When SAJJ Mediterranean CEO and cofounder Zaid Ayoub was in college, his favorite lunch spot was an owner-operator falafel shop.
“The line would be out the door every day; the food was good, but the operation was not dialed in, it was not consistent. I figured if someone did this well, there would be a market for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food,” Ayoub says.
Fast-forward through a career in engineering and now Ayoub is helming a foodservice concept much like the one he pictured in college. Started by Ayoub and four cofounders in 2012 with one San Francisco food truck, SAJJ Mediterranean touts an updated, customizable Mediterranean fast-casual menu and a penchant for tech, two of-the-moment characteristics that have catapulted the small brand into rapid growth. Now a 12-unit chain, SAJJ is poised to push into other areas of California in the near future, with a goal of reaching 20 units by the end of this year. SAJJ experienced a 50 percent increase in unit growth in 2019.
SAJJ’s expansion was essentially simultaneous with it opening its doors for the first time. About 45 minutes into the first truck’s opening day, an interested investor approached Ayoub and asked how to get involved. That investor’s interest spurred the burgeoning brand to seek out other units almost immediately. “That was our first aha moment,” Ayoub says. “We went on the fast track.”
CEO/Cofounder: Zaid Ayoub
Headquarters: San Francisco
Year Started: 2012
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 12
Franchised Units: 0
By 2014, SAJJ had one commissary, two trucks, and three brick-and-mortars. The growth was swelling—and endangering the brand. The chain was at a crossroads, hanging in the divide between more growth and financial failure due to some less-than-lucrative real estate and undefined leadership.
“Unfortunately, it was one of those things where everybody was running the business and nobody’s running the business,” Ayoub says.
Ayoub quickly threw into action what he calls the concept’s turnaround. He shut down two units in under-performing locations, opened two additional stores in more promising areas, and looked into widening the customer base.
For SAJJ, bringing in new customers meant zeroing in on digital presence. Thanks to Ayoub’s background in engineering and tech, SAJJ was digitally savvy from the start, using cloud-based technology, monitoring food digitally, and offering off-premises options early on. During the turnaround, however, the team grew this pre-existing digital footprint to a new level, amping up online and social media marketing and expanding off-premises, partly through a revamped catering program.
Since the turnaround, Ayoub and the SAJJ team have continued the practice of constantly re-evaluating what works and what doesn’t for the brand. Although SAJJ hasn’t found itself in a brand crisis since 2014, the chain is ever-evolving, backed by a team that isn’t afraid to try new things.
“The fact that my background is not in the food industry in this case is an advantage. To me, there’s no certain way of doing or not doing something. I’m very open to whatever’s out there,” Ayoub says.
Case in point: During the concept’s initial growth stages, it functioned with the SAJJ commissary at its center. As the unit count increased to four, the team realized that the size of their commissary couldn’t cover the supply of all units. They began making the food in individual unit kitchens, keeping only a few proprietary items in the commissary and bringing the production process to a customer-facing position, which Ayoub says created a guest “touchpoint.”
The SAJJ menu is sturdy and customizable—Mediterranean and Middle Eastern favorites like shawarma and falafel are served in bowls or wraps and topped with hummus, pickled cucumbers, and other toppings. It travels well, making for catering and delivery success. From the start the SAJJ team has capitalized on that portability, offering a full catering menu with a whittled-down lead time of only four hours and partnering with a range of third-party delivery companies. Ayoub says the brand’s early entry into off-premises created a network of customers while the chain was still in its adolescence. “[It] … allowed the brand to become even bigger than it was at the time,” he says. “We want to get to the customer wherever the customer is.”
While franchising is off the table for now, it doesn’t look like SAJJ’s tech-savvy, adventurous growth is stopping anytime soon. Aside from the 20-unit mark the concept plans to reach soon, units outside California are in preliminary talks, heat maps that show popular spots for SAJJ catering are used to gauge interest and possible new locations, and the team updates their overall strategy every 18 months. SAJJ is focused on continuing with the progress it’s already made—pushing into new locations with a brand that has been strengthened and perfected by now.
“We have a concept that’s very well-received. What we didn’t have in the beginning is the discipline and the procedures and the back end of the business that we’ve worked very hard to get,” Ayoub says. “We did a lot of work in terms of training to make sure our team members are dialed in and … a lot of work on supply chain and back end. So I think we’re in a good position by now to grow.”