The UK is the first country outside the Middle East where this successful franchise operation is expanding - and it's aiming to do so rapidly, as Neil Gerrard reports
Just Falafel has the modest ambition of growing to 200 sites within the next five years, so the chances are that if you haven't heard of the franchise business yet, you are going to soon.
Like the food it sells, the brand has Middle Eastern origins, having been founded in Abu Dhabi in 2007. It has 34 operating stores, mostly in the Middle East. The UK is the first country outside the region where Just Falafel has developed a presence, although it has signed franchise development agreements in 19 countries across the world for a total of 1,200 restaurants.
The food offer is exactly as you would expect: freshly cooked falafel, chips, soups and salads, all served in a fast-casual environment.
Prices in the Croydon branch start at £3.49 for a original wrap sandwich, and you can expect to add £1.50 for chips and a soft drink. Other sandwiches follow an international theme - American, Egyptian and Greek, to name just a few. The cost for a franchisee to invest in a restaurant is in the range of £200,000 to £250,000.
Who runs it? Biggins, who has joint US and British nationality, runs Just Falafel on behalf of the master franchisee, whose global chief executive is Fadi Malas. Biggins enjoyed a 25-year career at McDonald's, working his way up from an hourly employee to senior roles in operations, human resources, training and development and site development in the USA, western Europe and Latin America. He then joined the MetroMedia Restaurant Group (Bennigan's Irish/American Bar and Grill, Ponderosa and Bonanza Steakhouses), where he was promoted to vice-president of international business before becoming division vice-president of International House of Pancakes, the largest family-dining chain in the USA.
He later formed the Urban Restaurant Group with two partners to develop a new restaurant concept and consult with fine-dining operators in California and Chicago and was subsequently recruited by the Kout Food Group in Kuwait as chief operating officer, where he was responsible for 175 restaurants in Kuwait and the UK under brands including Burger King, Pizza Hut, Applebee's and Taco Bell, as well as regional brands such as Kababji and Maison Blanc, and local brands such as Ayyame, Kitchen Italia and ChaChaMoon.
What makes it different? Ask Biggins what marks out Just Falafel from its competition - although, admittedly, there aren't that many falafel brands - and he will tell you that it is the freshness of the ingredients. The master franchisee has a central production kitchen in Park Royal, London, where it uses British fava beans, chickpeas from Argentina, fresh onion, fresh garlic and fresh coriander.
The basic falafel mix is produced there and shipped out chilled three or four times a week to the restaurants, where they mix it with a spice blend and baking soda to leaven the falafel slightly before it is cooked in sunflower oil on site.
"Often you will find that falafel is precooked and then reheated when you place your order. So that is one of our points of differentiation," says Biggins. Hummus is also made in the central production kitchen.
Buying power Just Falafel's heavy use of key ingredients such as fava beans, chickpeas and tortillas means that it can do volume buying of its core products and mitigate the effects of food price fluctuations. But it is more exposed when it comes to the vegetables it uses.
- "What we have done is move over to Fresh Direct, and we are negotiating prices with them over a long-term basis so our franchisees have some confidence on a stable price," says Biggins.
Of course, the power to pin down prices for essential ingredients will increase as the group grows. Already Just Falafel has three franchisees, with another eight in the pipeline actively looking at sites throughout London. But there have also been strong expressions of interest in the North of England.
Site requirements So far, all of Just Falafel's sites have been relatively small. Croydon is the biggest and is barely 1,000sq ft. Biggins is looking for bigger restaurants and hopes that a new store planned for Wembley in the London Designer Outlet development will boast 1,200sq ft and 50 seats. But, in general, the business is flexible on site requirements - it all depends on the needs of customers in the area.
"There are four ways we will find our target customers: where they work, where they live, where they shop and where they play," says Biggins. "Everything that I do is driven by the customer. I am not going to build a small one where they want a big one. And I am not going to invest the money in a big one if it is not required," says Biggins.
Managing the expansion Just Falafel is currently hiring new staff to ensure that it can maintain quality and consistency as it grows. Last month Biggins hired Adrian Liddiment - one of six senior appointments within the past six weeks - who will head up Just Falafel's operations team. Liddiment, who has over 25 years' experience in branded food-led businesses, has previously worked in similar roles at Eat, Cafe Thorntons and Costa Coffee.
"With him being responsible for that, I can ensure that we have the standard operating procedures, the training systems and operations audits so that people start right and stay on track. And with him operating my company restaurants, then I am sure I have a model and I can bring in any franchisee and demonstrate to them the right way it is done," says Biggins.
Will it work? Given the international success of the brand and the trend towards healthy eating, as well as the significant growth in the fast-casual sector of the market, the signs are positive. Whether Just Falafel can hit its ambitious target for openings across a short timescale remains to be seen.