Naf Naf Grill named Paul Damico as the chain’s new CEO on Monday.
Damico, a former executive with Moe’s Southwest Grill and with Focus Brands, replaces David Sloan and Sahar Sander, who had cofounded the Middle Eastern concept and grew it to 29 locations. Sloan will leave the company after spending some time as a special adviser. Sander will remain with the company as its chief culinary officer.
“It’s very authentic Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine,” Damico said in an interview. “There are not a lot of concepts out there like it. This concept could grow from 29 today into the hundreds.”
“That’s my role,” he added, “to take what Sahar and David, the co-CEOs, have done here and take that to the next level.”
Damico is a 30-year industry veteran and helped Moe’s more than double in size, from 300 locations to its expected 700th location later this month.
The private-equity firm Roark Capital Group invested in Naf Naf in 2015. It also owns both Moe’s and Focus Brands.
Naf Naf Grill is an eight-year-old chain out of Chicago. It was a 2016 Nation’s Restaurant News Hot Concept award winner.
“Paul is a strong, experienced leader with a solid track record of growing high-performance restaurant brands,” Gary Beisler, Naf Naf Grill’s chairman and the former CEO of Qdoba, said in a statement. “His knowledge of franchising and restaurant operations will bode well for Naf Naf Grill, which is clearly emerging as a leader in the untapped Middle Eastern fast-casual sector.”
Franchising is playing a role in the hiring of Damico — Focus Brands is a largely franchised owner of several brands, including Moe’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, McAlister’s Deli and Aunti Anne’s.
Damico said Naf Naf will continue building company-operated units, but it will spend the rest of the year building the foundation for a franchised business, including hiring and submitting the proper documents.
“For franchisees out there that have the experience and capital and want to diversify their portfolio, this fits right in,” Damico said.
He said the concept is simple, which works for both franchising and for fast-casual concepts. “What drives successful franchisees is simple, back-of-house operations,” he said.
He said there are no “immediate plans” to expand the brand internationally but, “Once we get word out and start marketing as a franchisable concept, there will be interest. But it’s not on our radar right now.”
Damico said the immediate goal is to grow the brand “concentrically,” in and out of existing markets Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia and New Jersey. He said the chain has “legs to play” in both suburban and urban markets, as well as in nontraditional locations like airports.
He said the company could also work in places like New York, Washington DC and Miami, which he called “key markets we’re going to start to look at.”
“The concept is clearly on trend,” he said, adding that there are no plans to change the menu — though he suggested that limited time offers and perhaps lamb could be added in the future.
“Sahar and David grew this thing from the first store,” Damico added. “They grew the team, the culture and developed a consumer following, and they did an amazing job.
“Now it’s time to bring someone in who has taken something from 250 locations to 700 and has grown hundreds of stores. That’s what I believe.”
Update, June 19, 2017: This story has been updated with quotes from Paul Damico.
Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]
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