Dubai: Although Waleed Al Hajj is now considered a veteran restaurateur, this UAE-based Saudi national got his first big break in food entrepreneurship nearly two decades ago.
Al-Hajj, who moved to Dubai in 2007, recalls, “I think I found this disconnect with the people who have been running the Cinnabon brand about 20 years ago. While I was part of a family food business, I had never run a restaurant or franchise.”
Aside from Cinnabon, El Hajj’s experience in operating food services and related businesses stems from starting several other popular restaurant franchises in the area, including Zaatar W Zeit, Carvel, Seattle’s Best Coffee and Five Guys.
I think I found my first big break with the people running the Cinnabon brand about 20 years ago
– Walid Al-Hajj
100 restaurant chains, employing more than 3000
Al Hajj demonstrated entrepreneurial acumen when he started Cravia in 2001, because since then the Dubai-based franchise operator has added to its portfolio more than 100 restaurant chains in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, employing more than 3,000 employees.
However, Hajj sold a majority stake in Cravia to the private equity firm in 2016, relinquishing executive positions at the helm of the operation, while retaining the role of founder. He later co-launched Saudi Arabia-based cloud kitchen company Kitch and Dubai-based Lavoya Group in 2020.
What are Cloud Kitchens?
Also often referred to as ghost kitchens or dark kitchens, cloud kitchens are essentially delivery-only restaurants. They offer restaurants, cafes and other food retailers a space to prepare food without eating facilities.
“When I sold my business 6 years ago, I thought of early retirement from my day job. I tried it for a little over a year and hated it. Being involved in building a restaurant business is in my blood now, and I got a huge boost from it,” Hajj revealed.
Hajj is now preparing to expand his restaurant franchises including international juice brand Joe & the Juice, American fast food chain Dave’s Hot Chicken and 45-year-old Lebanese street food group Barbar. However, shortly before his entrepreneurial venture, he took a short stint in brand management for a conglomerate.
Managing a shampoo brand before entrepreneurship
“I worked with Procter & Gamble for a few years after college and was dealing with the Head & Shoulders shampoo brand in Saudi Arabia. I worked on a project that involved changing the shampoo bottle cap to save roughly 50 cents on each item. The total savings over the course of the year, Al Hajj said. A few years it was millions of dollars because of the size – and that was big at the time.
“The two lessons I learned from these experiences are: first, any small savings is important, second, size is essential to success in business. I think the latter has become a pillar in my mind when I think of any business. The potential scalability of the business idea has become the deciding factor in seizing any business. A new opportunity for me.”
Apart from being a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble for two years, he has also held the position of Vice President of Operations for his family business, United Group, in Saudi Arabia. Waleed is married with three children. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School in the United States, and a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia.
The potential scalability of the business idea became the deciding factor in seizing any new opportunity for me
– Walid Al-Hajj
Growing years before taking on entrepreneurial roles
“My childhood was simple. The only memory that sticks in my mind all the time is accompanying my father on his new business 40 years ago. My vision of how to build something from very humble beginnings to making it an essential business I believe is what drives me into the profession,” Share Hajj.
“Just being around my father with his incredible energy and passion inspired me and continues to inspire me to this day. Even at 94, his eyes light up when you talk to him about a business idea or potential project.”
Al-Hajj added that his memories of telexing, then faxing, and even making tea and coffee for guests are still stuck in his head. “I’ve been doing it on weekends and holidays and look forward to it all the time,” he added.
How do you usually fund initial investments for your business?
“All of my initial business was funded by myself and my brothers (and my partners as well). I never had to “raise money” the usual way. It was a family finance effort that was easier to handle but also comes with a completely different set of complications and sensitivities,” Al Hajj said. .
“In my last business, La Voya, I partnered with a friend, Fahad Al Hokair, who was eager to enter the sector. Fahad brought his expertise in retail and real estate, and together we complement each other for the benefit of the business.”
Two challenges that the pilgrim faced when starting a business in the field of food and beverages
• CHALLENGE 1: Finding his first big break
Although Hajji first moved into the industry nearly two decades ago, he still feels that one of the many challenges that pop into his head is finding his first “break”.
“It is much easier to get food and beverage brands for example, find locations, rent… if you have a proven track record. If you have done this before and done it successfully, you are more likely to have people open doors for you. However, opening that first door, so to speak, is the hardest part.”
“You need people to see your potential and believe in you, and that takes a lot of courage,” said Hajj, describing how he got his first big break with Cinnabon. “The person who ran Cinnabon International at the time, Mike Shattuck, believed in me and what I could achieve and gave me the rights to the Emirates operation. It was really a turning point in my career.”
It is much easier to get food and beverage brands for example, find locations, rent … if you have a track record
– Walid Al-Hajj
• Challenge Two: Failing Often
Another challenge or fear that Al-Hajj said he continues to experience for many years working in this sector, is the “fear of failure”.
“You work so hard to get a brand, hire the team, build the store, and then the moment of truth comes when you open your doors to the public and wonder, ‘Are they coming? “It’s really scary because 8 out of 10 restaurants fail (an actual statistic) and the belief that after all that effort they might fail can dissuade one from embarking on any project,” he said.
“On the other hand, once you taste success, you start to want to take more risks and learn to overcome fear, almost enjoying going through the process. I go on this journey now with the same level of excitement that I did when we opened our first store over 20 years ago. The fear of failure is the biggest obstacle to success and overcoming that fear, I believe, is what differentiates entrepreneurs from dreamers.”
Basic costs when starting a restaurant concept in the UAE
The chain restaurateur went on to explain how often the economics of a restaurant vary a lot.
“Overall, your biggest cost elements are occupancy (rent) and labor costs. Together, these account for about half of your expenses. Recently, another cost element has been added to the equation and that is delivery cost. This has skewed the financial model of operating a restaurant and made it more It is necessary to adjust other cost components to offset these additional expenses.
Two tips to help budding entrepreneurs start a business
• Tip #1: “Don’t start a business because you have to start a business.”
Although there are many looking to start businesses and become their own boss, it is often a mistake to dive without the necessary planning, and Hajj agrees.
“I think the path alone leads to failure. Nowadays, college graduates often want to start their own business – almost in order to start their own business – and without any idea at hand. The sequence needs to be reversed.” “Once you have an idea or stumble upon one – you think of an entrepreneurial path forward with it.
“So, I am a big fan of young men who resist peer pressure to become your boss. Stay curious and fully vigilant in the process and you will surely find an opportunity. This might be an outdated way of looking at this, especially given the highway to fame we see these days Through social media and others, but I think it’s more sustainable and realistic.”
The fear of failure is the biggest obstacle to success and overcoming this fear, I believe, is what separates entrepreneurs from dreamers.
– Walid Al-Hajj
• Tip #2: “Choose a domain, domain, or sector that makes you a check mark.”
Al-Hajj added that when you’re an entrepreneur, staying motivated is critical, because as commitment wanes, so does your business.
“Choose something or a sector that makes you tick! Waking up every morning thinking you love what you do is the best feeling in the world and something that will make everything you do sustainable, successful and long lasting.”
“Finding what you like will only come about by exposing yourself to different things and different environments. It is like finding love – if you sit at home and dream about it, it will never come true.”