Monday, March 14, 2011

Game Time!

“Your belief determines your action and your action determines your results, but first you have to believe.” -- Mark Victor Hansen

Its 3:30 on Thursday February 3rd, 30 mins before our scheduled ‘soft-opening’ for Zaffron and we’re frantically working away to tick through all the last minute details. Unbeknownst to most, including my better half Artina, I’m a nervous wreck. I take five minutes to peel off the line to gather myself. I’m feeling anxious and terrified. Till this point…Zaffron remained a dream and in those dreams Zaffron was a success. In those dreams Zaffron achieves greatness and goes on to “change the world one kabob at a time…

However, now as the clock starts to tick closer and closer to 4pm Zaffron will no longer remain an elusive dream, but rather reality will sink in. For the first time in this endeavor the harsh idea of failure begins to creep into my mind. However, much like any momentous decision in life – buying a house, getting married, etc… you realize that being scared is a natural part of the experience. I summon my courage and head back into the store.

The clock reads 3:58 pm and we bring the team together for one last hurrah. Artina puts me on the spot to make a speech to fire-up the troops. For one who’s seldom at loss for words, I was speechless. I managed to utter some gibberish while struggling to hold back tears. It’s now 4 o’clock – showtime. We’ve ticked through all our checklists…we’re ready for what lies ahead…we think…crap we realize we don’t have any cash in our register to make loose change – how could we have missed that! However, we manage through and finally open the door for business…Zaffron is born.

During the soft opening we were overwhelmed by the support of friends, in particular all the Wharton MBA students that Nick convinced to help us out. During those first couple of days we fumbled, screwed up orders, and worked out many of the kinks in our system to ensure we were prepared to fully open our doors to actual and less forgiving customers.

During the soft start we got tremendous feedback. Within a short period of time we made a number of changes to our product, from modifying the bread in our wraps to ensuring appropriate portion sizes. Above all, the experience provided much needed repetition and experience for our staff on how to handle orders, engage customers, and keep the process seamless.

Finally, on Monday February 7th we fully opened our doors for business to the regular lunch crowd at the Shops at Liberty. The initial response has been very encouraging but more on that to come soon!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

That First Kiss

“Yesterday is History, Tomorrow a Mystery, Today is a Gift, That’s why it's called the Present" -- Alice Morse Earle

Remember that first kiss, or opening that letter you received letting you know that you got admitted into the college of your dreams, or the feeling you got when you received that job offer that you really wanted? Each of those instances was a moment of bliss.

In that kiss, in that letter, in that phone call, one experiences pure joy. In that moment you don’t think about the heartache and the pain of getting to that point. And you certainly don’t think about the future and the new challenges that will arise. That moment is one of those rare instances where both the heart and the mind just want to sulk it in and enjoy.

Tonight is that moment for me and for us at Zaffron! If you’ve been following this blog you’ll remember that this journey began over a year ago, and in many instances much earlier, by three friends believing in a simple idea that kabobs and Middle Eastern food should be consumed more often. Since that start there have been many ups and downs …and some more downs. During this period I’ve had many sleepless nights and the white strands of hair on my head have grown exponentially :)

However, in this moment that roller coaster ride seems like a distant memory because earlier today we received our CO. Now for those in the know they’ll get what a CO means, as for the rest of us (including the Amir from 6 weeks ago), CO stands for Certificate of Occupancy – meaning we can officially open for business!!!

So now that the powers that be have signed off and that barricade wall covering our store has literally and symbolically come crashing down, our doors are open for business – although not fully, just yet. Even though we’ve dedicated a significant amount of time and energy towards training our staff, we want to ease into our opening to ensure customers have a pleasant experience. So starting tomorrow and for the next several days we’ll be open for limited hours.

I have no doubt that once we’re open for business new challenges will surely arise and I’ll continue to moan and complain in future blogs. However, in this moment the problems of tomorrow can wait because now is about enjoying the moment.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Domino Effect

"I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I know I can." -- Little Engine That Could

Here’s a typical exchange I have with friends, particularly with those that I haven’t seen in a while:

Friend:So Amir, how’s the restaurant coming along?
Me:It’s coming along well, we hit some small snags in the process, but we’ll be open soon – I’ll definitely keep you posted.
Friend:Great, can’t wait for the opening – I’m excited to come check it out, just let me know when!
Me:Thanks – you’re awesome!

However, this past Friday I was in the midst of having one of these normal conversations, when an acquaintance bursts out and says, “Dude, I’ve given up on your restaurant opening…it’s taking you forever.

