Towards New Shores: Samer Hamadeh's UAE-Born F&B Concept Akiba Dori Expands Into India With A 30-Location Franchise Deal Home to the only Tokyo-style Neapolitan pizzeria in the UAE, homegrown F&B concept Akiba Dori is now making inroads into India.
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"It's a restaurateur's dream to take their restaurant abroad," says Samer S. Hamadeh, founder of Akiba Dori, a Dubai-born Japanese concept restaurant that recently celebrated its fifth anniversary with a major announcement: it has signed a 30-location franchise development deal for India.
"I wouldn't go as far as saying that franchising Akiba Dori was the idea all along, because the truth is it's impossible to know if a brand works or not until you actually launch it, and give it a real shot," Hamadeh adds. "That being said, it took us over a year to finally lock in this deal, and trust our master franchisee/developer in India with helping us grow the brand at such a fast pace in a market the size of India."
One of the veterans of the UAE's F&B space (the UAE population would know Hamadeh for the many concepts he has built including One on One, Republique, andStereo Arcade), Hamadeh launched Akiba Dori in Dubai Design District in 2018. His mission was to marry affordable and high-quality in one Japanese restaurant and bar- an idea that had been unseen until then.
Five years on, Akiba Dori now has five locations in the UAE and KSA, and it also became a part of the "Made in Dubai" initiative developed by Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism to support and promote homegrown F&B brands in the city and beyond. Achieving all this was no easy feat, but Hamadeh also states that he's appreciative of the competitive nature of the UAE F&B scene.
"With one of the most popular destinations in the world, you're going to get a lot of competition, but that's not always a bad thing, as competition (usually) leads to innovation, and most of the innovation in the region comes from the UAE," he says. "The public relations (PR) power of Dubai helps local brands get international exposure just by being in the city, so that is a major benefit brands get here, and I see more and more homegrown concepts taking advantage of this PR power to look across borders to new destinations."
Image courtesy Akiba Dori.
Right at the end of 2021, Akiba Dori opened in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, which became the restaurant's first international outpost. "The KSA market is becoming increasingly more competitive, as thousands of new brands make their way to one of the fastest growing countries in the region, so it will be interesting to see how the next few years play out," Hamadeh notes. "My overall take about the KSA market is how great it is to see how many Saudi entrepreneurs have emerged strong in a market full of major international brands."
Having interviewed dozens and dozens of successful entrepreneurs over a decade, I can clearly see patterns and invisible dots that connect them all- one is always to get straight to the point and as soon as possible. In Hamadeh's case, it sounds like this- when asked about the target audience for his restaurant, he says, "Our target audience has always been the same, and it won't matter where we go- people who want modern Japanese street food. It really is that simple and it works for us."
And when asked about what it takes to run a successful F&B business anywhere, Hamadeh is firm that the answer is a good operations team- although it can sometimes be easier said than done. "Some countries, like the UAE, make it easier to hire the right people and build your dream team," Hamadeh explains. "Hiring staff is more complex in Saudi Arabia for now, and I'm not sure what the plans are for the future, but seeing how much effort is being put into making the market more business-friendly, I'm sure we will see some new adjustments to the labor law happening as we go along."
The international expansion of Akiba Dori, Hamadeh continues, was on the table for a long while , but "it was either not the right time, or not the right fit"- and then, he got his eyes set on the market potential presented by India. "The Indian market is going to double in size from US$40 billion a year, to $80 billion a year in the next five years- it's a no-brainer for any brand to want to be there," Hamadeh says. "I can say this deal was over a year in the making, but the team we're dealing with in India are led by one of the most respected entrepreneurs in the franchising space, and not just in India, but globally, so it was much easier than I would have imagined it to be."
Image courtesy Akiba Dori.
Hamadeh's partner in India is one of the country's legends when it comes to the franchising space- Gaurav Marya, Chairman of Franchise India and FranGlobal. In a statement, Marya said, "We are excited to work in tandem with Akiba Dori in their India expansion journey! Certainly, such a novel and inimitable concept is sure to find success among the Indian consumers, who are always in the lookout for not just food, but great experiences as well."
Hamadeh reveals that formulating the franchising concept has required some adjustments, as well as creating smaller versions of the restaurant to work in food halls and other smaller spaces in order to be able to accommodate different operators in different cities. That said, Hamadeh was adamant that "it should not be anything that takes away from the incredible experience of dining at Akiba Dori."
"Keep in mind that all the pressure is usually on the franchisee, who they have strict timelines to deliver, and while you can never truly guarantee how things go, you can always protect your brand by starting off on the right foot," Hamadeh explains. "And that brings me to say that the single most important step in getting ready to franchise is to protect your intellectual property, so find a trademark lawyer, and start there." The second most important step, Hamadeh says, is to develop a franchise manual. "We created ours before we franchised to KSA, and we update it regularly," he says. "Having a world-class manual and your intellectual property (IP) registered form the base of getting ready to franchise."
And just as I think that Hamadeh will be focused only on one thing at least for some time, he surprises me by saying that he's started a new venture, and I am (once again) reminded to never underestimate the relentless energy of an entrepreneurial mind. "Going through this process has made me an accidental expert on it," Hamadeh reveals. "So, we're actually offering advisory services through Big Mouth Concepts, my concept development consultancy, and we already have a few clients on board."
Image courtesy Akiba Dori.
'TREP TALK: Akiba Dori founder Samer Hamadeh shares his tips for entrepreneurs chasing expansion for their concepts
1. Think global from the start "If you're planning on franchising, don't localize your content. Make it appealing to a wider audience, no matter how difficult that seems at first."
2. Get a good lawyer "Navigating agreements is like being in a maze built by Dali– even when you think you understand what's going on, you really have no clue, and interpretation is comically underestimated."
3. Your core values matter "Going through the process for the second time around opened my eyes to a few things I didn't consider when we first franchised to Jeddah, and one of them was in terms of where I want to hold the training sessions. With Jeddah, I sent my team there; with India, we will train the head chef and General Manager in Dubai. The reason for that is I want the franchisee to really be immersed in the culture, and see how we do things here."