The backstory of the origin of the multinational restaurant chain, Nando’s, which specialises in flame-grilled PERi-PERi chicken and is celebrating 20 years in the UAE, has assumed mythical proportions across the globe and, at times, is shrouded in mystery.

Questions abound whether it started in the United Kingdom (UK), Portugal, South Africa, or the deepest, darkest PERi-PERi heartlands of Mozambique in southern Africa, which has a strong Portuguese influence.

The origin

Nando’s was started by Robert Brozin and Fernando Duarte in South Africa in 1987. The duo, who became lifelong friends, worked together at Robert’s father’s electronics business, where Fernando and Robert were technical and marketing managers, respectively. Fernando is from Porto, Portugal, and his family had emigrated to South Africa and had spent five years in Mozambique.

In 1987, Fernando took Robert to a chicken restaurant called Chickenland in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. Robert was so impressed with the restaurant’s flame-grilled chicken that he proposed they buy the restaurant. Though the financial odds were stacked against them, they managed to buy the eatery.

The restaurant was then named after Fernando, who is affectionately called Nando by his friends and family. Since inception, Nando's has adopted its mantra of not being just about the chicken. The bird, its staple on the menu, embodies the five core values — pride, passion, courage, integrity and family — that has made the brand grow organically across five continents over the past 35 years.

Celebrating 20 years in the UAE

Fernando and Robert, who were in Dubai last week to celebrate the momentous 20th anniversary of Nando’s in the UAE, were still wide-eyed since their first visit to the country.

“I’ve been coming to Dubai even before the Emirates Airline was launched in October 1985,” said Fernando while reflecting on those tumultuous years back home in South Africa.

Robert, a die-hard South African, put those troubled times in perspective. “South Africa was in the grips of change. It was a difficult time. It was a time where the future was beyond uncertain. And to start a business at that time was almost crazy. And yet we persisted. We started the business with a view that South Africa would come around."

“South Africa is a miracle country because it's got the most unbelievable people. The people of South Africa are just incredible people. And so, when we started, we backed the fact that South Africa would become a democratic country; for every South African, a new South Africa would emerge. The old nation would crumble, and a new South Africa would emerge. Then, Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990. That was a huge moment in world history. Later, we got our new constitution, the most inclusive and liberal in the world,” Robert said.

The global success

Nando’s global success is in no small measure due to the “amazing chemistry” of these two life-long friends, who “are made for each other, where the synergy of a common vision prevailed over commercial considerations”.

The articulate Robert, who complements a reticent Fernando, attributed the “immersive long journey to values that have bound us together for all these years”.

Meeting of great minds

Robert is quick to draw a parallel of the success of the Nando’s brand to the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. “His Highness has a vision of diversity. If you look at the vision of what’s happening in Dubai today, that reflects what was enshrined in our constitution…I’ve always felt a strong similarity between Mandela's vision and that of His Highness.”

He compared the UAE, a melting point of over 200 diverse nationalities, to his native South Africa, a rainbow nation that has 11 official languages. “Like the UAE, we believe everybody is welcome at Nando’s. Dubai has created an almost ideal world, where people from different backgrounds can work together to create a successful business. That was the vision of South Africa of bringing people together to create something better,” he added.

Fernando said the brand’s ethos “resonates particularly well in Dubai even though we first ventured in this region with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)”.

He added, “in retrospect, the KSA taught us lots about the Arabic culture while we were still a young brand. That was the time when we met Suhail (Gidwani), Chairman and CEO, Nando’s UAE. We clicked instantaneously as it was a meeting of minds and Suhail’s vision matched ours and a new relationship was forged.”

Robert felt that the brand had arrived when he was at the Heathrow International Airport in London in the early 1990s. “A Customs official asked me at the airport where I was employed? I said Nando’s. And he said to me which Nando's are you working at? I replied that I was working at Hounslow. He appeared rather excited to hear that."

“Our global resonance started in the UK even though we’re yet to expand into continental Europe,” he said.

Fernando jogged his memory to come up with a more homegrown experience. “One of the American diners came to our restaurants in Johannesburg and asked impatiently how long would it take us to serve a grilled chicken? And the Americans said to each other that these guys would never survive because there's no way that a customer would wait 27 minutes for a grilled chicken. I feel it was a huge learning curve and we worked on the time and brought it down significantly,” he said.

