The Spicy Pickle sandwich chain is joining a growing list of U.S.-based restaurant brands expanding to the Middle East.
The fast-casual chain based in Denver said Monday it has signed a letter of intent with a franchise group that plans to open seven locations in Qatar, marking the chain’s first move outside North America.
Spicy Pickle operates and franchises 34 locations of its namesake brand across the U.S., as well as 14 bistro café restaurants under the BG Urban Café brand in Canada, which was formerly called Bread Garden Bakery Café.
This summer, the company also completed franchise disclosure filings to expand the Spicy Pickle brand in Canada, and is looking elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia for growth opportunities, said Peter Wright, the company’s chief development officer.
The first Middle Eastern Spicy Pickle restaurant is scheduled to open in Doha, Qatar, in April 2012, the company said. Franchisee Food Fabulous WLL is a new company operated by principals Salma Maher and Hanan El Basha.
“We are very fortunate to have found really great partners to launch our Middle East expansion plans. We have been working diligently for the last year preparing for this exciting growth opportunity,” Mark Laramie, Spicy Pickle’s chief executive, said in a statement.
“This part of the Middle East, particularly Qatar, is a great place for Spicy Pickle’s expansion,” he added. “We expect our development there to accelerate existing interest in the surrounding region.”
The company noted a positive outlook projected for Qatar over the next decade, including strong economic growth and the FIFA World Cup scheduled there in 2022.
Qatar is the wealthiest state in the Gulf region in terms of per capital GDP, and has made significant progress in the food-and-beverage sector, Maher said.
“Many believe Qatar could challenge the United Arab Emirates, especially Dubai, as the Gulf region’s most exciting consumer market,” she added.
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Wright said the Middle East is attractive to U.S. brands in part because diners there have a high acceptance of U.S. brands and “we’re bringing in food choices that are not widely available.”
The proliferation of U.S.-based restaurant chains there has also boosted the availability of suppliers and equipment, Wright said.
Other restaurant chains that have opened in the Middle East recently, or announced plans to, include Darden Restaurants, which opened a Red Lobster restaurant in Dubai this summer; and IHOP, which earlier this year said it will open 40 units in the region .
Other brands expanding there include The Cheesecake Factory, Smashburger , Elevation Burger, Top That! Pizza, Fatburger, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Ponderosa and Dixie Cream Donut Co.
Spicy Pickle, a publicly traded Pink Sheet company, is also looking to expand domestically, Wright said.
Since spring 2010, the chain has been working on initiatives to revitalize the brand, including a new décor package, an updated menu, and the addition of catering and online ordering.
In May, the chain opened its first new prototype location in Houston, Texas, and four others have opened in recent months, Wright said.
Spicy Pickle currently operates in 12 states west of the Mississippi River, and Wright said the company is in talks with multi-unit franchisees to grow the brand on the East Coast.