Fayez Al Nusari, the founder and managing director of Mandilicious food chain, wants to bring his Yemeni food in a fast-serving food court setting to the world.
Restaurateur dishes up traditional Yemeni cuisine at Dubai-based Mandilicious
Shepherding tourists from Sanaa to Hadramaut as a tour guide in the 1990s, Fayez Al Nusari was in his element.
Born into a diplomatic family, the Yemeni entrepreneur had acted as an unofficial cultural ambassador to his friends years before while growing up in Germany, the United Kingdom and Hungary.
“I would have to explain why we do what we do, why we eat what we eat, about Islam and our daily practises, and remember, I was talking to eight to 18-year-olds,” says Mr Al Nusari, now 41.
So a restaurant, specialising in Yemeni food, in the food court setting of the UAE’s mall-dominated retail space, is almost a seamless extension of his previous work experience.
For the Mandilicious chain, which opened in Dubai’s Times Square last March, it is also about competing for attention among hundreds of restaurants spread across Dubai’s 70 malls and plazas.
But that competition is not holding back the founder and managing director of Mandilicious from expansion plans.
It was during his last job working with a mall developer that Mr Al Nusari spotted a gap in the market.
“You have this popular cuisine, which is Yemeni and which people here identify with, but they go to the typical mandi restaurants, which have a lower average standard,” he says. “At the same time, food courts in malls are popular. So why not bring this popular food to this popular location?”
Traditional Yemeni food takes seven to eight hours to cook, making it a challenge to serve in a mall food court setting – often open from 10am to 11pm. To overcome this, Mr Nusari looked at an array of different models, such as hotels, hospitals and catering companies.
“Out of these the formula that appealed the most was the one used for the army, with a central kitchen and absolute control over quality,” he says.
Set up in Al Quoz industrial area, Mandilicious’s centralised kitchen now cooks up to 6,000 meals a day, with a capacity for as many as 20,000 meals a day.
“Call it a factory, but the kitchen does everything the right way that ensures the texture and the flavour of the food are maintained for the next five hours,” he says. It even uses the traditional lava stone from Yemen to grill the meat, and nothing that goes into the meal preparation comes from a can.
And so madhbi, madfoon and mandi – all rice and meat dishes but cooked differently based on the cut of the meat and spices – leave the kitchen every day for the four Mandilicious outlets in Dubai. The kitchen also serves its restaurant in Abu Dhabi, with plans for a second location in the capital by the end of this month.
With 18 main dishes and desserts, as well as starters and sides, the kitchen needs to work efficiently.
It opens at 3am to prepare for the lunchtime meals with the food ready by 8am and leaving the premises by 9am. After cooking the evening meals, it closes at 4pm.
Mr Al Nusari and his two partners have invested US$10 million into the business, and the company has plans for eight more outlets in the country by the end of this year.
“The model could easily be copied and I wanted to limit the competition from the very beginning,” he says, referring to the amount of seed capital.
The entrepreneur already has franchise offers from India, Brazil, Canada and the United States. But he says the concept may not succeed everywhere.
“For instance, in Italy and France it will not work because of their food habits and weather conditions,” he says. “In countries where people spend too much time outdoors, food courts do not do well.”
The lack of infrastructure in Yemen means serving its own food in a modern setting would not work either.
However, with customers from India, Iran, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Europe and farther afield among his clientele in the UAE, Mr Al Nusari says he is grateful he could start his venture here.
“When I introduced it, I was able to get the feedback of so many nationalities,” he adds.