Appetite’s gourmet sandwiches can be bought from the shelves of 60 or so outlets over Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and feed an estimated 6,000 people every single day. But it all started with a simple demand – for a good sandwich.
A good sandwich
When husband and wife team Suzi Croft and Manar Al Jayouchi set out to discover a good off the shelf sandwich ten years ago, there were none to be had. So they decided to make and distribute them.
“Appetite started with the intention to fill a gap in the market for a really good sandwich. We wanted very good quality ingredients, and wanted to package it well,” says Croft.
Appetite’s very first order, dispatched on July 7th 2005, was worth AED 360. It was packed off to the cafeteria within ARN’s facilities.
The business model had undergone a few evolutions along the way. “The initial idea was to open a coffee shop, and supply gas stations with quality sandwiches from there. However, I realised what we needed wasn’t a coffee shop but a catering business," Jayouchi explains.
Crusts and challenges
Croft and Jayouchi didn’t immediately comprehend the ramifications of changing their business model. The enormity of the shift, however, soon became abundantly clear.
“We didn't really understand the new licensing issues, the need for limited liability, the need to put in a deposit. Back then, you actually physically had to put AED 300,000 in an account. We needed a local sponsor. And there were several other requirements, such as a minimum kitchen size to get a DED license, ” Jayouchi recalls.
But the biggest challenge, Jayouchi and Croft agree, was in getting the right human resources. “The food business requires people with a lot of passion. But historically in the UAE, it's been a very lowly paid profession, except for five star hotel chefs. And why would an experienced chef want to come and work in a small business in Al Qusais?” he adds.
A lack of talented manpower meant Croft became a one-person army fighting the war of perfect sandwich making. “I was basically the chef, the cleaner, the cook, the sandwich maker, the jar opener - I did every single job. The trick was to find someone with the right work ethic, and teach them how to do it. That's how it began. It was very simple, with simple steps written down.”
A secret recipe
There’s a lot that goes into a quality sandwich.
“The first step is the bread. It starts with getting a supplier who works with you and understandings your requirements, and knows you're not going to settle for less. Then figure out where you can get the best ingredients and produce. We really try and use excellent quality local produce, but will use imports where needed,” Croft explains.
Then there is the carefully guarded secret ingredient that guarantees success. “The secret is that there is no secret. There’s no magic sauce being made at 2 a.m. under the light of the moon. We pride ourselves on family ethics, and recognise the brand is linked to us. We won't cut corners because it would reflect badly on us,” says Jayouchi.
Croft concurs. “We don't scrimp on ingredients. People still ask us why we don't substitute cheaper ingredients, say for instance in terms of the cream cheese we use. Our answer is simple: we blind taste test the new and old side by side. Whichever wins is the one we go with, cost notwithstanding.”
Patience is the final garnish in this non-secret recipe. "Our operations have only really become commercially viable the last two or three years. We just kept putting the work and money in the first seven years. Persistence is key. And we always tell ourselves that we're on the verge of a good sandwich, that we're neither great nor perfect. Whenever you put yourself under constant scrutiny, you get better,” says Jayouchi.
The business of margins
Appetite’s in a high volume, low margin business. “The UAE is a funny market for food. On the one hand, there are very low cost options for blue collar workers. But on the other, sandwich and business lunches prices are higher than in Europe,” says Jayouchi.
Part of the problem is Dubai’s hidden costs and the overheads of importing fresh produce. Then there’s always the need to stay ahead of the curve. “For instance, we’re always importing in packaging that no one else is using to stay ahead of the market. And that adds to expenses,” he says.
1762 - The Earl of Sandwich
In 2009, Appetite’s dynamic duo started toying with the idea of taking control of their retail through a line of Appetite shops. That plan was eventually shelved. But the germ of the idea catalysed a new business - the 1762 line of delis.
Named in honour of the year the eponymous Earl of Sandwich slapped a bit of meat between two slices of bread, 1762 brings Appetite's expertise in sandwiches, salads and hot soups to a chic deli environment.
“There's so much more you can do in terms of flavours and fillings when sandwiches are being made to be eaten on the spot, and we don't have to worry about shelf storage,” Croft explains.
1762 has opened shop in DIFC and JAFZA, and carpenters are busy hammering away within a third deli set to open in Media City.
By 2015, Appetite will have a 200-strong team working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And deli chain 1762 looks poised for an international push. “1762 has generated a lot of excitement - we've had franchising offers from London and New York. We're also emphasising our higher end canapé catering menu under the 1762 brand,” says Jayouchi.
The once discarded idea of Appetite retail shops is also being dusted off. It seems easy running now, but wasn’t always so. Croft is adamant that entrepreneurs be passionate about what they’re getting into, because business is far more strenuous than a job.
“You have to be certain you're getting into something you love, and are passionate about, because it's not just a nine to five job. It helps if you have some financial security because you won't have any income coming through the first year or so. And get fantastic staff on board. That's critical, but also the hardest thing to do,” she says.