Fast casual’s success over the last decade has paved the way for countless global cuisines to find mass market appeal across the U.S., from Mediterranean to Vietnamese. Now one brand is hoping to do the same with Middle Eastern cuisine. Chicago-based Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill has scaled to around 40 locations and is franchising, growing with authentic Israeli recipes at its core.

At the helm of Naf Naf is Paul Damico, a familiar name for many in fast casual. Formerly the president of Moe’s Southwest Grill, Damico helped that concept scale from 200 units to 700 in his eight years with FOCUS Brands. But in 2017, Roark Capital Group—majority owner of FOCUS Brands and Naf Naf—asked Damico if he might be interested in taking on the challenge of developing the Middle Eastern concept.

“There weren’t really any Middle Eastern restaurant chains out there, so it intrigued me,” Damico says. “I’ve never really had the opportunity in my career to take something from an incubated state and prepare it for what I hope is going to be explosive growth in the franchising model.”

In a recent episode of QSR’s podcast “Fast Forward,” Damico offered his roadmap for building Naf Naf into a popular chain just like he did with Moe’s.


1. Stand apart through the food

Damico may sit in the C-suite now, but he received a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University and has remained very close to the R&D aspects of his brands.

He says that when he first dug into Naf Naf’s full potential, one thing was very clear: The food was the star and was a platform he could build around. The menu features family recipes from its late founder, Sahar Sander, who was from Israel. Guests can build their own pita or rice, couscous, salad, or hummus bowl, selecting chicken shawarma, steak, or falafel as their protein. Then they finish it off with a handful of topping and sauce options. Many of the ingredients, including its wide range of spices, are imported from Israel.

The biggest difference between Naf Naf and Moe’s was that the latter served food that most Americans were already familiar with.

“Chicken shawarma and falafel are things that have to be introduced to the consumer as we open restaurants across the country,” Damico says. “We feel very confident that when we get them to try it, they will become fans, because the food is truly amazing.”

He adds that he has no interest in expanding the relatively simple menu, choosing instead to keep it focused.


2. Standardize the brand

Naf Naf had grown to about 20 locations by the time Damico took the reins, but it hadn’t yet launched its franchise program. To set it up for growth, Damico set about developing a franchise agreement and a Franchise Disclosure Document.

To complete the franchise package, Naf Naf needed to standardize its systems and procedures so that it could easily scale. That was especially true of the culinary side of things.

“It’s so similar to the day that I stepped into Moe’s Southwest Grill,” Damico says. “The brand, we had it. We had to work on the culinary. We had to standardize the culinary. We had to get recipes drawn up. We had to get clean labels on our spices.”

Beyond the food, Naf Naf had no online ordering, app, or loyalty program, or even back-office systems for operators to access recipes and manuals—all of which needed to be added in preparation for incoming franchisees, Damico says.


3. Get the right team and culture in place

A great menu and experience are excellent tools for recruiting franchisees, and by the time Damico joined Naf Naf, it had built enough of a reputation that potential franchise partners were practically banging down its doors. Damico says that within a few months of launching the franchise program, Naf Naf had 700 inquiries.

But he says a great brand alone cannot set a restaurant up for franchise success.

“Franchisees today demand one thing before they do anything, and that is, can I believe in the leadership team to help me grow this brand?” he says.

As such, Damico set about building a team in the Chicago headquarters to serve as franchise support, hiring new talent to oversee everything from design to construction to marketing to culinary. All of it was in a bid to create a “culture of supporting franchisees,” he says.

“It’s a very different culture in an organization to support GMs and district managers in a 100 percent company-owned-store culture,” he says. “It’s very different when you bring in lots of strangers that are now going to start to run the brand. And so one of the things I started to talk about and started to teach the group is the culture of concierge-level service for franchisees.”

Damico adds that Naf Naf has spent the last couple years bringing in higher-quality general managers with more experience, investing in them to keep turnover low and to help spread the company’s mission, values, and vision to store-level employees.


4. Find the right growth strategy

When Roark moved Damico over to Naf Naf in 2017, the plan was always to franchise the brand. There is pent-up demand among franchisees to add fast casuals to their portfolios, and the team saw potential in being a first mover to franchising within fast-casual Mediterranean/Middle Eastern.

But it wasn’t just any franchisee Naf Naf was hoping to partner with. Damico says the company set high standards for its franchisees, preferring operators who already had franchise experience with other brands. He adds that he didn’t want to teach franchise partners about the business of franchising, but about the business of Naf Naf and what set it apart from the fast-casual competition.

Despite a culinary-forward approach to the brand—Naf Naf’s target customer is the “adventurous epicurean,” Damico says, or any diner who loves to try new foods, regardless of age, gender, or race—that hasn’t confined expansion to foodie towns. To date, Naf Naf’s growth has been both urban and suburban, and in states like Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio, among others. 

“We have locations inside malls, so food-court operations work. We’re in college towns; we know they work. We’re in high-rise buildings; we’re in freestanding buildings,” Damico says. “I think we’ve solved for lots of the questions that a prospect will ask during their process of evaluating the brand.”

Nontraditional in particular is a real estate strategy in which Damico sees a lot of potential, which makes sense considering he worked for HMSHost for several years and pursued aggressive nontraditional growth with Moe’s. “You get the brand in front of millions of people very, very quickly,” he says. “They may not see a Naf Naf in their home city for years to come, but when it gets there, they’ll remember it.”

For more from Damico on his plans for Naf Naf, stream the episode of Fast Forward above. Click here for the full archive

Business Advice, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Franchising, Story, Naf Naf Grill