The Life: Kcal co-founder Mark Carroll speaks about the company's rapid expansion and the challenge of making food healthy and tasty for Dubai residents.
Easy meals minus the guilt
When the Kcal slice of chocolate cake arrives, it is moist, light and quite delicious. And not at all reminiscent of cardboard, the characteristic of many healthy versions of naughty treats.
Moreover, being made with a secret ingredient (sweet potato) it is not only low in calories (111), but packed with goodness (vitamins A and C and dietary fibre are the top three nutrients, according to the menu).
"People often ask me why this has never been done before," says Mark Carroll, the founder and co-chief executive of Kcal Healthy Fast Food.
"To make food taste so good and at the same time remove all the things that make it taste so good - like the cream, the sauces and the salt - it's not easy.
"Normally, it comes out really dry, like the stereotypical health food. We are super fussy [and] our chefs are amazing."
Kcal started in 2010, the result of a few friends in Dubai sitting around complaining about the lack of good post-workout places to eat. Mr Carroll and his business partner, Andreas Borgmann, liked the idea and went with it.
First, they opened a restaurant in Jumeirah Lakes Towers. They worked with a food doctor in Germany to devise the initial menu, spending months settling on the meals they would serve.
Then customers started asking if food could be delivered. In fact, many wanted three meals a day to be dropped at their doorsteps. So Kcal Extra, a meal plan service, was born.
Preparing a month's worth of meals demands a wider variety of recipes, so when the founders find a dish they like, whether in a restaurant or on the internet, they take it to their chef and ask him to "Kcal-ise the dish", taking out all the bad things and replacing them with healthy alternatives.
This involves a multi-stage process designed to ensure it remains tasty after being reheated. Companies then started inquiring about catering and a third division, whose clients now include Procter & Gamble and Shell, came into being.
"All of a sudden, a wave has hit this region and people have realised that it is good for business" to eat healthily, Mr Carroll says.
"Eating healthy gives you more energy, makes you work better. In the past, companies ordered junk food for meetings and conferences, now they order healthy food."
Gyms also started getting in touch, asking about the possibility of having a Kcal vending machine installed and this led to Kcal Express. The company launched the UAE's first healthy vending machine and is currently in talks with Fitness First to have kiosks in its gyms.
Kcal now prepares more than 1,500 meals a day, employs 110 people and is poised to continue its rapid expansion.
From the outset, the founders planned to franchise Kcal - specifically, the restaurant division with the option to add the deliveries unit - and linked up with Francorp to develop the model.
Despite already having about 100 franchise inquiries - some from places as far-flung as New Zealand and the United States - the pair are holding off until they are sure they are ready. A second restaurant has just opened in Tecom and a third is under construction in Business Bay. Negotiations to open in Dubai Mall and Mirdif City Centre are under way and a location has been selected in Dubai International Finance Centre.
"There'll be six privately owned restaurants by myself and Andreas," Mr Carroll says.
"We felt this is the best way to control the brand because it is still young, to control the consistency, to make sure everything is perfect. So it's not like [we] have one shop in JLT … but when you have shops in Dubai Mall and big places like this it's sellable. We are in serious talks with Abu Dhabi, Cairo [and] Saudi."
Mr Carroll, who previously owned a property company, says that while he enjoyed the buzz of closing a deal and making a sale, the satisfaction he gets from Kcal is so much more.
"It sounds cheesy and it sounds corny, but especially with Kcal Extra we are really changing lifestyles," he says.
"There is only one of us in the UAE. You can't get healthy food of this calibre in any other fast-food joint. It's not going to happen."