We British have rather exacting standards when it comes to food. Not only do we already have a diverse and exacting palate, but our demand for healthy, well-sourced ingredients means that we can be rather cynical about making room for a new restaurant chain in our hearts. However, the increasing appetite for nutritious vegetarian cuisine as well as our preference for brands with a conscience, means that the UK is likely to have a soft spot for a kitchen blending the tasty yet wholesome falafel with flavours from around the globe. Make way for Just Falafel.
The franchise began life in Abu Dhabi in 2007 when founder Mohamad Bitar spotted a gap in the market. “Falafel was a traditional street food from Egypt,” explains Mike Biggins, CEO of Just Falafel UK & Ireland. The vast majority of falafel trade in the Emirati city came from street vendors and small independent restaurants. “It was crying out for an entrepreneur to bring some structure to give the customer consistency and give it to them in a comfortable environment.”
Unsurprisingly, the store’s first menu item kept things traditional with a classic falafel wrap but Bitar was anything if not adventurous. “He decided to do a Greek version because he wanted something that would appeal to more western tastes,” Biggins says. After a little consideration of his market, Bitar realised that it made sense to cater to Abu Dhabi’s substantial Indian population and produced an option specifically targeted to their taste buds. Biggins continues: “As he migrated into Dubai, they realised that this concept of offering different flavours had a lot of attraction.”
But it wasn’t just this diversity that started to pull in the punters. “One of the hallmarks that he had from the beginning was ‘fresh, healthy, natural and vegetarian’,” comments Biggins. Before long, Just Falafel’s approach was beginning to bring in more than just customers – Bitar started to get approached by individuals wanting to buy a franchise. “People know this food, they’ve grown up with it, they saw the wisdom of what Mohamad was doing and they wanted to be a part of it.”
The franchise has always been heavily involved in the use of social media to spread the brand and currently Just Falafel has over 1.5 million likes on Facebook. “It’s been an important vehicle,” says Biggins. “Through the amount of exposure you get through social media, it started getting inquiries literally from all over the world.” Before long, Just Falafel was in negotiations with UK-based restauranteur Ahmad Hariri, who subsequently bought the rights to open 200 outlets. The first Western store opened in Covent Garden in January 2013, bringing the franchise’s unique approach to falafel to our fair shores.
It’s safe to say the UK’s relationship with Just Falafel’s food has been unique. Whilst just 10% of Brits would describe themselves as vegetarian, Biggins points out that we’ve become far more open to meals without meat. “We also find that here in London, people are a little bit bored with the same old same,” he remarks. “You want to have something new, you want to try something different.”
And Just Falafel’s approach to the snack is certainly that. Asian cuisine and chickpea patties may not sound like the most obvious combination but the menu doesn’t shy away from using bold combinations of ingredients, as with its Japanese wrap. “It’s got pickled ginger in there,” Biggins explains. “It’s got avocado in there and it has a wasabi mayonnaise.”
It’s not just about novelty, however. With recent scandals over meat still fresh in our memories, our old carnivorous habits are under a great deal more scrutiny. “This has given us a general sense of people paying more attention to their food,” Biggins says. This is something Just Falafel is keen to support any way it can. He continues: “I had our chef, Gerard Murphy, scrub all of our ingredients to ensure there are no artificial colourings, no artificial flavourings – everything is pure and natural.”
But beyond having their trust in meat somewhat bruised, people in the UK are far more open to the health benefits of consuming a more varied and nutritious diet. “Part of the beauty of working with our recipe of falafel is that it uses that great vegetable protein and you stay fuller longer,” he comments. “‘Fresh, healthy and natural’ fits in very well.”
When a brand positions itself as a ‘healthy alternative’, it’s understandably hard not to allow cynicism to take over and assume this is just lip-service paid to modern trends and demands. But, in Just Falafel’s case, nothing could be further from the truth.
“We’re building on people’s awareness of healthy eating habits,” says Biggins. Its conscience is core to its brand; a recent scheme in Dubai is a prime example, where the brand went into local schools to educate the young about rising obesity levels in the city. The franchise is also aligned with the United Nations and the World Hunger Fund, doing its part to redress the number of starving children in developing countries. “For every one of our restaurants that opens, we make a contribution to that fund and we actively promote that in our restaurants and try to raise awareness.”
It’s easy to see why Just Falafel has proved an inviting prospect for franchisees: the versatility of the offering is, frankly, merely gravy. “With the ‘fresh, healthy and natural’, we don’t have to worry about major equipment purchases, we have a lot of flexibility on the size of space,” comments Biggins. “We can size the space according to the customer demand. So I think it’s something that’s beginning to demonstrate its appeal for both the first-time franchisee as well as the established franchisee, because it’s got that adaptability.”
So what’s next for Just Falafel in Blighty? It seems some big and bright things. Our country has become something of a testing ground, educating the rest of brand on the expectations, concerns and tastes of the average Western consumer. “The UK is our centre of excellence,” says Biggins. “What we’re doing here in the UK is really helping to inform the brand on how to really successfully enter a western market and how to position the brand properly.”
And given agreements have already been signed in the United States, Canada and Australia, it seems like the relationship the franchise has with Britain is just the start. Biggins says: “You’re going to start seeing Just Falafel popping up around the globe.”