Making a move from the tech industry to the restaurant industry might seem like a drastic change, but to Zaid Ayoub, cofounder and CEO of SAJJ Mediterranean, stress-testing semiconductors is just like stress-testing a restaurant.
In a recent episode of QSR’s podcast “Fast Forward,” Ayoub discusses what he’s learned about the food industry in the seven years SAJJ has been open—and how he’s leaned into his tech expertise to build a modern restaurant experience.
1. Make sure your growth is focused, not meaningless
In 2012, within 45 minutes of SAJJ’s first unit being open, a man asked Ayoub how long the brand had been in business. After Ayoub repeated a few times that it had only been open 45 minutes and that there was only one location, the man asked to invest.
It was at that moment that Ayoub realized he and his partners were on to something—and that they could quickly scale the business. So they did: By 2014, they had three units, two food trucks, and a commissary up and running.
“Unfortunately, it was one of those things where everybody was running the business and nobody’s running the business,” he says.
Ayoub says he realized then that the team was not dialed in, and that in the pursuit of growth, they had made some bad real estate decisions. So he decided to turn it around, shutting down two units and opening another two in locations that better fit SAJJ’s market.
2. Think about what’s next for your audience
Ayoub says that once the brand had a more careful, intentional focus, the leadership team started looking at how SAJJ Mediterranean could become more accessible to a wider audience.
From day one, he says, the company banked on cloud-based systems and customers’ online usage, and it also doubled down more on digital marketing and a robust online presence.
SAJJ was also set up to have a strong catering program, with the team ensuring the product held well for the customer, who they recognized was increasingly on the go and wanting SAJJ’s food outside the restaurant.
“We have a concept that’s very well received,” Ayoub says. “We did a lot of work in terms of training and making sure that our brand ambassadors, our employees are all dialed in and understand what needs to be happening. We did a lot of work in the supply chain in the back end, so I think we’re in a good position now to grow.”
3. Know your vision for business
Ayoub says the decision to make a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant made sense given the heightened popularity of fast-casual dining in 2012 and the growing acceptance for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors.
He says the main things he and his partners built the business around were menu customization, a better culinary experience, transparency, value, and speed. They figured they could succeed by offering approachable, high-quality food—something that was previously available only in full-service restaurants.
“You go in, you have a great experience with a maître d’ and then you sit down, you have a waiter and then you order food and somebody talks to you about the food and the wine—that's all nice, but that's really not the target that we're going after,” he says. “That's not how most people eat today.”
4. Know your strengths (but be flexible)
Ayoub says his background in technology—or, more specifically, his lack of background in food—proved to be an advantage.
“I came in with a white piece of paper, and there was, to me, no certain way of doing something or not doing something. We were very open to whatever’s out there, and we reevaluated and looked at it as a team to see whether it makes sense or not,” he says. “We tried a lot of things that didn’t work.”
He adds that technology is becoming much more woven into the industry. While he and his partners tried several systems as they became available, many didn’t work. The most important thing, he adds, was that they tried things out and analyzed what worked and what didn’t according to the business’s goals.
5. Lean into the third-party partnerships
Few restaurant operators today are happy with the fees associated with third-party services like Grubhub or DoorDash. But Ayoub says the SAJJ team never argued with vendors about their commission structures or the costs.
“Obviously you have to look at it,” he says. “But it’s more about customer acquisition and about access to the final user, to our guests. Putting all of those things together early on really created a nice network effect that allowed the brand to become bigger than what it really was at the time.”
Investing in that network included giving customers discounts for telling friends about the restaurant. And by pursuing digital partnerships like third-party delivery, SAJJ now sees about 50 percent of its sales come from off-premises (and as high as 80 percent for some locations).
“The network effect with off-premises sales put together is really giving us an advantage as we scale,” he says. “That’s kind of a model we’re looking for.”
6. Know your business’s limits
Ayoub and his partners constantly evaluated SAJJ Mediterranean as it grew. He says the brand used to be commissary-centric, but once it hit four units, the leaders realized that unless they built a large commissary and focused more on food manufacturing, they wouldn’t be able to satisfy the demand.
“That’s not what we really are good at, that’s not what we do,” he says. “We’re really about the network effect, about building a brand. It’s about really having touchpoints with the clients, less so about the manufacturing of the food or where it comes from.”
So SAJJ shifted its food production to the individual restaurant kitchens to better represent its quality values and to better connect with the customers.
7. Don’t forget your people are the most important thing
Ayoub acknowledges that the restaurant industry is a tough, 24/7 business. When he was in tech, he could take weekends off. Now, while there may not be frequent emergencies requiring his attention, he’s never really off the clock.
But Ayoub adds that putting the right people in place throughout the organization helps to remove much of the load.
“Build the right culture,” he says. “We hire for personality; we train for skill.”