Given the number of successful enterprises that he has established and invested in so far, it seems safe to say that Marj Group owner and Managing Director Namir Hourani has a penchant for spotting businesses with winning potential- his company’s portfolio today spans a variety of industry sectors, ranging from education (The Kensington Nursery) to services (Toolman Maintenance). This impressive track record is thus what makes Hourani’s first entry into the F&B space one to keep an eye on- through a subsidiary business called Marj Hospitality & Restaurants, he is the exclusive UAE Area Developer for Just Salad, an “environmentally friendly and healthy quick service restaurant concept from New York.” Hourani brought the franchise to the UAE in 2013, and Just Salad today has four outlets in the country, with the plan being to grow that number to ten by the end of the year. As for what prompted him to bring Just Salad to the UAE, Hourani notes the growing interest in healthy eating across the country (and indeed the region) as being a key driver. “People are now much more conscious about what they put in their bodies, where it’s coming from and how nutritious it is, but for some reason, the healthy food space has still been relatively underserved,” Hourani says. “The opportunity was clearly there for us, and the brand provided an excellent fit for the opportunity on offer, so we jumped at it. Just Salad offers an amazing experience to its customers, removing the boring from healthy eating, and bringing flavors to life, and for me, this was the trigger. I thought [that] if I can offer customers clean and healthy food in a fun and engaging way, then I have a winner.”
Hourani first saw Just Salad as a concept in New York in 2008, and it was during another trip to the city in 2012 that he saw how it had seemingly “mushroomed” in terms of its business scale. Impressed by the establishment’s growth, Hourani saw its potential in the UAE market, and then reached out to Just Salad CEO Nick Kenner in the hopes of landing a franchising deal. “The chemistry was great, and we just clicked really well,” Hourani remembers. “We immediately agreed to move to the next step, and draft the agreement as soon as I was back in Dubai. The contract was signed less than a month later.” Next came the actual process of setting up the franchise- it’s what Hourani calls the “fun” part. “I really enjoy the execution- taking an idea or an ambition, and turning it into a reality,” he explains. “Contractually, I had to send someone down to New York for a four-week training program, so immediately after signing the agreement, I started looking for the right Operations Manager. I must have personally interviewed over 100 people before finding the right man for the job. In parallel, I also started looking for the right location, and landed our first spot at Jumeirah Lake Towers. I then personally flew to New York and carried out a compressed two-week training program. This was the first F&B venture for my company, and I believe that in order to run a business right, you need to get your hands pretty deep in the game. I was waking up at 5am every morning, chopping and sanitizing vegetables from 6am to 8pm every day. It was definitely intense- I’ve never chopped vegetables before! But it also taught me everything I needed to know to be able to successfully run the business.”
It must be said here though that the F&B sector in the UAE is rather crowded, and one can also make the argument that the country already has a lot of offerings in the healthy eating space- so how does Just Salad stand out? “Just Salad offers customers an amazing experience,” Hourani replies. “I always say [that] I wish I can get everyone into the store rather than have them order delivery- our assembly line is so fresh and colorful! We offer over 75 toppings, from vegetables, to grains and nuts, to proteins. You name it; we have it. We also offer over 30 dressings to choose from. It’s a fun experience, very customizable, and you can enjoy every salad as a wrap too.” And it’s not just about the food, by the way- Hourani highlights the fact that Just Salad is keen on being a socially responsible enterprise as well. “We’re also very careful about who we purchase our supplies from, and only source the best produce,” Hourani says. “We have many organic options, and strongly support local farmers. You’ll be amazed with the quality of produce you get locally, and the best part is that it’s straight from the farm to our store- no preservatives or pesticides required to keep it fresh. From an environmentally friendly perspective, we offer customers reusable bowls for a nominal fee of AED10. Every time they bring back their bowl, we reward them with two free toppings. This program allows Just Salad to save over 50,000 kilograms of plastic every single year.”
Hourani notes that Just Salad has quite a hectic few months ahead of it in 2017, given its ambitious plan to have ten of its establishments in the UAE by the end of the year. “F&B is all about scale, especially in the quick service segment,” he explains. “You really need to be able to move fast, identify the right location, and be able to predict how the area around that particular location will develop or pan out with time. If you wait too long, you lose out on the right location, someone else is going to jump on it, or the area is going to develop and become too expensive to make sense. Rent is key- you need to be realistic as to what kind of rent load your particular restaurant can handle. And you definitely need to have the right team on board. If your employees are not happy, the customer feels it, as they’re not as motivated, no longer friendly, and just do the job for the sake of doing it, and with F&B, it needs to come from the heart!” As someone who has had business experience in other sectors, Hourani seems to be especially motivated when it comes to talking about Just Salad, and the entrepreneur doesn’t deny his soft spot for this particular enterprise. “Every opportunity I’ve invested in was a unique experience, and special for me in its own way. Just Salad is probably the one I’m most passionate about. I love the retail business. It’s amazing to see how you can convert a dull space into an amazing concept. And seeing the number of stores we have multiplied over such a short period is just amazing. But I’d have to say that the best part of it all is I’ve really been able to make a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s offering customers a healthier option, or creating job opportunities for employees. Somehow having this influence over people, making a difference to hundreds of people every single day, that for me is probably the biggest joy.”
Namir Hourani, Owner and Managing Director, Marj Group
What are some of the business practices that you have utilized to be agile and innovative in the F&B industry?
“I make decisions fast. I don’t need to go back to anyone for decisions, there is no bureaucracy, and this allows me to steer things in whatever direction I see fit. And trust me, the direction changes much more often than you might think. There’s always a new obstacle to overcome and you need to be ready for it. You also need to be creative with how you approach your marketing campaign. I strongly believe in word of mouth and brand endorsement, and I’ve personally reached out to fitness and health enthusiasts to bring them on board. I created a brand ambassador program, where we have people come in to our stores and try our products and ask them to give their feedback, except in this case we ask them to publicize their feedback across their social media platforms. It’s always been a very positive experience and my team, and I work hard to make sure it stays this way.”
How has your company, Marj Group, evolved over the years since its inception? What sort of brands does Marj Group hold? Can you talk about your other business ventures, and how Just Salad differs from those?
“I started off as a one-man show in 2009 looking for interesting opportunities that I believed in. I quit my day job and worked out of coffee shops for two years. Today our portfolio of companies employ over 500 people, we’ve invested in or developed over 15 companies, and we reach thousands of consumers on a daily basis. We have a pretty interesting and dynamic portfolio. Some of the brands we currently own are Shampooch (dog grooming), Toolman Maintenance (facilities maintenance), The Kensington Nursery (child care), and Khameer & Dough (an Emirati bakery).
All our investments fall under the portfolio of our holding company, Marj Group. And they’re all very different in nature, so each one is run and operated in a unique way. Shampooch, our pet care and dog grooming company, is challenging in the sense that you’re dealing with pampering and servicing animals, who you can’t really communicate with. However, at the same time, there is the human and business aspect to it, when dealing with the dog owners. It’s a completely different challenge than serving a hungry customer, for example. At Toolman, it’s more business-to-business; we service companies and maintain their facilities. But you need to be on call 24/7, in case there’s an unexpected water leak, flood or power outage at a customer’s facility. There are always emergencies to deal with, whereas at Just Salad, the day ends when you close the restaurant.
The challenges are continuous in every business, and as a business owner, I never really get to kick back and relax, I’m always thinking about the next opportunity, or how I can improve my current businesses. But I do enjoy it with all of my heart every single day.”