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: http://www.youtube.com/zaffronusa


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Undercover Boss

“To lead people walk behind them.” -- Lao Tzu

One of my biggest fears about starting a restaurant is my lack of prior industry experience. In fact, the truth is that up until this point in my career I’ve had limited operational experience in any industry, let alone in one as complex as the food service space. So last month I decided to rectify this deficiency by getting a line job at a fast-casual restaurant chain in Center City, Philadelphia.

My goal for the job was simple; be a sponge and absorb as much as possible on how restaurants manage their operations. Additionally, I knew the experience would provide an invaluable perspective on the backgrounds, fears, and motivations of the line workers that form the heart and soul of any food service establishment. In some sense, my experience felt a bit like the CBS TV show ‘Undercover Boss’ notwithstanding the fact that I’m currently nobody’s boss nor am I running an actual business …yet.

The experience was eye-opening. Over the past few years I’ve read several books on managing food service operations, from Howard Schultz’s Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time to Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. Each of these books tells an inspiring tale of how to build a successful business by following your passions and prioritizing people over profits. However, as informative as a book can be it pales in comparison to the learnings of working for minimum wage at a restaurant and dealing with the ups and downs that come with that experience.

For starters, I was overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of managing food operations. As consumers, we take for granted the thousands of small steps and immense amount of preparation that goes into churning hundreds of customers in the short timeframes of lunch and dinner. In only a few weeks, it became clear that in order for Zaffron to succeed we’ll need great tools, systems, and work processes to ensure we consistently deliver a great product and customer experience.

Next I was blown away by the level of teamwork and collaboration needed to train employees and efficiently manage operations. In the restaurant industry you’re constantly dealing with new and inexperienced workers. Thus, not only do you need great employees but you need a culture that rewards mentorship…hopefully something we ingrain in our culture.

My final takeaway has more to do with me being an actual consumer and that is: to be patient, polite, and appreciative towards restaurant workers. During my brief stint, I noticed some customers (admittedly a minority) perceive workers to be idiots. For instance when mistakes happen people assume it’s because you’re not as intelligent as they are; hence the reason you’re working behind the counter and fulfilling their order. What they don’t realize is that sometimes as consumers we don’t communicate clearly or that working in the industry is quite challenging. So the next time you go to a restaurant and you notice that your server put onions on your burger when you said no onions, give them a smile and be kind. After all, what goes around comes around!


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Our Big Break

“The world of achievement has always belonged to the optimist.” -- Harold Wilkins

October 15th, 2010, was an unforgettable day. After a long, tiresome, and painful journey we finally succeeded in securing our first real estate location. This time we have a signed and fully executed agreement!

In many ways, getting a signed lease agreement is the most important step in a retail business, particularly when you’re a start-up and are struggling to get things off the ground. For those with limited commercial real estate experience, as was the case for me not too long ago, signing a lease is a big deal! The process is much more onerous than the standard residential leases most of us are familiar with. I’ll spare you the details of all the different negotiation points, and just highlight some of the major things that make a commercial lease such a big deal.

For starters, a commercial lease is a long-term commitment. A typical lease is 5-years long with options to renew for additional 5-year periods (assuming no defaults). Next a lease typically entails some form of guarantee where the tenant agrees to pay rent even if he goes out of business! Think about that…imagine, you’re a start-up and after a few months you realize you’re aren’t doing so great (as is typical for start-ups); well it’s not so easy to just close shop and pack your bags, because you need to continue to pay the landlord a whopping amount of money in rent. Lastly, signing a lease is a ticking time bomb that forces you to open for business as soon as possible since not only do you have to start paying rent but often times you’ll get slapped with fines and other penalties if you unnecessarily delay. So yes, signing a commercial lease is a huge deal! But ultimately it’s the cost of doing business and it wouldn’t be a business if it didn’t entail risk.

As for us, we couldn’t be happier with our location. We will be in the food court of Philadelphia’s premier commercial center, The Liberty Place, on 16th and Chestnut Street. For those, unfamiliar with area – the Liberty Towers (and the adjoining Westin Hotel) is in the heart of Philly’s business district and is on the block with the highest pedestrian count in the city. Also, since we’re in a food court we know there’s already a ton of traffic on a daily basis – now the onus is on us to build a product with the right value that reels customers in…a risk I’m willing to take.

