with the franchises every day to make sure we are aligned on what is going on today and what needs to happen this week. I work with franchisees as partners to really drive the business forward. It’s the first call I make every morning. Right now I don’t have a lot of them, so it doesn’t take up too much of my time.

Second thing I do is check in with my department heads to see if there is anything new that’s cropped up that I need to be aware of. I will then sit down and look at our site development plans as we want to open 15 restaurants by the end of the year. Our site acquisition process has to be very sharp to hit those numbers. Then I will go out to the restaurants. During the course of the week I also spend time with my chairman. He and I will look at our masterplan.

Do you spend much time in Dubai?

Not at all. My focus and lens is clearly here in the UK on this consumer and business environment. Dubai is valuable to me but I want to leverage them to help me let me do what I need to do here.

How does your role differ to your previous responsibilities?

I see myself as a rally racer in this position. I love the idea of having a navigator by my side with a support team with a car that is powerful and robust and can take everything I throw at it, relying on everybody to make sure that that car and I can really win the race. That’s what I love. In previous jobs I had, it was moving towards that more Formula 1 orientation. It was about refining and improving. This is more of that cutting edge. It is extremely challenging and uses everything I know. I will go from product development to site development, HR, franchisee relationships, marketing, packaging, communication, recruiting, it touches everything I have ever experienced and challenges me to find new ways to apply them, and that’s what I love. If I am learning, I love it.

How has business been since opening the Baker Street branch in April?

It’s doing really well. We are trading at about 140 customers a day during weekdays and 80 on the weekends; that’s with no advertising.

How many outlets are there so far?

We have three in London and we have recently opened a branch in Croydon and Charing Cross. My plan is to finish this year with 15 operating restaurants. Then we want to double that number of openings next year, then double that again.

How do you maintain that growth?

I’ve been with the company for six weeks and I was brought in to bring in systems and processes and consistency, as this is my background. What I am doing is looking at everything we do so far, and asking is it effective, is it what it needs to be in order to give franchisees good returns, is it effective for our customers, is it effective for us as the master franchisee. And if it’s not, bring in new changes. But one of the first things we did was hire a new brand agency called Light Brigade. What they are helping us do is to improve the branding, so we respect the core of the brand and the heritage. But we are finding those aspects of the brand that are most relevant to the UK consumer and emphasising those so that they see this as a place they want to come for the vegetarian/healthy/nutritious, whatever it may be.

Do you have a target audience?

What Light Brigade believes is that the brand has a bit of a female bias, not overtly, but a little. They think the target is between 18 and 35, and those who live a healthy lifestyle. Not necessarily a fitness fanatic but those who understand the need to eat healthy food and want to look after themselves. So what I like to do with this in mind is find out where are these people.

We look for four things. We find out where they live, work, shop and play. If we can find those concentrations, then we can understand how they want to use us, then we know what kind of restaurant to give them. For example we figured a takeaway restaurant was fine in this neighbourhood (Baker Street), however in Hammersmith we knew we needed a sit down restaurant. So we will do our home market studies to find in advance where we will go, and what concept we need to connect with our customers.

We want people who are adventurous with food, for those who are curious about Falafel. We are vegetarian, but without being exclusive to only vegetarians. The food is very approachable and very filling and nutritious. It just happens to be vegetarian.

What is the ratio between sit down and grab & go?

This is determined by the customer. They will tell me how they want to use the brand. I then need to find the right site to do that for them. It goes back to the strategic approach to finding the right location. It’s a lot of fun!

I often think about why I am here, and this is what attracted me. You bring a brand that is proven, but it needs to be integrated into a different culture, and it needs to find ways to connect with a UK customer, and with such huge ambitions to grow. The CEO of the company in Dubai has stated he thinks there is an opportunity to have 200 restaurants here within five years. For me as a restaurant expert and a business professional that is exciting! You just don’t get these opportunities that often to help put these foundations in place and help the team to find the strategy to realise that kind of growth, to be able to literally chart the path.

