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Born In The UAE, Conquering The World: AWJ Investments Is Going Places With Co-Founder And Group CEO Manhal Naser With the launch of his flagship restaurant Operation:Falafel's first international branch in New York, Manhal Naser gets candid on what business growth, leadership, and Middle Eastern cuisine mean to him.

By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed Edited by Aby Thomas

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AWJ Investments
Manhal Naser, Group CEO and co-founder, AWJ Investments

In June 2021, in the midst of the bustling, multicultural city of New York, Manhal Naser, co-founder and Group CEO of UAE-born F&B holding group AWJ Investments, opened the first international branch of his flagship restaurant, Operation:Falafel. With the menu offering everything from shawarma bowls to falafel-based delicacies, Naser oversaw the entire process with only one goal in mind: to take Middle Eastern cuisine from the UAE to the world.

"With the UAE celebrating 50 years of prosperity, development, and inclusivity last year, we at AWJ Investments wanted to pay homage to our home, and continue to break molds as a UAE homegrown brand moving into the Western market," says Naser. "Fortunately, the outlet saw huge success with sales exceeding our targets. We are thrilled to still be in a position to share real Middle Eastern street food with the world, taking a monumental step into Western markets."

It is precisely this sentiment that kickstarted Naser's journey with AWJ Investments in 2014 through the launch of five distinct F&B concepts. "For us, hummus, falafel, and shawarma were meals that we grew up on," Naser recalls. "We valued the authenticity of the Levant cuisine, and we noticed that there was no established brand in the market that offered fresh, authentic, Middle Eastern street food. This is how the very first concept, Operation: Falafel was born. The 'Operation' was all about bringing back authenticity to the traditional foods that we grew up on."

Operation Falafel in Riyadh. The flagship restaurant's first international branch was opened in New York in 2021. Source: AWJ Investments

But since that first plunge into the F&B market, AWJ Investments has gone on to become an umbrella firm to 13 concepts across the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with it employing a 1,600-strong workforce. Among the multitude of restaurants under the holding company include Awani, Catch22, Smoky Beach, Murjan Cafe, SushiDo and SurfBite. But with every new launch, Naser believes that what has remained consistent across all brands is the implementation of the core values that are characteristic of his company. "All the brands under the AWJ Investments umbrella are solely conceptualized and launched within the AWJ family," he explains. "The core attributes that continue to remain consistent through all AWJ brands has to be high quality in food and service, and a uniqueness in offering. We want our customers to know that whichever part of the world they might be in, if they walk into an outlet operated by AWJ, they will 100% experience the same service, taste, ambiance, and feel of the brand."

Related: Shaking Up The (Food) Scene: UAE-Based Entrepreneurs Ranya And Khaled Fadly Launch KR & Co To Unify Their 17 F&B Concepts

However, to ensure this congruence in core values, Naser and his team have also had to keep a keen eye out for changing trends within the F&B sector. "In terms of vision, we've certainly had to adapt to what the city of Dubai wants and needs," says Naser. "Trends are more focused on delivery and convenience now, and there are lots of virtual brands and cloud kitchens rapidly trying to establish themselves. In addition, from a slightly B2B perspective, we are continuously seeing major technological advancements in the industry, as well as enhanced supply chain management and inventory control."

Catch22 is one among the thirteen F&B concepts under AWJ Investments. Source: AWJ Investments

But when it comes to trends, if there was one concept that took the global F&B industry by storm over the last two years, it was that of the cloud or dark kitchens. In fact, by 2030, it is expected that cloud kitchens will hold a 50% share of the drive-through and takeaway foodservice markets worldwide. It is thus in a bid to take advantage of this new opportunity that AWJ Investments launched DKitchen, a dark kitchen located at the Dubai Silicon Oasis, in mid-2021. Set to house up to 12 F&B concepts, DKitchen's state-of-the-art solution is built to automatically capture orders and distribute them to their dedicated screen stations within the kitchen. "We're putting all of our efforts towards expanding the DKitchen, which is the first-to-market contactless dispatch smart technology," adds Naser.

It is this ability to gauge beneficial industry trends from the ones that could eventually peter out that has been pivotal in the firm's progress, as per the co-founder. "I firmly believe that AWJ's success lies in solid knowledge about market dynamics, concept development and management within the restaurant industry," says Naser. "Our current successes can be attributed to a strong focus on operations, a timely execution, and continual monitoring and reengineering. The tremendous desire to deliver the best for our company and our clients fuels the great passion that drives us all." And Naser has been able to see all of his and his team's efforts bear fruit as well. "I have been tremendously grateful and humbled by AWJ Investments' quick development and expansion throughout the years," Naser says. "It has not only maintained its performance, but has also expanded into new business areas and markets."

Awani offers a menu that is typical of the Levant cuisine. Source: AWJ Investments

At this point, it is important to acknowledge the refreshing lack of "me, myself, and I" in Naser's replies when talking about the reasons behind the success AWJ Investments has seen so far. Upon deeper insight, it becomes clear that this team-oriented approach is deep rooted in his ability to lead several brands towards uniform values and common ambitions. "I strive to make my team feel like an extension of my family, and as time permits, I connect with staff at all levels," says Naser. "I also enjoy days when I can roll up my sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day operations. Even with taste tests, I ensure I give my personal approval. Only by working together as a team will we be able to achieve a common goal!"

Now, looking to the future, Naser shows no signs of simply resting on past laurels. "We have an expansion strategy in place that will eventually see us reach 72 markets," he says. "At the moment, our main focus is to continue expanding within the Saudi Arabia and UAE markets, grow our delivery throughout our strongly performing delivery brands such as Operation: Falafel, Awani Express, Habibi, and SushiDo."

And given that AWJ Investments' regional and international growth having been achieved largely through franchising, Naser remains laser focused on meeting the inquiries coming in from the region and beyond. "We've seen an increase in interest in franchise opportunities, proving the success of the dine-in and delivery concept in the market," he says, adding that there are already plans to open another branch of Operation:Falafel in the New York borough of Manhattan. "We are still in the early stages of franchising, but we have witnessed tremendous demand throughout the Middle East, followed by Europe and the US market. We haven't even met 10% of the projected demand, so we have a long and exciting journey ahead of us!"

'Trep Talk: Manhal Nasser's tips for budding F&B entrepreneurs

Manage Expectations, And Build Decisions Based On Solid Research "Don't imitate what already exists, but constantly innovate. The greater the population, the more room for growth, and a higher distribution."

Create A Brand With A Specific Dna That Addresses A Market Gap Or Trend "It is key to ensure that your brand has a particular USP that distinguishes the concept, and stands out amongst the tough competition."

With The Middle East's F&B Market Still Growing, It Is About The Survival Of The Fittest "For individuals who are unfamiliar with the food sector, I would advise taking cautious steps and seeking regular guidance from those more experienced in the industry."

Be Completely Aware That This Is A Cutthroat Field "Underestimating the challenges involved can lead to significant losses."

Related: Vietnamese Foodies Owner And Executive Chef Lily Hoa Nguyen On Growing Her Business From Strength To Strength

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She is an MBA (Finance) graduate with past experience in the corporate sector, and was also co-founder of CyberSWIFTT- an anti-cyberbullying campaign that ran from 2017-2018 as part of the e7: Daughters of the Emirates program.

Ahmed is particularly keen on writing stories involving people-centric leadership, female-owned startups, and entrepreneurs who've beaten significant odds to realize their goals.

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