So October 15th marks a monumental step in this constantly evolving journey to start a restaurant! Since singing the lease we’ve been working frantically to get all the architectural designs, work permits, and other approvals in order so we can break ground and bring our vision to life…but I’ll talk more about that process later. I also have some juicy details to share about a new job that I recently started. If you’re thinking that I’m back in the world of private equity then you’re in for a big surprise…


Monday, October 11, 2010

Building A Brand

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose; By any other name would smell as sweet." -- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Coming up with a name for our restaurant was much more difficult than we thought. We had lots of ideas but were afraid to commit to something. After all a restaurant's name says a lot about it... or does it? When looking at names of other prominent fast-casual restaurants, I struggled to find any that stood out as exceptionally deep or meaningful. Chipotle is a type of jalapeño pepper used in Mexican cuisine. Così comes from the Mozart opera Così Fan Tutte, which was a favorite of the founder. Who knows what Pei Wei, Quiznos, or Qdoba even mean? While the name seemed important, we quickly came to the conclusion that it wasn't going to make or break our concept.

Still we wanted to come up with something unique, exciting, and relevant to our cuisine. A preliminary decision we made was to exclude the word Kabob from the name. Even though kabobs are going to be the core product, we didn't want to limit the scope of the menu. We also didn't want the name to scream Middle Eastern. We shot down lots of ideas before getting to Saffron Grill. Kabob Kafe, Tahini, Kismat, Skewers, Kaboom -- sorry Azam :) We also did a competitive analysis to make sure we were differentiating ourselves from our key competitors - Roti Mediterranean Grill, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, Pita Pit, Maoz Vegetarian, etc. Ultimately we liked Saffron, a suggestion from our friend Wren, and added the Grill to highlight the healthiness of our product. Saffron is a rare spice often used in Persian cuisine and is generally associated with high-quality, premium foods. Yet it comes from all over the world much like kabobs so it seemed like a great fit.

There was just one problem. The name Saffron Grill is not as unique as we had hoped. A quick Google search unveils several restaurants by the same name and similar variations. Most of them are sit-down Indian restaurants offering fine dining. We knew we had to come up with something a bit edgier to build the right brand, not to mention a unique name for which we could secure national trademark registration. After several brainstorming sessions we came up with something we are really excited about. We worked with our graphic designer to knock down a logo that represents the concept. Some of you may remember the preliminary draft (pictured above) from the survey you took a few months back. Well today, we're proud to present a preview of the new name and logo to you all today... introducing Zaffron! What do you think?


Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Dream Deferred

“There is no telling how many miles you will have to run while chasing a dream.” --Anonymous

Hey folks – first off, sorry it’s been so long since we’ve published a post. There has been a lot going on personally and professionally but we promise to do a better job of keeping you guys in the loop moving forward.

So August, 13th was my last day in Boston. That’s right, as planned I left my old firm to move down to Philadelphia to officially immerse myself in this next phase of the journey. For those keeping track the plan was to leave Advent and then hopefully in a couple of months be up and running with our first store on Temple University’s campus… well that was the plan. Unfortunately, as I’ve come to learn the hard way, seldom do things go according to plan :)

A bit of history, on June 8th we signed the lease for an awesome retail spot on Temple’s campus. Signing that 50-page legal agreement that I had spent countless hours reviewing was exhilarating and terrifying. We were prepared to take the next step. Unfortunately as it turns out, the landlord had different plans. As you may remember from the last post, the spot is an existing restaurant and we were assured delivery of the space within 30 days. A month passed and we were told that the eviction process was taking more time than expected but that we would get the space very soon. We waited patiently but a month later the landlord finally conceded that they weren’t going to give us the space. It turns out the tenant had cured their lease by paying up the money they owed and our lease was void.

I was devastated to say the least. I received this news one week before I was leaving Advent to move down to Philly full-time. Imagine the worst setback you’ve ever faced… you probably cried… well that’s how I felt. I’m a man so it’s hard to confess in a public forum that I cried, but I’ll admit there were a few tears running down my cheeks after that phone call. When you’re starting a business all you have is your hope, dreams and aspirations. Every time I closed my eyes I dreamed of our first store at that space… I imagined being the next big thing on Temple’s campus and Saffron Grill becoming the go-to spot for students. In a heartbeat the dream vanished.

I learned a lot from this experience. For one, I realized that you can’t trust everyone in the real estate business. I should have realized that something was off when the landlord never sent me a countersigned copy of the lease document nor cashed in my security deposit! I also learned that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. As soon as we had signed this lease, we stopped searching for other properties assuming everything would work out just fine. This set our timeline back a few months as we had to start from scratch… again.

