One of the most common sights across Manila and its surrounds is the large, smiling red bee logo of the hugely popular Philippines’ fast-food chain Jollibee.
With it being so beloved of the locals, it was only natural that this country should pick up on the chance to give the large number of Filipinos living here a taste of home.
“The Filipino population is largely the face of the service industry here in Dubai,” says Hisham Al Gurg, the chief executive of the Private Office of Sheikh Saeed Bin Ahmad Al Maktoum, and the chief investor in the Jollibee franchise in the UAE.
“When you arrive at the airport, or at the hotels, theirs are the first smiles you see. If we can return those smiles, that’s a great thing,” he says.
Now, in partnership with Jollibee, he is expanding the Philippines’ favourite restaurant chain in the UAE, building on the success of the first store that opened in Dubai Mall in May last year. That was followed by the opening of its outlet at Mall of the Emirates late last month. And, he says, among the most important considerations are location, location and location.
“Close enough isn’t good enough,” he says, adding that the right location determines the restaurant’s success.
Mr Al Gurg says this is so critical, in fact, that he and Jollibee have been searching for the right location in Abu Dhabi for more than a year. Fortunately, the team has now identified the perfect plot and the announcement will be public fairly soon.
“After that, we will be looking into Sharjah and Ajman. We want to cover all the big cities first – this is where the majority of our customers are,” Mr Al Gurg adds. “An F&B [food and beverage] venture is a 10 to 15-year investment, so you shouldn’t just jump into it. You need to study, get advice, and make the right choices.”
Established in 1978, headquartered in Pasig City, in Metro Manila, the brand is among the most loved in the Asian world.
With two diners already open in the UAE, the partnership has another restaurant expected to open at BurJuman mall this month and another four in the pipeline. “It’s an underserved market,” Mr Al Gurg says.
“We see a lot of other populations being well served, such as the Indian population, but not the Filipino population.”
Key to the brand’s success is taste and quality, and Mr Al Gurg collaborates closely with its joint-venture partner Jollibee Food Corporation to ensure that these characteristics are on par with Jollibee stores in the Philippines. By combining a number of ingredients from Jollibee’s home country with local ingredients that possess a shorter shelf-life, such as meat and produce, Mr Al Gurg says they have found the right recipe that is also in tune with the local palate.
It seems the approach is paying off. “When the Dubai Mall first opened the store, we needed to call in some friendly crowd control to maintain order in the queues,” he says. And although the vast majority of the visitors were loyal followers from the Philippines, he says he was inspired by the number of other nationalities that queued up.
While this is Mr Al Gurg’s first F&B venture, his wealth of experience in business and unwavering enthusiasm are clear.
He has a thorough understanding of foreign investment and also appreciates cultural differences, having studied in Texas as a young Emirati where he learned about business and really started to develop a taste for entrepreneurialism. He emphasises two key components to running a successful business. First is the importance of planning. “Most of the failure in business happens during the planning. People horribly underestimate the importance of this phase,” he says.
“If you think you know your audience, you don’t. You need to know more. You need to test, test and test again. You can’t just take a successful formula and assume it will work anywhere.”
Forgetting all assumptions is vital, says Mr Al Gurg, who has spent long months researching the market here in the UAE to ensure that the Jollibee venture will have the best chance of success.
Second is the need for continued validation through research: “Most people do surveys and focus groups, but I find these quite old fashioned,” says Mr Al Gurg.
“They’re not really relevant anymore,” he feels. “You need to get into direct conversations with customers. I love going to Jollibee stores and talking with the customers, without giving them the knowledge that I’m an investor. It’s absolutely suicidal to not prepare yourself for the local market in this way.”
He also cites the importance of working with partners who complement your knowledge and skills.
“If I could speak to my younger self now, I’d tell myself to be less theoretical and be more practical instead,” he says.
“Find someone that knows everything about what you’re interested in. I was tempted with good ideas at the time I believed I could follow through on my own, but instead, the best thing to do is to find someone who knows more than you and learn from them,” he says. “Mentorship is critically important.”
And with that outlook, it is only a matter of time before the capital is buzzing with anticipation of the next Jollibee opening.
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