SME profile: Foodie’s huge appetite for growth

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Nasser Zuhour, a Palestinian-Jordanian restaurant owner, has always had a passion for food.

He used to organise catering for house parties, weddings and other events. He even used to check into hotels just to try the food and beverages of their mini-bars, room service and restaurants.

After completing a hotel management degree in Switzerland in 2003 and working in the family business – trading stocks and investing in real estate – for about four years, his passion for food drove him to open his first restaurant in 2007. He set up Mezza House, a Levantine eatery, in Downtown Dubai in a construction area that has since become affluent.

“Everyone was doing Lebanese restaurants, so I thought, ‘OK Lebanese food is great, but there are a lot of delicacies from Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Aleppo, Egypt and Iraq’,” recalls the 37-year old founder of Zuhour Group and the owner of Mezza House and Zaroob in Dubai.


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To create a menu for Mezza House, Mr Zuhour travelled all over the Levant region to gather recipes from seasoned chefs to produce an eclectic menu with Levantine dishes.

“People would want to eat a Lebanese hummus, but a Syrian yalengi as well,” he said.

It took him two years to turn Mezza House into a profitable business. Initially a 60-seat restaurant, it has since expanded to having 350 seats.

Mezza House’s success spurred Mr Zuhour to open Zaroob, another Levantine restaurant, on Sheikh Zayed Road in 2010.

He had wanted to open a second Mezza House and call it Mezza Express, but he realised that Dubai lacked street food. And so Mr Zuhour’s idea of Zaroob (alleyway in Arabic) came into being.

“So what we wanted to do is upscale street food to the next level,” he says. “When you go to Syria or Lebanon, it is all about street food. People crave this. People run after this, to see the small Mannoushe place and take the Zaatar from him.”

Once again Mr Zuhour travelled around the region and sampled street food to come up with the menu for Zaroob, which turned profitable in 2011.

Thanks to his restaurants’ annual revenue growth of between 7 and 9 per cent, he is now embarking on an ambitious expansion programme.

He is opening five Zaroob outlets in Dubai and Sharjah by the end of the year and another Mezza House in the second quarter of next year in Dubai. He may venture into Abu Dhabi next year.

Mr Zuhour is also launching two food trucks, joining the new trend of mobile eateries which have become common at events in Dubai. “We have two food trucks, one is Zaroob and the second is a new, crazy concept I am working on. It’s a concept based on guilt food, ‘Oh my God, I ate a burger, oh my God I had a pudding’,” he says.

The food lover is also in talks with potential business partners and companies to set up joint ventures or franchises in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Australia.

“We want to do it properly,” says Mr Zuhour. “We want to be completely ready with the documentation and the process to sell the franchise, and make sure it is profitable for our operators outside the UAE.”

He says his company’s success has turned into a Dh150 million concern. Even so, Mr Zuhour aims to increase its value to Dh400 million by 2018 with the help of a private equity partner or an initial public offering.

“I’m so attached to my brand and so attached to my restaurants. They are like my big babies,” he says. “So I will sell a small percentage to be able to grow more.”

To fund his restaurants’ expansion, the entrepreneur will use his company’s cash for half of the financing and bank loans for the rest.

“The first time, it was a disaster,” Mr Zuhour says of his initial efforts to secure bank loans. “It took us six months to get the money. The second time was much easier, and the third time it took two weeks.”

Besides difficulties with securing loans, he also faced increasing set-up costs and wages for staff, who were hard to retain at times. Furthermore, the rise of new developments and shopping centres, which bring with them more competitors, is also putting pressure on his restaurants.

Rental costs also remain an issue despite the decline in property prices and rents in Dubai.

“It is really a tough business – building the system, how to have a hummus plate that every day tastes the same,” says Mr Zuhour. “It is not easy.”

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