Nevertheless, I knew I had to continue to push forward and get over this hurdle. I held onto my faith that everything happens for a reason and channeled all my energy towards finding a new space. Time was of the essence now that I was leaving the Advent payroll. My broker and I have since been on the prowl and soon enough we’re going to make something happen!


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A diamond in the rough

“Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow - that is patience.” -- Anonymous

In my last post I mentioned we were very close to signing a lease… if only it were as easy as putting a signature on a piece of paper. We found a spot on Temple University’s campus that we are extremely excited about. We never thought of being in North Philadelphia given how little we knew about the area, but this location is in the heart of campus and is surrounded by tons of people. There is a movie theater in the building as well as a Qdoba Mexican Grill and a pizza shop. Right next door is a huge dormitory and there is another one in construction across the street. Even better, Temple is planning to build a full-blown gym on the second floor of the building. All the landmarks gave us a good feeling but we were most comforted by the space after we got estimated traffic counts in the neighboring restaurants. Thanks to our friends, Saara Hafeez, Sakina Zaidi, and Aminah Ali we were able to gauge how many people would come to eat at this location on various days. The numbers were astounding and beat our counts at any of the other locations we had evaluated.

Once we were ready to reach an agreement we had to engage a lawyer to negotiate the nuts and bolts of the lease. It is amazing how much there is to learn about the legal process and jargon. Luckily Amir had experience working with lawyers and legal contracts in his job, so he took the rein on this work stream. Nonetheless it required painstaking attention to detail and hours of phone calls with our counsel before we finally had a document we were all comfortable with. And so it happened… on June 8th while I was thousands of miles away traveling through Hyderabad, India we signed a lease. Little did we know how much time it would take for us to actually get the space…

One of the best things about this space is that it is a running restaurant, which means the cost of us taking it over will be much less than building up a restaurant from a clean shell. Unfortunately this has also led to our process getting delayed more than we had expected. We were told by the landlord that they would deliver the space within 30 days as they had a strong case for evicting the current tenant (who is way behind on rent). It seems however, that the tenant wanted to put up more of a fight and now we are just waiting for them to duke it out. We are now supposed to get the space in 3 weeks time (which coincidentally is when we officially make the move from Boston to Philadelphia) so we are just hoping and praying that this works out as promised. If not, we’ll have to start thinking about plan B but in this business what else is new? :)


Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Birth of a Dream

“Every time a man puts a new idea across he finds ten men who thought of it before he did - but they only thought of it.” --Anon

It was the Fall Semester of my junior year in college. We had come back from the summer and I noticed there was something new and exciting about the campus vibe near my dorm. Right next to my apartment a Qdoba Mexican restaurant opened. I was completely enamored by this place. I was enthralled by the simplicity of its menu and the ability to create a myriad of options using the same ingredients but combining them in different ways. Qdoba was an instant hit on-campus. There were long lines snaking around every time I went – which was very often.

The rest of my junior year was super busy, in particular during the start of the spring semester gearing up for landing a summer internship. For those that don’t know much about the Wharton culture, internship season is a stressful experience and scoring a prized offer is in many ways a crowning achievement. By that measure I was fortunate enough to ultimately land a gig at Morgan Stanley. For me, Investment Banking was a complete thud. The only silver lining from that experience was meeting Brendan Petri, known as the Petri Dish. Petri was a character, from playing the air guitar a la Jack Black in School of Rock, to serenading me with ridiculous songs; the Petri Dish made the summer a lot of fun.

That summer while Petri and I banked like champions we would order dinner and eat together. Brendan would order something different every night meanwhile I would crush the Kabobs. It got to the point that a couple of weeks into our internship Brendan nicknamed me ‘Amir Kabob’ which quickly caught on and became my nickname in the office. One evening mid-way through our internship we were anxiously surfing seamless web to figure out where to order from for tonight’s dinner. After a couple minutes of surfing, Brendan threw his hands in defeat and turned to me and said “Amir Kabob, order me what you normally get yourself’. That night Brendan and I both ate Lamb Kabob platters with a bowl of hummus some bhaba ganoush and pita bread. After the meal, Brendan turned to me and said, “Amir Kabob, this food is awesome how come I haven’t eaten this stuff before?” At that point, I thought to myself, how come Brendan hasn’t eaten this kind of food before? He’s clearly a worldly and adventuresome guy, yet he’s never enjoyed Kabobs, how could that be? The more I thought about it the more I realized most Middle Eastern restaurants tend to be hole-in-the-wall shops and very ‘ethnic’ in nature, and nicer places tend to be too expensive for regular dining. Thus, it made sense why even though Middle Eastern food is pretty awesome, it’s not as widely known and consumed.