At that moment I bit my tongue and tried my best to withhold all the pent up frustration I’ve been harboring dealing with the construction process. Instead, I simply asked him, “Buddy, have you ever built or constructed anything?” Now, I’m not talking about building a crazy financial model in Excel or a killer PowerPoint presentation, but rather something physical like a house, a store, or a product? Naturally, he gave me the blank stare and replied, “No, but how hard could it be?

Now, he does have a point… none of the stuff I’m currently working on is hard. Rather, it’s a game of patience, persistence, and being resourceful.

We executed the lease for our location 13 weeks ago (Blog) and at that time I thought we’d be open for business in 10-12 weeks. However, due to my naiveté I didn’t realize the number of variables at play in constructing a restaurant. In hindsight, building a store is like the dominos game – where you need each piece to fall in place before you can move onto the next piece.

In our case, there were a number of hiccups. For instance, the local city regulators (affectionately known as L&I here in Philadelphia), took 8 weeks to issue our construction permits since the landlord delayed in producing needed documents. Then, you have the local gas company who took 3 weeks to return my phone call to setup our gas account. Lastly, you can’t have any of your final inspections, be it with the Board of Health, building inspector, the landlord, or the fire department, until everything else is in order.

In talking to my mentors, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised the construction process has taken a few weeks longer than anticipated… it’s part of the territory. However, through this experience I’ve learned a tremendous amount which I’m sure is only going to make us even more efficient for the next go around. In the meantime I can continue to say with confidence that we will be open soon… just don’t hold me to a specific date :)


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nicholas’s Travels

"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." --St. Augustine

Hey everyone. My name is Nicholas Pike. I couldn’t be more excited to be working with the Zaffron team. The concept is really coming together, and we should be open very soon! I wanted to write a quick post to introduce myself and tell you guys a bit about my recent trip to the Middle East.

Over the holidays, I was able to spend some time in the Middle East to further explore the influences and intricacies of the regional cuisine. While I consider myself an adventurous eater and have eaten at more middle eastern restaurants in the US, Europe, Asia, and Africa than I can count, I have never been to the source. A couple of weeks before the opening of Zaffron seemed like the perfect time to check it out. There were certainly some highlights, including i) seeing a shwarma bigger than the man standing next to it, ii) the tremendous variety of hummus concocted by various chefs in Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and Syria and iii) breads of every shape and size you can imagine. For a big fan of this cuisine, seeing the varieties and quality of this food in its natural habitat was spectacular.

The biggest benefit though was seeing how similar the food was across national, cultural, and ethnic borders. The foods eaten by the bedoiun near the Saudi border were the same as those eaten by the cosmopolitan residents of Amman, the Christian and Arab communities in Damascus, Palestinians in Ramallah, pilgrims in Bethlehem, and recent immigrants to the Jewish quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. Despite the stark and ongoing challenges faced in this part of the world, in one of the most basic of human actions (eating), disparate peoples were remarkably similar.

While I have no illusions about the challenges facing the Middle East or the role that Zaffron can play in promoting peace in this part of the world, Zaffron’s motto of “changing the world one kabob at a time” made me think that human similarities so often outweigh our differences. The influences that we have drawn on to create the Zaffron menu have stood the test of time in the Middle East, and the food is enjoyed by all (across class, gender, ethnic, and religious lines). While many other regions have already seen the benefits and appeal of Middle Eastern food, it is my great hope that Zaffron helps bring this enjoyment to the United States.

Our menu draws on all of the influences that I experienced in the Middle East, but, in my opinion, Zaffron’s food is fresher and higher quality. You’ll see for yourselves soon. I can’t wait for you to give our menu a try!


Monday, January 3, 2011

Meet Our Chef!

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” --Henry Ford

Over the past few months we’ve searched high and low for a chef to join Zaffron. We met a lot of interesting candidates and interviewed nearly 50 people! Ultimately we found the ideal partner in Seth. Seth High had been working with renowned chef, Todd English or five years, before coming to Philadelphia. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, particularly in Mediterranean cuisine. We couldn’t be more excited to have him on board and asked him to write an introductory blog post. Check it out below!

Greetings! My name is Seth High, and it’s been my great pleasure to join the Zaffron team as Culinary Director. Getting to know Amir, Artina, and Nick in these last weeks while we sprint to the finish line has hardened my resolve and faith that our business will be successful.

I come from a full service restaurant background, serving as a Chef in various parts of the country for the past dozen years. After living in six cities in six years, I sought a position that would offer an opportunity to help grow and nurture a new business and a concept. After meeting with the Zaffron team and after lengthy discussions about the concept I was convinced that ours would be a beneficial partnership.

