Blaze Pizza Operator Plans for Strong Showing in Bahrain

In less than three years, Bahrain’s NAD Trading has assembled a food and beverage portfolio of seven concepts, and if Nabeel Dabwan continues executing on the company’s strategy, it will soon add more.

Dabwan, chairman of NAD Trading, said he’s in conversations with Taco Bell and Wingstop to bring those brands to the island country in the Persian Gulf, and with NAD’s most recent agreement with Blaze Pizza, he’s already looking beyond his home’s borders.

“I will tell you, we’re talking to open in Saudi Arabia. We’ll start in Bahrain and then we’ll take it to the whole region,” said Dabwan, who noted speed and scale are crucial to the success of new restaurants in a market where numerous brands are competing for a small number of consumers in the country of 1.5 million.

Based in Bahrain’s capital of Manama, NAD Trading formed its food and beverage division in 2020, expanding from its roots in retail, a segment where it now has supermarket, consumer goods and apparel brands. In the F&B category, it started with Cinnabon and Seattle’s Best Coffee on the American franchise front, and has since added Auntie Anne’s and Jamba, plus Spanish café concept Brunch & Cake and Uncle Osaka, a Japanese treat shop based in Jordan.

The company’s agreement with Blaze Pizza initially calls for the opening of two restaurants by 2025, and the deal also included the acquisition of one existing restaurant in Manama from M.H. Alshaya Co. Alshaya, a mega franchise operator based in Kuwait with dozens of brands spanning fashion, home furnishings, entertainment and food, has “chosen to cull back some of their existing restaurant brands,” said Blaze Pizza CEO Beto Guajardo. Alshaya signed a deal in 2017 to open 100 Blaze locations in the Middle East and North Africa; its website lists one open in Abu Dhabi and five in Kuwait.

The Blaze restaurant in Manama, part of a waterfront shopping center called The Avenues, was doing well prior to the acquisition, said Dabwan. He believes the made-to-order model with a focus on customization will continue to resonate with local consumers—and stand out from competitors.

“Pizza Hut, Domino’s, everyone’s had pizza,” he said, referencing franchises that each have more than a dozen units in Bahrain. “You need something different. Blaze Pizza, they work outside of the box” and the menu is also “much healthier than what’s in the market.”

“We call it a high-end restaurant,” continued Dabwan of Blaze’s emphasis on higher quality ingredients, which he expects will help it take some market share from larger QSR players. “They are pizza and we are pizza, but with our pizza you will see the difference.”

NAD Trading also intends to make a splash with its grand openings, both by going into what Dabwan called “prime, prime locations” and by investing in major marketing campaigns, a strategy he said worked well with Cinnabon. The company spent $150,000 on its media efforts during the week leading up to the opening of the first store, and as a result it had lines out the door for 45 days, he said.

“You need to show your muscle when you come in the market,” he said, and the approach is the same with Blaze and NAD’s other food and beverage brands.

The expansion in Bahrain is part of Blaze Pizza’s planned growth push outside the U.S. after it hired Guajardo as its chief executive in January following the departure of Mandy Shaw. Guajardo, who oversaw the international business at Focus Brands and has more than 20 years of franchise development experience, said he wants to drive new unit growth in global markets such as the Middle East, the Philippines and South Korea, “where the mall-based experience is central to their style of dining.”

Of the Pasadena, California-based company’s roughly 330 restaurants, about 300 are domestic units.

“It’s about finding these investors who have the sophistication to bring in top operators,” said Guajardo, “and have the deep pockets to build multiple units.” Like Dabwan, he emphasized the ability to scale quickly as key to new market entry.

As Blaze moves ahead with its international development plans, the company is also undertaking an effort to modernize its stores and build its base of repeat customers. “There’s a tremendous amount of work we can do to get customers to come into Blaze more often,” said Guajardo as he noted a need to “become guest-obsessed in everything we do” and focus on consistent execution across the system.

The brand launched its “What’s Hot” monthly value program in June to feature a different pizza each month at a promotional value, such as its 11-inch Pepperoni Lover Pizza for $8.99. Ultimately, said Guajardo, the overarching goals of this and other efforts are to help franchisees drive more sales, more customer traffic “and, dare I say more profitability.”

Average gross sales for traditional franchised restaurants were $1.32 million in 2022, up from $1.15 million. Franchised mall locations had average sales of $1.2 million last year.

Source: Franchise Times

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