I thought to myself someone should bring Middle Eastern style food in the same format that Qdoba was serving Mexican food. To me the concept made a lot of sense since Middle Eastern foods can be prepared in a similar assembly line process and you can create a lot of different food combinations with a limited number of ingredients. Not to mention, if done right Middle Eastern food is healthier than Mexican foods since Kabobs are grilled and nothing is fried. To me, the idea had merit and no one was doing it the way I had envisioned it…

Thus, it was then and there during the summer of 2005 that the idea was born, it just took a little while and some convincing along the way to pursue it….


Thursday, June 3, 2010


“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” --Babe Ruth, American baseball player

This past month has been extremely busy for us. As we inch closer to our target launch date, we are quickly realizing how much work is in store. The good news is we are very close to signing a lease on a location we are very excited about! It’s a turnkey restaurant on a university campus with strong foot traffic throughout the day. I’ll tell you more about it once it’s confirmed!

In the meantime we’ve made progress on a lot of other fronts. For one, we’ve incorporated our LLC and opened up a small business bank account. We’ve continued to work with our architect on the interior design phase of our restaurant. He sketched a potential layout for the fit-out that was hard to grasp at first but overall seemed to be on the right track. Now we have to meet him in person so we can view the material samples and decide on the actual tiles, paint colors, tables/chairs, etc.

We’ve also begun the process of interviewing people to partner with us as a Chef/Kitchen Manager. This has been very interesting and we have some strong leads at the moment. Believe it or not the majority of our candidates came through a Craigslist post! We’ve talked to people that run the gamut… young cooks straight out of culinary school, veteran executive chefs with decades of experience, and even some folks who didn’t know a kabob from a falafel! At this point we’re hoping to set up some in-person meetings and tasting sessions with the candidates we are most excited about. Given how important it is for the chef to be able to cook the food perfectly, this will be a really crucial (and fun!) step in the process :)

In other news I’m going to be on the road for the next few weeks so will do my best to keep up with the blog (as if I’ve been doing a great job of that already)! But we should have lots of updates once we finalize our space and get the ball rolling on the construction of the space… after all, we’ve got less than 4 months to hit our deadline. Stay tuned!


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Laying the foundation

“Someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” --Warren Buffett

It’s been a while since we’ve blogged but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy! In fact a lot has happened that we will update you on soon, starting with us commissioning an architect to help build out our store’s interior design.

Creating an identity is no easy task… especially for a kabob restaurant. And our goal is not just to sell kabobs but to build a brand that stands for something more. We want people to be inspired when they eat at Saffron Grill. Kabobs come from all over the world and have many names, shapes, and forms. You’ve probably heard of Greek souvlaki but did you know about Mexican banderillas? The point is we want people to walk into Saffron Grill and realize they are experiencing an international cuisine. So our theme is about bringing cultures together and unifying people through kabobs.

But how do you express that in your store layout and design? That’s the project we’ve been working on over the last few weeks. First we met with our architect to discuss the process and looked through a variety of random images that could give us some inspiration. After agreeing on some ideas we came up with an abstract vision for the theme. Our architect asked us to then go out into actual restaurants and take photos of all the elements… think walls, ceilings, lights, tables, chairs, menu boards, ordering stations, the works! This was a lot more awkward than you’d think but we got some great shots. Then the three of us walked through all of the pictures to come up with a consistent viewpoint on what we liked and didn’t like. Wood or metal? Paint or brick? Red or Purple? I personally enjoyed this exercise a lot although I bet Amir never imagined he would be contemplating these questions :) Nevertheless, it was a great discussion and we all came out on the same page which is really important.

We then presented the images and our opinions to our architect to get his feedback and lock down specific materials, colors, and styles. For the most part he loved our ideas and guided us towards a single design. There was a piece we disagreed on with regards to using geometric shapes (like the one you see here) to accentuate the idea of unity and bringing cultures together. Our architect said we would run the risk of evoking the wrong ideas (whether it was religious, spiritual, or too Mediterranean/Eastern in nature). However, we felt strongly that there is a way of incorporating this type of design subtly into the rest of the décor elements that could be tasteful and would add much more depth and richness to our theme. What do you think? Would love to hear what words come to mind when you see these types of images, and if it seems too foreign or unwelcoming?

At this point we are waiting for our architect to come back with some initial sketches of how this will all pan out. Look forward to sharing the drawings with you all soon!