In approaching the final menu and recipe development, I’ve tried to maintain the same approach I would take in a full service restaurant, hewing closely to values such as freshness, wholesomeness, high quality ingredients, dynamic and robust flavors, and ability to replicate. Many of the building blocks of our menu are exactly the sort of simple, hearty, delicious Mediterranean foods that I’ve loved and used to great effect in some of my former restaurants.

As a team, through research and tastings, we’ve come up with sauces and condiments with varied geographic origins, both traditional and interpretive. An old friend of mine once quipped that she was, “generally amorous of food on sticks”, an opinion that I heartily endorse; so, whether spiedini (Italy), brochette (France), souvlaki (Greece), or satay (Indonesia), how could I not get behind kebabs?

It occurred to me while doing some research that our concept in many ways echoes some of the first quick service restaurants: shawarma stands in the markets of ancient Greece and Phoenicia, where you’d get lamb meat sliced off of a large kebab and tucked into pita with yogurt. I’m excited to find such historical reference points, and am reminded of the long cultural oral history we all share with food.

It’s been an intense series of meetings, menu finalization, recipe testing, tasting, testing, and tasting some more in the month since I joined the team, and the product is coming together very nicely. I can’t wait for you all to be able to try some soon at Zaffron Store #1 in the Shops at Liberty Place!!


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Run to Remember

“It’s not how hard you’ve pushed along the way it’s having something left in the finish.” -- MJ, Gatorade commercial

On Sunday, November 21st I did something that only a few years ago I would have considered improbable, if not impossible: I completed my first half-marathon! To many I’m sure running long distance comes easy, but for me that’s hardly the case. I’ve used every excuse in the book, from my short legs, to my below average athleticism, to rationalize why running for me is so unbelievably painful and boring.

However, this year I put aside my doubts and decided to run the Philadelphia half-marathon. In hindsight, I’m not really sure what drove me to do it. I guess it’s always been something that I’ve aspired to do…so now as I’m embarking on a new journey in life with the start of Zaffron it made sense to seek to conquer other milestones along the way.

I was fortunate that my old pal, Hassan Shah, was also up for the task, so we buddied-up and decided to train together. Our training didn’t consist of anything special: we followed a simple program by renowned trainer Hal Higdon and tried our best to stick to it. Once we started training, I couldn’t help but think of the commonalities between running a race and our journey to start a restaurant.

For starters, there is the overwhelming hurdle that one needs to get over and that is to commit to doing it! As is the case with running (and starting a business) there are thousands of reasons to not do it. And then once you commit to doing it, sticking with it is even harder…as again the doubts creep in and the voice inside your head starts saying…”can I really do this”, “is it worth the hassle”, “maybe next year?

But over time as you get stronger and start beating down the barriers, you begin to realize that maybe it is possible and maybe those elusive goals for yourself are in fact achievable! Surely, the journey along the way is still painful and there are days when you’re down and out, but you lean on others to help you power through and you inch closer to your goal.

Currently, we’re in the early innings of achieving our long-term vision for Zaffron, but in many ways we’re getting close to a major milestone in opening our first location. As I reflect back on my experience of training for the half-marathon, what matters most at this point is to finish strong. It’s tempting to cut corners, be it with our product R&D or hiring and training our staff, but we can’t let that happen.

I’m eagerly awaiting the moment when we finally open for business…I’m curious to find out how I feel. But if the commonalities between starting Zaffron and running the half-marathon continue, I’m sure it will be an exhilarating experience. Just as with the race, I’m optimistic that our hard work and persistence will amount to something and once we open our first location we’ll set our sights on the next goal, just as I’m already thinking of someday running the full marathon.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Putting Ourselves Out There

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world.” -- Bob Geldof

Last month I had the pleasure of presenting at the 2nd annual American Muslim Consumer Conference. It was an outstanding event. The conference highlighted the growing buying power of the American Muslim Consumer and it also provided a forum for entrepreneurs to showcase creative new business ideas.

Fortunately, Zaffron was selected as one of the featured companies. It was an amazing opportunity to present in front of several hundred attendees as well as distinguished panelists, including Tariq Farid (CEO and Founder of Edible Arrangements) and Adnan Durrani. I have to admit it was gut-wrenching speaking in front of the audience, but to some extent I was prepared for that. What was more terrifying and something that I wasn’t fully prepared for was the onslaught of questions that came from the panelists grilling me in the ins and outs of our business plan.

Anyways, I’ll stop writing and instead let you guys watch the clip. Special thanks to Artina for taking this video…its tough holding your handheld camera in the air for a while! Next time we’ll be sure to bring a tripod :)

Zaffron Video: