Entrepreneur Mahmoud Bartawi is the co-founder of healthy cafe concept Under500, which began in 2016 and currently has three Dubai outlets with plans for rapid global expansion through franchising. Until recently, the Emirati, 33, worked as a corporate banker and previously managed the family firm, Bartawi General Contracting Company. Mr Bartawi is a father of three daughters, a seven-year-old, and twins aged eight. A fitness fan, he lives in Umm Suqeim, Dubai. Here, he talks to The National about his venture.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I grew up in a mansion in Jumeirah with four siblings. We lived on the beach. In the early ‘60s my late father established a construction company that employed 5,500 at one point. My parents split when I was seven. Although financially sound, dad raised us to be humble, only providing us with what we needed. We were brought up with the mentality that his money was his, and we had to work for our own. I never had disposable income. My father taught us to work and study hard. Every summer, while my friends were on vacation, dad would take us along to his construction company where we had to do rotations in the carpentry section, steel etc. We all received minimum pocket money until university; after that I had to earn my money. Being a self-made man, it was important to my father to instill the values of hard work and a modest lifestyle in our home.
How much were you paid in your first job?
In my second year of a business degree at the American University of Sharjah, I took a part-time job as a call centre agent in HSBC that paid Dh2,800 a month. I then took a loan out to buy my first car, a Nissan Altima.
What prompted you to move into the restaurant business from corporate banking?
I grew up with a love for numbers. I had always studied finance and enjoyed working in the banking sector. However, I was never satisfied with the promotions I got; I always felt I could contribute more. It became evident that my growth was hindered, and the only way was to branch out and start my own business. The F&B industry seemed attractive because it was customer focused, dynamic and challenging. I was always a firm believer that for one to grow, one must innovate, learn, listen and adapt to change. Now every day is a challenge; you learn something new which makes it exciting and thrilling to come to work.
What inspired you to create Under500?
As a teenager I always tried to eat healthily, workout and live a healthy lifestyle. Available options for healthy food in the market were limited and not tasty. I noticed a gap in this industry. I was always looking for a quick thing to eat (while working in banking) and all I found was sandwiches, which are processed. We were looking for something cooked on the spot, tasty but also healthy. I enjoy the experience of eating with friends and family. I always wanted to start my own company, something I was passionate about, especially having my father as a role model of a highly successful businessman. With my previous financial, business and managerial background and experience, and savings, I thought it was the right moment to take the calculated risk and follow my dreams.
Are you a saver or a spender?
Both. I saved in order to invest, and my biggest investment to date is Under500. It is extremely important [in the company] to spend on research and development, training and education.
Has it been tough convincing people to eat healthily?
We are trying to give customers the opportunity to lead a healthier lifestyle by providing them with balanced tasty meals, and encouraging them to exercise. Residents are educated and aware of obesity rates. Globally there’s a growing trend towards healthier, cleaner food and ingredients. We’re developing an app, a loyalty programme, to offer people the opportunity to get free classes, giving back to them in a healthier lifestyle way. We also sponsored the du Tough Mudder obstacle course sports event, to showcase our name.
Do you eat in your own outlets?
Of course; I love the chicken burrito bowl, which happens to be our best seller. The kids love the edamame and the brownies.
Are you wise with money?
With a heavy financial background I would say that I am. I spend where I need to and save in order to invest. I was able to create Under500 by applying my expertise. Being an entrepreneur is about taking calculated risks - and that comes with anything in life.
Where do you save?
In a current account. I have cash saved, for another investment opportunity. I also own shares in the family business, Bartawi General Contracting Company.
What is your best investment?
Under500, because my heart and soul was put into creating this brand [with Egyptian co-founder Fadi Ghaly].
What is your philosophy towards money?
Money is not the end goal but a means to an end. The end is doing what makes you happy and in today’s world financial freedom is crucial to being able to manoeuvre into your happy place. Money is ultimately energy. Doing something that you are passionate about brings about happiness; that’s why successful people don’t quit when times get tough, because they were never in it for the money to begin with.
What is your most cherished purchase?
There is nothing material that I have purchased that I still cherish because it is only temporary. What I cherish the most are things money can’t buy, such as my relationships with people that I love.
What do you enjoy spending money on?
It is important to spend on experiences such as travel; travelling gives us a new perspective and an appreciation for what we already have. I like to spend on education, books. I read a lot. The most recent one that I read, and enjoyed, was Jordan Belfort's Way of the Wolf. I spend on my children as well and fitness.
What have been your key financial milestones?
Paying for my Masters in international business, starting Under500 and buying my first car.
Do you prefer paying in cash or by credit card?
Credit card. I pay it off every month and take advantage of the points, cash back or air miles.
Do you plan for the future?
Having a successful business is all about a strong vision and planning. Our objective is to achieve 50 stores in five years; we already signed to open 20 branches in Saudi Arabia and we have other markets in the pipeline, such as the UK. I am still young, and passionate about the company. We still have a long way to go, with a lot of learning to do. Our vision is to see all UAE citizens leading healthy lifestyles by eating healthily, exercising and feeling good; it’s very important, for a nation to move forward and for it to be sustainable.
What would you raid your savings for?
To give my kids the chance to do anything they want - but not enough to do nothing at all.