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Introducing Chief Kabob Officer...

“You must lose a fly to catch a trout.” -- George Herbert

So this is my first post on this wonderful blog that Artina has started to chronicle our journey to bring you our new restaurant concept. At first, I liked the idea of Artina updating this blog and this being her ‘baby’ but after prodding from a few friends (or just one…thanks Raju) I realized that this a great way for me to reflect on all the thoughts, feelings and emotions that I’ve been going through as part of my decision to start a restaurant . Not to mention, Raju brought up the brilliant point that if I end up applying to business school down the road this thread would make for wonderful essay content :)

Before I pour my heart…let me give you the quick download on who I am and where I come from…trust me I won’t get into existential expose on the purpose of my being – frankly I’m not that deep (I went to Wharton for college…so that says enough). And in full transparency, I looked up the word ‘existential’ on dictionary.com before inserting it in this post just to make sure I wasn’t using the word incorrectly – which I have a God-given gift for doing. Also, for those of you who know me, I hope you realize that I’m trying really hard to buck the trend of writing everything in bullet form and always having 3-reasons to back-up my points-of-view, even if I only have 1 real reason; you can thank my prior employer, McKinsey & Co., for training me in such eloquent prose.

I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, PA called Latrobe. It’s the home town of golfing legend, Arnold Palmer, and its where Rolling Rocks Beer got its start… who knows perhaps someday Latrobe will also be referred as the birthplace of the messiah of the Kabob… don’t hold your breath though :) Anyways, when I was 8 my family moved from Latrobe to South Asia (Karachi, Pakistan) and then to the Middle East (Dubai, UAE), before we moved back to the US in 1998, this time to New Jersey – unclear if that was an upgrade or downgrade from Latrobe. Today, I work in the world of Private Equity at a pretty awesome firm in Boston called Advent International (checkout my bio for some shameless self-promotion: http://www.adventinternational.com/PeopleData/Pages/AmirMemon_English.aspx)

So… I’m 26 now and entering a cross-road in my life. Please don’t read too much into that prior statement. I’m by no means claiming to be going through some cathartic experience in which all of a sudden I now realize the true essence of life. Rather, what I’m trying to say and I imagine many of you reading this post can similarly appreciate; I’m grappling with the age-old conundrum of following the well-trodden path vs. blazing your own trail. The questions and feelings that one goes through in making this kind of decision, regardless of the time, place, and circumstances have to be the same. On the one hand, the well-trodden path offers comfort, security, and allows you to visualize the destination ahead, even if that destination is miles away and you know it won’t always be smooth sailing. Meanwhile, blazing your path is just that – its taking a step back and realizing holy cow you have no idea what the hell you are doing, where you’re going, and where you’ll end up. At the end of the day all you have to hang your hat on is your trust in God, and that you’re going to do whatever it takes to figure things out…


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

To be or not to be..

“We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.” -- Aneurin Bevan

Thanks to everyone who took the survey last week! We got some great feedback from you all and also collected 210 completed responses from the United Sample panel. In analyzing the results we were excited to find that the data validated our hypotheses for the most part. Over 80% of our sample said they enjoyed eating kabobs but 75% of that group said they only eat it out sometimes or rarely. The number one reason these people don’t eat kabobs more often is because they don’t know of any good restaurants nearby. Of the people who initially said they don’t enjoy eating kabobs or hadn’t tried it before, over half said it was because they don’t know what it is, don’t know where to get it, or had a bad experience in the past. All of these data points give us greater confidence that there is a definite need for a more mainstream and easily accessible fast-casual kabob restaurant. Enter Saffron Grill! :)

We also received some very constructive feedback on the product concept and sample menu. Turns out our “simple 5-step process” comes across a lot more complex than we thought. Although nearly 90% of the people said it seemed very simple and straightforward or easy to understand the menu, the comments highlighted some key questions for us. One person said, “There is so much information and I don’t know what a lot of the food on the menu is” and another, “Too many choices, need to give sample combinations.” This sprung up a debate amongst our team on the pros and cons of a “do-it-yourself, assembly-line-style” menu versus a more traditional menu with preset items to choose from. Our initial plan was to empower consumers to personalize their order 100% so they could engage with the food and mix and match the different options to their liking. This was inspired by the Chipotles and Qdobas of the world, and lends itself well to a successful scalable model. But clearly kabobs are not as easily understood by Americans as burritos or tacos so we run the risk of confusing people and potentially leading them to have a bad experience if they don’t use the “right” combination of ingredients for their order. Even a friend of ours who is of Pakistani background and is very familiar with this type of cuisine corroborated this point of view. Thanks Khalid :) What are your thoughts on this? Feel free to add your comments on this post!

