The creation of peri-peri chicken, and Nando’s founding, is closely tied to the Portuguese colonization of South Africa in the late 15th century. As the story goes, Portuguese settlers discovered the African bird’s eye chili plant and concocted a hot sauce unrivaled by any other; the name peri-peri came from the Swahili word for pepper. And in 1987, Portuguese-born audio engineer Fernando Duarte and entrepreneur Robert Brozin were so smitten by peri-peri chicken served in a Johannesburg fast-food joint, they bought out the place and slowly grew it into a chain across South Africa. Today, Nando’s spans 23 countries across five continents, numbering 1,100 restaurants.
“The U.S. was always on the radar of the founders, but there was a healthy respect for what it takes to make it in the U.S. because it’s often referred to as the largest consumer market in the world and a lot of brands have attempted expansion here,” says Burton Heiss, U.S. CEO for Nando’s.
The South African brand broke into the U.S. market by way of Washington, D.C., which was seen as an international city, Heiss says. With 20 units across the District and bordering Virginia, Nando’s U.S. operation resembles U.K. restaurants in service style. That’s informed by the breakdown of traffic, Heiss says. In South Africa, 70 percent of all orders are takeaway, while in the U.K., a whopping 90 percent are dine in. In the U.S., 80 percent of orders are dine in, which is why the brand looks more like a fast casual, with counter service, real plates and silverware, and fine-dining décor touches. Most importantly, each restaurant operates like a part of the community, Heiss says.
“The shareholders and founders never envisioned being able to operate things from a boardroom 3,000 miles away,” he says. “The plan was always to set up local leadership and give them authority and autonomy to grow. We are an international brand, but very much a local business.”
Le Pain Quotidien
Stepping into one of Le Pain Quotidien’s restaurants in the U.S. is much like being transported to a Belgian café: Rustic wooden accents create a warm atmosphere, branded jams and jellies line shelves, fresh bread and pastries fill display cases, and in the center of it all sits a large communal table. The fast casual’s menu boasts a robust breakfast menu, Belgian open-faced sandwiches known as tartines, quiches, gourmet salads, and sharable platters of meats, cheeses, and breads.
“We believe that in big, urban cities, the biggest challenge consumers face is loneliness. One of our icons is the communal table,” says CEO Vincent Herbert. “We want to make sure guests at Le Pain Quotidien can reconnect with themselves and enjoy not only service, but also hospitality.”
With that mission in mind, Le Pain Quotidien entered the U.S. in markets like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Herbert says the challenge of breaking into the “biggest, most strategic, and probably the most competitive market” enticed his team because they believed the brand’s core values would be appreciated in the U.S. They faced initially higher rent than the company was used to in European markets, meaning the team had to be certain each location would yield high profits quickly, Herbert says. The crux of its success has been the brand’s ability to not look like a chain.
“It’s not about a chain of 220 restaurants; it’s about being one store in one neighborhood 220 times,” Herbert says. “For us, growth is not a strategy.”
A Middle Eastern street food, falafel is an increasingly common item in the U.S. fast-casual scene. The chickpea fritter is the core of Amsterdam-based Maoz Vegetarian, created in 1991 by an Israeli couple looking for a taste of home in the Netherlands. And though it’s grown to four other countries and the U.S. since its founding, Maoz hasn’t strayed from its meat-free roots.
“The difference with this falafel brand is that it is a fully vegetarian concept,” says Technomic’s Hallow. “Most of the other Mediterranean concepts have offered a protein somehow.”
The menu includes salads and sandwiches made in pita bread with either falafel; vegan shawarma; or hummus, egg, and eggplant. Guest can customize all items with toppings like babaganoush, a traditional dish with eggplant, onion, and tomato; Feta cheese; and hard-boiled egg. Some Maoz locations also feature a fresh-squeezed juice bar with fruits and veggies like beets, kale, apple, spinach, carrot, ginger, and other fresh fare.
To thrive in the U.S., the brand did make some changes, including reformulating its falafel fritters to be gluten free, says Aviv Schweitzer, operations manager for Maoz USA. “We also introduced sweet potato fries, which quickly turned out to be a hit.”
With 12 units in the U.S., the brand is focusing on New York expansion, with a unit set to open in Long Island in January, Schweitzer adds.
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