Founder of Shish Shawerma eyes expansion outside the UAE

Hazem Abu Hantash banks on success of his home-grown concept

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - October 28th, 2017: Shish Shawerma shops founder Hazem Abu Hantash. Saturday, October 28th, 2017 at Corniche, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Back when Hazem Abu Hantash spotted the perfect location for the restaurant he dreamed of opening, he had no experience in the food and beverage industry, nor did he have a concept.

The space was in the sought­after building beside where he lived and he found it hard to believe it would be available. Yet when the 40-year-old lawyer from Amman checked with the landlord the next day, it was free, and before he knew it he had written a deposit cheque for the rent. 

It took eight months to come up with the concept for Shish Shawerma, and he opened the  first, bright orange location in Khalidiya, Corniche side, in August 2011. He chose that colour because he wanted something "fresh".

Six Abu Dhabi shops later,  he is planning a seventh outlet to open at Bawabat Al Sharq Mall in Bani Yas on January 18. There is also an international expansion plan in the works.

He is looking look at locations for the first Shish Shawerma in Saudi Arabia, while the first shop in Muscat is due to open December 17. 

“Usually the most common shops are bringing foreign franchises from outside the UAE to the local market, but what we are trying to do instead is to take our brand, which we created in Abu Dhabi, outside the UAE,” he says.

“We are very proud that Shish Shawerma is an original UAE concept, which will hopefully expand outside its borders and spread worldwide.”

The fact that he didn't know anything about the restaurant business did not deter Mr Abu Hantash from getting into it. One of his best friends was also a secret industry asset. Danny Kattar is a long-time, well-known chef who is now director of food and beverage at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi. On an informal basis, Mr Kattar continues to help Mr Abu Hantash behind the scenes.

"From time to time[when] we want to introduce a new pro­duct, definitely I consult with him," says Mr Abu Hantash. "The first testing was under his supervision, so he helped in the menu creation and also he helped in the creation of certain items on the menu."

One of the reasons people crowd into Shish Shawerma locations dotted around the capital is the delicious, fresh-out-of-the-oven bread, which is baked in the outlets. In addition to the signature sandwich, the menu offers an assortment of fresh salads, mixed grill and barbecue. 

Mr Abu Hantash believes in the concept of a bright and open kitchen, where customers can see the high hygiene standards for themselves as staff continually clean the premises. Such an operation is another reason for Shish Shawerma's success. 

Mr Abu Hantash personally owns two outlets, including the original one, as well as a central kitchen that caters to the franchises.

He has continued to oversee all the Shish Shawerma shops in Abu Dhabi as he says "we are deeply involved in everything in the operation." He has also partnered with the US franchising speciality firm Francorp Middle East to ensure the same standards are applied in any new shops that open outside the UAE. 

Finding the right contractor, with experience in food and beverage, has been one of his two biggest challenges so far, says Mr Abu Hantash. The second challenge is getting the design of each restaurant just right so that everything runs smoothly when the operation launches. 

"The design of the shops, including the furniture, the chairs, the tables, the counters...this is more difficult to come with the final design," he says. "Say you make a mistake, it becomes a huge issue once you start an operation."

Mr Abu Hantash knew he was on to a good idea when the number of customers began increasing at a higher pace than he had expected, since he had opened his shop in the last days of Ramadan in 2011. 

With success has come another challenge in the form of would-be competitors poaching his managers, concept, design and menu. 

“This is the challenge we have, in order to be a little bit better than others and to work hard and to distinguish our product and service, it’s as simple as that…any successful business they think it’s easy to copy and start generating money,” he says. 

Mr Abu Hantash, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 2004 from Amman, has not quit his day job working for a British firm in corporate and commercial law.

He jokes that in addition to “defending shawerma rights” he would need 20 franchises before he would consider quitting. 

"I'm really happy with my law career and this is something that I love and will always love. But this business is something different, it is more like a dream coming true. And I believe that they do not contradict each other," he says.

After six years in the business, he has definitely learnt his way around the food and beverage industry and doesn’t regret jumping in with both feet.  

“Again, it is a matter of passion; you don’t need to be a super chef or an industry expert to love food,” he says. 


Can you describe your first steps in making the business a reality?

The moment I was feeling that my business was turning into reality was when I found the location of the shop, set out the main items in the menu, and when I started to contact designers and contractors.

What challenges did you face in the beginning? What challenges arose that you did not foresee?

Finding the right location was the first challenge that I faced, after that when we started dealing with the designer, contractors, deadlines there was a bit of a problem. In fact it took us around a year between decorations, creating the branding, hiring the right employees and food testing, which is more than what was expected. On top of that, I had no experience in this area, in particular for the fit-out work and in food and beverage. In the beginning I did make too many mistakes but in time I rectified them and learned many lessons.

What elements do you think a new business needs to be successful?

All businesses have risks and challenges.  A business is always associated with risk, but the most important thing is believing in making an identity of your own. Having this passion will always help you to overcome any difficulties that you may face and will eventually lead you to success. But to be more specific in this field, studying the market and looking at people’s needs play s an important role in one’s success. People always like to see and experience new ideas, however it is crucial to maintain the good experience and develop it and take it to the next level.

Where do you see the business in five years?

So far Shish Shawerma is building up a very good reputation locally, and within the next five years we are looking forward to expanding our brand to our neighbouring countries and a bit further by maintaining our quality, if not improving it. Very soon a Shish Shawerma will open in Muscat (Oman) and this is our first step outside the borders of the UAE.

What’s your advice to anyone hoping to launch a business?

Believe in it, do your homework really well by studying the market and never give up and bring the right resources to assist you in achieving your goals and targets. I believe it is all about management! How to manage a project.

What skills have you learned in becoming an entrepreneur?

This business was a totally a new concept/thing compared to my study and career, so during the past six years every day was like a new lesson for me, from the start of creating the concept to dealing with customers to working on improving, and maintaining what we have and also the expansion plans.

What inspired you?

Inspiration is everywhere but I’m inspired by risk. Starting something I have no idea how to finish, witnessing people go for something new. I am also inspired when I see a successful people and their with successful stories.