Overall the survey results were extremely helpful and well-worth the time and investment. We hope to do more market research as we go along and look forward to sharing more insights with you. For now, we know we have a lot more work to do on developing the product and menu further, and need to make some tough decisions on how we want to position Saffron Grill. That’s where a strong chef comes in. Stay tuned in the coming weeks to learn more about our approach to finding the perfect chef!


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Doing our homework, part 2

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Of course doing your due diligence isn’t all fun and games. In addition to eating at various kabob restaurants, we have been working on drafting our own consumer survey to gather primary data on our target market and their eating habits. We constructed a series of questions that will hopefully provide us with key insights along the way. We are also using this as a gauge to validate our concept and hear what consumers think about the idea, the menu, the logo, the tagline, and other specifics. Our goal is to analyze the responses to make strong data-driven decisions as opposed to doing things on a whim or gut feeling. So how exactly are we collecting this data?

Well, it turns out the world of online consumer research is way more complicated than the basic Survey Monkey surveys we all created in college. We first looked into all the different vendors that paid a panel of consumers to take online surveys for market research purposes. We compared Market Tools, United Sample, The Sample Network, Affordable Samples, and Panel Speak. Their quotes ran from $1800 to $4700 to get 200 completed responses from people who fit the demographic and behavioral criteria we specified. We were initially shocked at the wide range and dug a bit deeper into the specific charges. It turned out that 50% of the costs came from programming the questions into a survey tool. Some companies have their own ‘proprietary technologies’ whereas others use vendors like Survey Gizmo, Zoomerang, QuestionPro, and even Survey Monkey. After evaluating the various licenses offered by these companies we realized that the market research vendors were charging a significant premium for the labor costs. So we decided to be scrappy… how hard could it be to program 50 questions into an online tool anyways?

Pretty hard. It took over 20 hours to figure out the QuestionPro system and get the sequence right. Since we wanted to use some advanced features like skip logic and branching it required several attempts to ensure we were asking the right questions to the right people. But in the end it was well worth it because I saved our team a couple hundred dollars and learned a skill that can be leveraged in the future, as we’ll likely want to do more consumer surveys as we launch. Now that the survey is programmed in QuestionPro, we are going to set it live in a few days and collect responses through United Sample. I look forward to sharing the results and insights with you all soon. In the meantime feel free to take the survey yourself and tell us what you really think! We’d really appreciate it and you’ll get a sneak peek into our menu and logo drafts. Just go to http://saffrongrill.questionpro.com – thanks!


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Doing our homework, part 1

"A small leak can sink a great ship." – Benjamin Franklin

Over the past few months we have been researching the restaurant industry to educate ourselves about the space and make note of macro trends. We’ve read a lot of books, articles, case studies, and business plans. We’ve interviewed numerous industry experts, restaurant owners, chefs, and even our friends. It’s amazing how much there is to absorb! But research comes in many shapes and forms and by far the best part of doing our homework has been trying out various restaurants that offer kabobs. While we’d like to think our concept is pretty unique, the truth is there are lots of similar restaurants we can learn from.

One such example is a fast-causal Mediterranean startup in New York that my friend Sophia told me about. Sophia is an Equity Research Analyst at Barclay’s Capital covering the restaurant space (by day), and a food connoisseur/critic (by night). She always knows about the best restaurants in the city and writes about them in her blog: http://restomanifesto.com. When we first heard about this startup, we were a bit disappointed that there was a restaurant that seemed so close in style and feel to our idea. But a closer look revealed that there was no mention of ‘kabob’ anywhere on their menu. While they had a similar ‘do-it-yourself’ approach, we were relieved to know their positioning was very different than what we envisioned for Saffron Grill. Plus if you look at the fast-casual Mexican restaurant space, there are several chains that are all very similar, yet successful in their own right (think Chipotle, Qdoba, Baja Fresh, Boloco, etc).