Why London?

The managing director said there are two markets that are going to be the most important for this brand, and the UK is the first. He views the UK as where we will define all of the systems and processes and methodology in order for this brand to grow around the world. He thinks the UK, London in particular, is a cosmopolitan market, where there is sufficient food awareness, sufficient curiosity and willingness to experiment.

Who are your competitors?

We look at Pret, EAT, even McDonald’s. People may think, how can we compare with the likes of McDonald’s because the kind of people that go to McDonald’s want meat or a burger. So how are we competing? It’s for people who want a good nutritious lunch or dinner, they want it quickly, or maybe they are looking for something different. In Hammersmith we are right beside a McDonald’s and here in Baker Street we are just around the corner from one. So what I want to do is establish the look and feel of Just Falafel so it looks and feels like a Pret or an EAT, for example, but the service is going to be a McDonald’s style. It’s going to be a quick service. But I want it to have a finer finish than traditional fast food.

What are the top sellers?

It’s early days but what we are finding is that people will default to the original. It’s done in a choice of a tortilla wrap, or a whole wheat sage bread. That one seems to be the one people go to first. But as customers return, we are finding the Indian and the Japanese are very popular because they have very clear flavours going on.

What’s your favourite?

The original. Why play with something that works so well. I have tried them all but I keep going back to the original.

What’s the average spend?

Around £5.

Talk to me about your drinks offering?

The hot drinks are going to expand as I bring in breakfast. We aren’t currently doing breakfast. I want to have something for breakfast that is distinctive with the brand. I don’t want to be serving the same breakfast as everyone else. I don’t want to do croissants and a cappuccino, there are 14 places within 15 metres of here offering that. I don’t want to do a vegetarian version of an egg McMuffin. In the spirit of adventurous food it might be nice to offer something a bit crazy, a little bit unexpected but is very much in the mind set of a British consumer at breakfast time. I don’t want to take people too far out of their comfort zone, but I want to offer them something unusual. My goal is to launch breakfast within the next few months.

I have also just met with the chef about salads. We are going to bring in a significant salad line and we will also change our meal options so customers will also be able to get a hummus, soup and a salad.

Do you offer nutritional information on your menus?

We have just completed the nutritional analysis of all our food. It’s about communicating this information to our customers so if they have dietary or nutrition interests, we can ensure we have the correct info. When we say we are nutritious, we really are.

Is your menu seasonal?

We are bringing salads in, we rotate the soups every day and we will be looking at our juice offer. As a business man, I need to ensure that the items on the menu have earnt their place to be there, and they pay their way. If they don’t I will improve them.

How is the food-to-go market faring?

Extremely strong. The UK consumer is spoilt for choice. What I find is the offerings out there are much of the same. There are a tonne of options. There are very credible providers. For us to win those over, we are going to have to be very, very good.

What are the challenges ahead for Just Falafel?

The challenge is that we are seen as a relevant brand not overtly ethnic. We respect our heritage, our routes, we embrace it and we want to be authentic, but we want people to see us as a neighbourhood falafel shop that they can use as a convenient part of their day to day life.

And the opportunities?

To build on this fresh, health awareness in the UK. We believe we can appeal to people who simply want to eat nutritious food. I use myself as an example. I live in Brighton. Every day twice a day I pass through Victoria station. Every day, once a day, I am that guy running for his train. Every day I am trying to figure out what I am going to grab to eat. Every day I am wishing there is something quick and nutritious that I can get. People who live a busy lifestyle, but are looking for a healthy nutritious option, are the opportunity.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

Right now, it is incredibly difficult. This is literally a seven day week job, but it’s OK, I love this work. My goal is I will absolutely invest in what I need to get our feet firmly down, and then be able to rebalance. One of my great passions is yoga. I have been doing it for 13 years, so I respect mental, emotional and physical balance. So I am committed to refining my balance. But for now, it is 24/7.

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