Seven years ago, Sahar Sander and Elan Burger pooled their savings and opened a shop serving Middle Eastern cuisine in a small footprint with no air conditioning and a bold purple painted exterior—the architectural lines of a vintage Taco Bell.
The 1,200-square-foot restaurant, located in the far west Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, may have stayed tucked away if businessman David Sloan hadn’t stopped by to eat lunch.
“I was blown away by how good the food was,” Sloan says. “I met Sahar and said, ‘Let’s partner up.’”
Together, Sloan, Sander, Burger, and a fourth partner, Justin Halpenny, founded Naf Naf Grill, making it their mission to bring fresh and authentic Middle Eastern cuisine to the Midwest.
After a year and a half in that original location, Naf Naf Grill moved to a larger location in Naperville. The new location was almost double in size, with 75 seats—and air conditioning.
“The original restaurant was fun,” Sander says. “The facility was old and bad and tiny, but it was all about the food there, and we gave a lot of love and good service, and people kept coming. And they followed us to the new location.”
Sander says Sloan put operational procedures in place and built a company culture that allowed the concept to grow. Naf Naf Grill locations sprouted up in Chicago suburbs and then in the downtown Loop area. In 2015, Naf Naf Grill expanded beyond Chicagoland to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“A lot of people can make good food, but it is very difficult to put a team together that is passionate about what they do,” Sander says. “That’s what David did. It was a nice partnership right off the bat.”
Naf Naf Grill originally offered a broad variety of Middle Eastern dishes. When the brand started looking to expand into the Loop after opening its third store, it pared down the menu and moved toward an assembly-line operation. The first three stores offered kebabs and schnitzel, but Sander says they cut back to focus more on items like shawarma and falafel.
Naf Naf Grill
Co-CEOs: David Sloan and Sahar Sander
YEAR STARTED: 2009
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 17
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
“We’d rather be known for doing what we do very well than for having a huge menu,” Sander says.
Guests at Naf Naf Grill choose a fresh-baked pita to stuff, or a bowl to fill with basmati rice, romaine lettuce, or hummus. Then they can add shawarma—chicken or steak stacked and roasted on a revolving spit until it is sliced off to order—or house-made falafel. Topping options include purple cabbage salad, pickles, chopped lettuce salad, and seasoned onions. Finishing sauces include tahini, garlic sauce, a pepper blend called S’khug, and a spicy “Fire” sauce. Lentil soup and hand-cut, coin-shaped Naf fries round out the menu.
Everything at Naf Naf Grill is made from scratch. The restaurants feature open kitchens where guests can see the pita bakery, the shawarma cutters, and the falafel being made.
Sloan says the focus on quality resulted in Naf Naf Grill’s chicken shawarma being included in the Chicago Tribune article “Our 10 Favorite Dishes of 2013.” Naf Naf Grill was the only fast-casual restaurant with a menu item on the list.
Sander, who grew up in Tel Aviv, Israel, says he developed most of the Naf Naf Grill recipes himself with the help of some friends.
“I grew up with this food,” he says. “I’m not a chef, but I have a love for Middle Eastern cuisine. A good friend flew in from Israel when we opened and helped out.”
A consistently popular option throughout the Chicago area, Naf Naf Grill is also being well received in its new markets of Minneapolis and Madison, Wisconsin, Sloan says.
“People just want different flavors,” he says. “They are tired of burgers and pizza, and we’re giving them something new and fresh with wonderful flavors. Madison is our first major college town, and the students are really enjoying it.”
With an average per-person ticket of $10–$12, Naf Naf Grill is affordable for college students, Sloan says.
A typical location is about 2,500 square feet with 65–70 seats.And as people get to know Naf Naf Grill, Sloan says, the catering portion of the business (5–10 percent) is growing.
Sloan says there are plans for 10 new stores in 2016, in existing markets and a yet-to-be-announced new city. While the main objective is to build 150 stores in the next five years, the company is also looking to potential development beyond the Midwest.
Sloan says there are no plans to franchise Naf Naf Grill. In June, growth of company-owned stores was expedited by an investment from an affiliate of Roark Capital Group, an Atlanta-based private equity firm. “There has been a lot of interest in our concept, and it was all about finding a great partner,” Sloan says.