In any case, the last time I was in NY I knew I had to check this restaurant out for myself. Luckily I had my two awesome colleagues, Sara and Evan, to join me in conducting firsthand research! We all enjoyed the experience and it was amazing how similar to Chipotle it felt – from the rustic-modern décor to the black polo shirt uniforms. One thing I really liked was that their menu board was a digital screen rather than a static poster board. Sara pointed out (from her past experience working at corporate Chik-fil-A) that this was likely also more cost-effective in the long term because printing traditional signage is a lot more expensive than you would think. I also learned that the containers you serve your food in are just as important as the taste of the food itself – well, almost. I personally felt the food tasted okay but the containers made it seem even less enjoyable because they weren’t big enough to stir things around the way I like. While these are all seemingly trivial points, it was interesting to assess the restaurant from a critical standpoint and pay attention to the details that stand out to different consumers. After all, we will have to make each of these decisions at some point down the road, and the sum of all their parts will make a difference to our success.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Everything happens for a reason

No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently. -- Agnes DeMille

We heard back from the broker for the Comcast Center last week. He said he was very interested in our concept and wanted to get on the phone to learn more. We were a bit nervous because the broker would be joined by the director of the food court who has a reputation for being a bulldog. Luckily our senior advisor, a friend’s father who has significant restaurant experience and is investing in our startup, was able to join us on the call. Now I normally don’t get anxious about calls with my clients at Google, but selling your own idea is a whole other story. In any case, he grilled us but we were able to impress the director and he asked us to move forward with creating a ‘nickel package’ which is architectural lingo for a basic sketch of the construction to be done. The broker also mentioned that there were a few terms on the LOI that we would need to discuss further but that we were close to making a deal.

We were super excited about this outcome and began talking to general contractors and architectural firms to work on the drawings. After a few conversations we decided to move forward with one architect. But first we wanted to confirm with the Comcast Center broker that it made sense for us to invest significant dollars in these drawings since we last spoke. Little did we know that the broker had been aggressively pursuing a deal with another restaurant owner at the same time. We had heard rumors of this but didn’t put much weight in it because the space has been empty for nearly two years and it seemed more like a negotiation tactic on the broker’s part. To our dismay he told us that we should hold on the nickel package because they had signed an LOI with this other restaurant owner, and they have a two-week exclusive period to close the deal fully.

We tried to push back on this but it seems like they had a week’s edge on us and were able to get together their drawings and agree on terms more quickly. So all we can do is wait on this now and hope for the best. If for some reason their deal falls apart, we will have to be aggressive with moving forward. But it is more likely that they will close the deal so no we need to start back at square one. This felt like a setback for sure, but we believe that things happen for a reason and ultimately we will see the silver lining in the clouds. Perhaps the Comcast Center location wasn’t meant for us and this is a sign that we should keep looking elsewhere, which is just what we’ll do.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Shifting our mindset

I can accept failure, but I can't accept not trying. --Michael Jordan

Up until now we have been so set on Philadelphia and finding a standalone site that we didn’t really consider other options. So we spent some time recently driving through various parts of central New Jersey to see if we should look there. After all, there are several Chipotles scattered throughout and they seem to do well. But we quickly realized that it would be much more challenging to bring a new concept with no brand image to a suburban town than an urban city. We can’t expect people to drive several miles to try our restaurant in Jersey, whereas we know people are always looking for new places to eat as they walk around in the city. So we felt more conviction in our plan to find a site in Philadelphia, but we also decided to branch out and explore some food court locations.

So one stormy day, we fought the rain and wind to visit the food court in the Liberty Place, a building in Center City comprised of shops, offices, residences, and a Westin hotel. It was surprisingly busy for a rainy Saturday afternoon and we were excited when we heard from the Chick Fila cashier they serve 400-500 customers on an average weekday. We also saw a food court space in the new Comcast Center building, which is the tallest high-rise in all of Center City. It houses hundreds of Comcast offices with some shops and restaurants on the lower level. We are very excited about this one in particular because the rent is lower than the Liberty Place and the surrounding restaurants would all serve our brand image well.

We submitted a bid for both of these spaces the other day and are waiting anxiously to hear back from the landlords. Hopefully this shift in our approach yields more positive results. Either way, we know we have a long way to go and we just have to keep trying :)


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The city of brotherly love... not!

I just grabbed a spoon. -- Ross Gellar, Friends

This is a big project and we have a lot to learn before we can make it happen. At this point we have interviewed various chefs, restaurant owners, and industry experts to pick their brains about our concept. So far we have gotten very positive feedback on the idea and have acquired sufficient funding for an opening. We have worked hard to put together an initial business plan and are conducting a market research survey to gather more data. I’ll tell you more about all this later but for now our focus is finding a space for our restaurant.

