What started as a run-down shack in the suburbs of Chicago is now creating a fast-casual restaurant sensation with rapid expansion throughout the Midwest. After a wildly successful opening in downtown Minneapolis—the restaurant’s first location outside of Chicago—Naf Naf Grill is once again introducing its award-winning food to a new city. Often referred as “the Chipotle of Middle Eastern food,” Naf Naf Grill will bring one of Chicago’s hottest restaurant concepts to Madison when it opens its doors on Wednesday, September 16 at 555 State Street.
Serving students and faculty of the nearby University of Wisconsin–Madison, the 2,700-square-foot fast casual will hold a capacity of 75 people and create approximately 25 new jobs. The restaurant will be open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Grand opening events on September 16 included a DJ with music and giveaways, including Naf Naf Grill t-shirts and sunglasses, as well as a free pita sandwich, fries, and a drink for anyone who shows up between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Founded in 2009, Naf Naf Grill is a prime destination for fresh, authentic Middle Eastern food that serves up award-winning falafel and shawarma, accompanied by oven baked pitas made daily, fresh hand-cut salads and freshly prepared sauces, hummus, and potato fries.
Cofounders Sahar Sander and Elan Burger established the first Naf Naf Grill in Naperville, Illinois, six years ago in a 1,200-square-foot building with no air-conditioning. Built around high-quality food and the passion for serving great cuisine, 12 additional locations opened in the Chicago market when Sander and Burger partnered with David Sloan and Justin Halpenny. Led by co-CEOs Sander and Sloan, the four together are bringing the passion, or in their words, “The Naf Love,” to the Badger State.
“Options for Middle Eastern cuisine are nearly nonexistent in Madison, so we’re giving them a taste of the best there is,” Sander says. “Our concept started with great food and we built a business around that from the very beginning. Our fresh pitas are born daily and the falafel and salads are ground and cut fresh every day. People can customize their own individual pita or bowl however they like.”
The ability to customize each pita or bowl right in front of the customer recently allowed Naf Naf Grill to earn the nickname “The Chipotle of Middle Eastern food.” The steps are simple: Start with a pita or bowl of basmati rice, romaine lettuce, or hummus and then add in chicken shawarma, steak shawarma, or falafel. The customer then gets the option of adding in chopped or purple cabbage salad, sumac onions, and pickles before finishing off the dish with garlic sauce, tahini sauce, or s’khug, a Middle Eastern hot sauce. The shopper can finish up by tacking on naf fries, lentil soup, or basmati rice for a side dish.
Naf Naf Grill recently received a growth-equity investment from an affiliate of Roark Capital Group, an Atlanta-based private equity firm, in early June. According to Roark Capital’s Ezra Field, the PE firm was attracted to Naf Naf’s emerging, on-trend fast casual concept that serves authentic Middle Eastern cuisine.
“We love its fresh, authentic food and the team’s passion for their brand, culture and customers,” Field says.