x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dream of a deal in frozen yoghurt

Oliviero Cassini gave up his role with the Middle East's top private equity firm to join three childhood friends and pursue their goal in the food industry.

Two years ago, Oliviero Cassini was flying high in the financial world with Abraaj Capital, the biggest private equity firm in the Middle East.

His niche was property investment, and when the global financial crisis hit the region's market, it wasn't long before he was considering an alternative career. When a project he was working on was cancelled last March, the 32-year-old Italian left the firm and began work on a long-time dream. Less than a year later, Mr Cassini has gone from spending his days working on high-profile deals to producing frozen yoghurt with three childhood friends for Slick Yogo, which opened its first kiosk at Dubai Mall last month.

"We always wanted to do something in the food and beverage industry," he says. "And now seemed like a good opportunity to do it. So six months ago we embarked on research of the traditional Italian ice cream. We had lots of ideas, but thought this [frozen yoghurt] was more pertinent to Dubai and the whole health-conscious trend." Even though shoppers are reducing their spending during the economic downturn, the partners still took the plunge. They already have repeat customers as well as inquiries from investors from as far afield as Kazakhstan interested in expanding the business.

"I wouldn't say [the product] is recession-proof, but people are still looking for some form of distraction and enjoyment; so if we can do well in a recession, then imagine how well we could do when times are better," Mr Cassini says. Setting up a business on your own in Dubai comes with numerous challenges, from acquiring a trade licence and dealing with bureaucracy to working around the clock to fully learn how a company operates. The partners raised Dh1 million (US$272,600) with the help of family and close friends to start the business and obtained a licence, which is required by professional service providers and costs about Dh30,000. The licence includes the help of a local sponsor to deal with administrative work.

With the attraction of Burj Khalifa next door, the partners decided on Dubai Mall as the perfect location, despite a hefty part of their expenses going towards rent. Mr Cassini declined to say how much it costs to rent space for a kiosk in the mall, but he hopes its proximity to the food court, cinemas and ice rink will boost custom. When the kiosk first opened, Mr Cassini spent his days making frozen yoghurt, serving customers and cleaning up at the end of the day. "This is probably the hardest time I've ever had to work in my life," he says. "It was a new business for all of us, so by working 16 hours a day we got to know the ins and outs.

"As with any business of your own, you will spend more time on it and put more passion and dedication into it. It's very rewarding as you can actually interact with your customers and see their reaction." Now that the first kiosk is open and a manager has been hired, Mr Cassini, who has lived in Dubai for four years, says the partners will look into producing other Italian-based products and expanding the business elsewhere.

"It depends on the opportunity that arises, we're not limiting ourselves to any country in the GCC, but we need to find a good location in order to open; it's not just about venturing in just because we need to expand." @Email:agiuffrida@thenational.ae