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Feb / Mar 2013
Global Expansion

Writer: Hisham Wyne

When Mohamad Bitar wanted a falafel in Dubai, he discovered it wasn’t easy to find one. Maybe we should be thankful. Fast-forward a few years and Bitar has turned his disappointment into Just Falafel. With Fadi Malas as CEO, his idea is rapidly going global.


Your enduring image of falafel is probably of the shallow fryer, half tilting out of a small shop onto the pavement in some Middle Eastern side street. Not Mohamad Bitar. He wanted to take falafel to a new audience, make it more accessible and find ways of making it healthy and appealing to different tastes.

“It’s a unique proposition because it is one of the few food categories that has not been explored and updated in the 21st century,” Fadi Malas, CEO of Just Falafel explains to me in our interview in Dubai. “Falafel has always been served in just the one traditional style, with tahina sauce.”

Malas joined the company in March 2011 as both investor and CEO after being approached by Bitar. At this point, there were four Just Falafel outlets, the first having opened in 2008. Bitar’s modus operandi had been to grow slowly and organically, using proceeds from one outlet to fund another.

With his keen eye for numbers and sound head for business, Malas quickly realised the limitations of this approach. Just Falafel was developing a name and a fan base but despite the brand’s potential, its growth was far too slow. So in 2011, Malas and Bitar opted for franchising. Consultants were brought in to develop agreements and operating procedures and the duo went looking for takers. 

Just Falafel’s growth chart is striking. From 2008 to 2011 – under the original growth strategy - it undulates upwards gradually. In 2011 though, it shoots up dramatically. “We could either have grown organically, which would have been slow and capital-intensive, or we could have franchised,” Malas continues. “We devolved control of our original stores as well, because we didn’t want to compete with our franchisees for preferred locations.”

At the time of writing, Just Falafel is operating 27 outlets in five countries but it has sold a staggering 650 franchises so far, over 200 to the UK, 100 plus to Saudi Arabia, and more than 50 to Turkey. 

Despite this spectacular growth, Bitar and Malas haven’t let success go to their heads. “When people I ask me what I do, I say I make falafel,” Malas says, adding that because falafel has always been perceived as street food, the profession carries little cachet. “If you mention working with it, you are considered socially low-brow, the falafel man.” 

The Just Falafel team have pushed the cheap and cheerful poor man’s meal into the most prominent retail environments across Dubai, itself a city at the forefront of 21st century retail. Malas recalls the testing battles they’ve fought to gain acceptance. “When we first started growing the business, we’d call malls and ask them to give us space in their food courts. They’d ask about the concept. When we’d tell them we wanted to open a falafel shop, they’d slam the phone down thinking we were prank callers. It took a while for them to realise that not offering falafel as part of their food court mix was a lost opportunity.”

Just Falafel’s success can be attributed to answering what in hindsight seems to be an obvious market need. But the company’s aggressive growth plans under Malas’ guidance and its social-media savvy also played a huge role in generating brand loyalty. Just Falafel is very active in social media, channelling all its advertising and communication into digital media. Then there’s the constant innovation in the falafels themselves. At Just Falafel, the humble bean patty comes Italian-style with mozzarella or pesto in ciabatta bread, like an American burger or dressed in tzatziki, for a Greek twist. There are also Indian, Mexican, Japanese and more traditional Egyptian and Emirati-influenced falafels to choose from. Seasoned and served in an endless array of culinary twists, each intrinsically healthy and vegetarian. 

Success invariably attracts admirers and ultimately, imitators. So what happens when the copycats start rolling in to exploit the newfound market for falafel? Malas says he would welcome competition. “We’re growing very fast and have reached 650 franchises. Every day we put in is like a month in someone else’s calendar. Therefore, any meaningful competition would need to come in with a warchest of at least 130 million USD to match us. In a strange way, we would welcome any competition because it would aid us in taking the idea of falafel as a staple food to the global community.”

So what does the future hold? The company’s present focus is on rapid growth.  “In malls, we’re rubbing shoulders with brands like KFC and McDonalds. But we’ve only opened 27 stores and sold 650 [franchises] whereas they have 40,000. We’re not in that league unless we get to at least 10,000 stores,” Malas continues.

While Just Falafel’s product line is fairly specialised, the food’s enduring popularity across the region and increasing popularity elsewhere suggest that much like fried chicken or pizza, falafel may be on its way to joining the global pantheon. With Just Falafel championing its cause, the fried bean patty has never had it better.

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