When Greg Willman signed on as a franchisee for Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill in 2019, the brand had everything going for it. With similarities to fast-casual Mediterranean concepts like CAVA, it occupied one of the most exciting corners of the restaurant industry. It also counted Roark Capital — the Atlanta-based private-equity firm with stakes in businesses like Inspire Brands and FOCUS Brands — as a minority owner.
Willman opened his first location in March 2020 — and then everything seemed to come crashing down with COVID-19. But as the brand’s first franchisee and having the experience of being open during the early days of the pandemic, Willman was eventually invited to become the CEO of Naf Naf and later was part of a group that acquired the chain, buying out Roark in early 2021.
Willman joined the latest episode of Take-Away with Sam Oches to talk about how his experience as a franchisee is guiding his time as CEO and why he thinks the fast-casual Middle Eastern and Mediterranean category of today looks a lot like the fast-casual Mexican category of 1998.
In this conversation, you’ll learn why:
- Understanding both sides of the franchisee-franchisor relationship is a major asset for a brand leader
- Fast-casual Mediterranean and Middle Eastern still have incredible growth potential
- Brands with more unfamiliar cuisines should lead with whatever generates trial
- When it comes to growth, fish where you’ve caught fish before
- Delivery/carryout locations may be better suited for brands that are embedded in a market
- Getting from store 1 to 100 is hard — don’t try to speed through it
Contact Sam Oches at [email protected].