Rising up to challenges

Robert chimed at the daunting proposition.

“It's always a good challenge when your opposition says you're going to be out of business,” he said adding, “you never threaten an entrepreneur that you’d be out of business.”

Besides, several sceptics told them not to get into bottled sauces “as that was against the curve those days”. Yet today, Nando’s sauces feature in all major supermarkets where the restaurant brand has a presence.

Nando’s cheeky advertising, a social commentary of sorts and the uncanny ability of South Africans to laugh at themselves despite mounting challenges, has been a standout through the years across all markets.

Robert said, “Our cash crunch made us irreverent, and we tried to grab as many eyeballs as possible. Besides, in those days, there was no social media and only plain vanilla print, broadcast and outdoor advertising. “We needed to be cheeky, and we needed to stand out and we needed to be different. So, we needed the bang for our buck. We were up against our competitors that had big budgets and we needed to be different. It's a big factor in this day and age as well as amid the din. Content is still the king.”

Core competence is the key

Will Nando’s ever introduce fish in its menu?

Fernando said, “Nando’s is defined by its core competencies and plant-based chicken could be an option should we be able, through our new product development team, to develop a Nando’s quality option”.

He added, “Nando’s is a chicken brand. If we were to consider other protein products within our group, this would be a fresh concept. A lot of people still don’t know the history or pedigree of the PERi-PERi sauce. It’s a special chilly that’s grown in South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, which gives a zing to the sauce,” said Fernando.

Nando’s menu, at the end of the day, is all about “delightful, minor tweaks”. Fernando attributed it to local teams in each geography, which is “the final arbiter in tweaking our menu and that keeps on playing with fire,” adding, “we want to stay true to our core.”

No cookie-cutter feel

Robert echoed Fernando. “We’ve never been a cookie cutter chain. So, for example, every restaurant has got a different feel, every outlet has a different look. So, in the UK, we launched Mushy peas. Mushy peas are an English thing, but in South Africa nobody knows them like in the UAE, we launched Hummus, Pita Bread & PERi-PERi drizzle.

"We're always exploring, but never too far from the core. For instance, we have original art in our restaurants, and each of our outlets has a different design. We’ve got a program called the Nando’s Young Hot Designer Campaign, where we inspire young designers to come up with innovative ideas,” he said.

In 35 years of the brand’s journey, 1,200 stores in five continents are not an economy of scale because the ethos is all about “changing and touching people’s lives”.

And Dubai is at the epicentre of the brand’s astounding success across the globe, which Robert unequivocally acknowledged.

“Every time I come to Dubai; I'm blown away. I'm astounded. Dubai delivers what it promises. I've always come to Dubai and been inspired. When I leave Dubai, I leave inspired by the art of the possible,” he signed off.

Strong franchise partner adds heft to the iconic brand

Nando’s emergence as the largest premium casual dining restaurant chain in the UAE on the back of the raging Covid-19 challenge would not have been possible had it not been for Suhail Gidwani, Chairman & CEO, Nando’s UAE.

The understated Gidwani, who is affectionately called SG by his 500-odd employees, kept the faith in the brand going, when the going got tough because of the viral outbreak that disrupted the F&B (food & beverage) sector the most.

The publicity-shy SG has faith in his adopted homeland. He said, “During the pandemic, we believed in the UAE's ability to persevere and come out of a crisis unscathed. Our faith in our country’s leadership and their vision is paying rich dividends today.”

He added, “Looking back, we’ve organically grown with the city of Dubai and UAE over the last 20 years and delighted our customers. I’m confident that in the next 20 years we shall still be playing with fire and exceeding expectations.”

SG’s thoughts were echoed by George Kunnappally, Managing Director (MD), Nando’s UAE. “In all likelihood, with 20 restaurants employing 20 different nationalities across the UAE, 2022 will be our best year, since launching in Dubai 20 years ago, on all performance metrics,” he said.

He backed his assertions with data.

“For instance, we broke into the big league with flagship stores in The Dubai Mall and Mall of Emirates (MoE) in November 2019 and January 2020, respectively. We launched Espetada A Torre, which took Nando’s by storm. Ours is an XL version of the Espetada that our audience is accustomed to and was conceptualised by SG himself,” he added.

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