We are in the process of working with real estate brokers to identify the perfect location. This is our biggest challenge right now as our team is based in Boston, MA but we are looking at sites in Philadelphia, PA. We chose the city of brotherly love as our first location because it is a major metropolitan city that suits our concept well, and the real estate costs are lower than other markets like New York or Boston. Plus, Amir and I know the neighborhoods well having gone to college at Penn and the three of us are all comfortable moving there when we open. Unfortunately, finding the perfect site within Philly is not as easy as we thought it would be.

We were very interested in a location on Penn’s campus that used to be a former bagel and sandwich shop. We saw this place with our first broker back in November, and he told us Penn wasn’t interested in our concept because they wanted to bring in another breakfast/bagel shop. Just recently we found out that Penn is moving forward with another restaurant that doesn’t specialize in breakfast and the deal is almost closed. This was very upsetting because our broker didn’t really vouch for us the way we had hoped and we weren’t as aggressive as we should have been. But we learned our lesson not to take no for an answer and keep checking in on locations we are interested in.

Another site on Penn’s campus was a brand new space on the ground floor of a residential building. It would have been the perfect size and location, but Penn told us the university doesn’t want another food unit there because there are already a few restaurants in the strip. We pushed back some more and the broker said he would let us know if they changed their mind. This was a bit of a bummer as well but perhaps there are some blessings in disguise as the block is extremely competitive and it would have been very expensive to build out the space for our restaurant.
The third site we were very excited about is a former burger shop in Center City. It seemed like prime real estate and it was fully fit out as a restaurant so the startup costs would be less. Of course the asking price per square foot was extremely high and we put in a bid for much less back in December. We weren’t so surprised when we didn’t hear back from the landlord on our LOI (letter of interest). However, we saw the space again in February with our new broker and this time the current tenant was there as well. This is the guy who owns the burger shop that went out of business and is still paying rent to the landlord. We figured this would be a great opportunity to strike a deal with the tenant to sublease the space from him, rather than negotiate with the landlord. Boy, were we wrong! This guy laughed at us when we said we had no previous experience and told us he would only sublet to someone already operating a few restaurants. It didn’t make sense to us because we thought he just cared about getting money and we could provide financial statements and a personal guarantee to him. But he refused to budge and told us it wouldn’t work out.

So much for the city of brotherly love, huh? This was the first taste of rejection due to our lack of experience and it was frustrating, but we know we will be dismissed many times down the road so it was a good reminder to experience it early on. At the end of the day, we can’t let these challenges get us down and we have to keep looking ahead for new opportunities.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

The journey begins...

Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it.

-- William Wallace, Braveheart

This is the story of three friends traveling the road of entrepreneurship. Do we have what it takes to run a successful business? Can we leverage our unique skill sets to thrive in an industry where we have little experience? Only time will tell...

Hi. My name is Artina Sheikh and I invite you to join us as we embark on this exciting adventure of opening our first restaurant 9 months from now. I hope to update this blog regularly to keep you in the loop and share lessons we learn along the way. I'd also love to hear from you if you have comments, questions, and especially suggestions.

Before I tell you more about the restaurant, let me introduce my team. Amir Memon currently works at a private equity firm in Boston, MA. He has experience in the worlds of finance and strategy/management consulting, but is always dreaming up new business ideas in his spare time. Saffron Grill is a product of his creative thinking and many late nights of ordering food in while at work, but more on that later. Amir graduated from the University of Pennsylvania which is where we met. As for me I am 23 years old and work in the online advertising industry. Amir and I got married 4 years ago and I’ve been pushing him to take this leap of faith ever since. I am incredibly excited that we are finally making a move and am confident that Amir can lead us to success in this venture.

Our third teammate is a Harvard alum Nick Pike, a friend of Amir’s, who brings a unique perspective to Saffron Grill. He embodies all of the characteristics of our target market and believes that our idea has legs. As you may have gathered by now the three of us have no firsthand experience in the restaurant industry, but we hope to bring an unmatched level of professionalism and business-savvy in running Saffron Grill.

So what exactly is Saffron Grill? I won’t be able to describe all the details of our concept just now, but our goal is to open a chain of fast-casual restaurants to share the world of kabobs with people. Kabobs come in various shapes and forms and span several ethnic cuisines, namely the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Mediterranean cultures. From our research we have seen most of these restaurants in the U.S. lack mass appeal or are too exclusive to the elite. We want to make kabobs accessible to the average American who is turned off by the hole-in-the-wall immigrant-run shop, and not looking to empty his/her pockets to experience the cuisine at a fine-dining restaurant. We want kabobs to be as convenient to enjoy as burgers, tacos, or pizza is today.