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naf naf team Ron Ruggless
From Hot Concepts in 2016, from left: David Sloan, Sahar Sander, Justin Halpenny and Elan Burger.

Naf Naf Grill founder dies at 47

Sahar Sander instilled passion into growing Middle Eastern fast-casual concept

Sahar Sander, co-founder of the Chicago-based Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill concept, died June 1 of a heart attack. He was 47.

Sander and Elan Burger, now Naf Naf’s vice president of facilities, opened the forerunner to the fast-casual Naf Naf Grill in 2008, in suburban Naperville, Ill., in a worn-down, 1,200-square-foot building that formerly housed a Taco Bell restaurant.

The Middle Eastern menu of housemade pita, shawarma and falafel drew fans and the attention of David Sloan, who would later serve as co-CEO of Naf Naf with Sander.

They pared down the menu and relaunched the brand as Naf Naf Grill, expanding from downtown Chicago to Minneapolis and Madison, Wis.

Naf Naf now has 39 units in seven states and the District of Columbia. The brand was named a Nation’s Restaurant News Hot Concept in 2016, and Sander and Sloan were named to the NRN Power List in 2017.

“Sahar was an incredible guy and a strong influence in how the Naf brand was created,” said Paul Damico, who took over as Naf Naf CEO last June, in a statement. “We feel responsibility to take what he built, and for me personally, to grow this brand across the country in his honor. He will greatly be missed.” 

Atlanta-based private-equity firm Roark Capital Group invested in Naf Naf in June 2015, when the chain had 13 units.

Geoff Hill, managing director of Roark Capital, said, “Sahar had a tremendous spirit and passion about his Middle Eastern culture and food. He was a great partner to Roark and the original investors in welcoming Paul Damico and the team to take the Naf Naf brand to the next level. We extend our deepest sympathies to Sahar’s family during this difficult time.” 

Sander is survived by his daughters, Gabrielle and Elya Sander, as well as his parents and two siblings. 

Sander was born Jan. 16, 1971, in Israel. Services were held Sunday in Skokie, Ill. Interment was to be in Israel. 

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

Correction: August 27, 2018
This story's caption has been edited to correct the name of Justin Halpenny.
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