x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Emirati brews up a franchise success story with PappaRoti

PappaRoti founder Rasha Al Danhani reveals how her hands on business approach has its rewards.

Rasha Al Danhani the owner of PappaRoti cafe. Satish Kumar / The National
Rasha Al Danhani the owner of PappaRoti cafe. Satish Kumar / The National

Are entrepreneurs the new rock stars?

That is what the business bloggers often ask – and businesswoman Rasha Al Danhani has certainly discovered a fame of sorts thanks to the popularity of the PappaRoti bun chain. She launched her business in the UAE in 2008 and is now expanding via sub-franchises across the Middle East and further afield.

She was recently recognised in Saudi Arabia by a group of girls, who were delighted when she introduced herself after hearing them whisper about her, she says. In Cairo, a Libyan girl raving about PappaRoti to her Egyptian friend in a Starbucks queue insisted on having a picture taken with Ms Al Danhani when she discovered the identity of the woman standing in front of her.

And the Emirati’s celebrity status received a further boost at the end of last year when she was named Arabian Businesswoman of the Year at the Arab Women Awards UAE. This came after securing prizes for entrepreneurial personality of the year and best project of the year in 2012.

“When I heard [about the award] I felt ‘Yes, I am doing the right thing,” she says. “I want to be recognised because I worked very hard to reach where I am.”

When she opened her first store in The Dubai Mall in 2009 Ms Al Danhani had a staff of five. She took her turn as a barista and in the bakery. Even now, overseeing 50 outlets in the UAE and 300 outlets in total, she knows the finer details right down to the exact measure of coffee to go in a latte and the cup it should come in.

“I am not like a normal investor sitting back, putting up the money and letting the staff do everything else,” she says.

This attitude surprised the Saudi girls who told her they were taken aback by her down to earth demeanour. And an Emirati businessman whose coffee she rang up at the till in one of her stores was incredulous.

“He asked me, ‘How come as a local you are working as a cashier in a coffee bar by yourself?’” she recounts. “I told him there is nothing wrong with working – it’s a good way to prove yourself.”

He gave her a tip and told her he was proud of her, and he was rather amused when she revealed she was also the owner.

“You have changed my [appreciation] of how to do things. I am a businessman but I never think to go and do things myself,” he told Ms Al Danhani.

Papparoti means the “father of all buns”. Ms Al Danhani discovered the concept in Malaysia. She reckoned that while it was different from what Arab consumers were used to, it would work here. It helped, too, that she was a diehard fan of the sweet coffee-flavoured buns that are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

She bought the franchise with money saved while working in banking and property, and a loan from her father. This she made her priority to pay back.

There was initially no money for marketing – she had to rely on word of mouth advertising. Luckily it was substantial. People starting asking her about acquiring a sub-franchise.

Here she was cautious, feeling she needed to prove the concept in her home market before allowing expansion. While she bought the franchise for the product from the owner, she had a different vision of how the brand should operate. Fortunately the owner agreed to her plans so it was Ms Al Danhani who set to work writing the franchisee manual, which included instructions on sourcing furniture, ingredients and so on.

She started franchising in 2010 and currently has rights for the Middle East and North Africa, India and the Commonwealth of Independent States. While she doesn’t have the rights to Europe, she did manage to persuade the Malaysian owner to give her Paris purely because it’s a city she loves.

Her goal now is to have three PappaRoti stores in every country in which she has the franchise, though in some countries she already has 12 stores. And one of her main tasks, she says, is to maintain standards across the chain.

She sends secret shoppers to every location monthly and retrains staff she feels are not up to scratch.

Recently, Ms Al Danhani was asked to join the Dubai Business Women council, which she says is a great honour.

Some of her duties will include speaking to young entrepreneurs, explaining the challenges they might encounter.

“They want me to be a role model for women,” she adds.

But as the surprised customer who tipped her for serving his coffee may concede, she may prove to be a role model for the men too.

lgutcher@thenational.ae