x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Emirati business woman's Pappa Roti is selling like hot cakes

Rasha Al Danhani has brought the Malaysian treat Pappa Roti to the country, and has big plans for the region and beyond.

Rasha Al Danhani. Satish Kumar / The National
Rasha Al Danhani. Satish Kumar / The National

The product

On first glance, a Pappa Roti seems ordinary: just a dry-looking, plain brown bun. But it only takes one bite to register that this is no ordinary snack. Somehow, for just Dh11 (prices vary depending on whether it is paired with a selection of coffees and teas) and 190 calories, a Pappa Roti manages to be crunchy and gummy (in a good way); buttery and sweet; fluffy and light, but substantial, too.

The poster says the secret is in the buttery fluff inside the bun. But a key element is surely the caramel-coffee butter topping, carefully applied in concentric ribbons that melt and bake into a crisp, sweet layer in the oven.

The woman behind the bun

Rasha Al Danhani is a glamorous 32-year-old Emirati, a mogul in the making, and a mother. Her four daughters (ages 11, 5 and twins who are 4) rushed into the new 2,000 square-foot flagship Pappa Roti, which opened in April on the Dubai Mall's third floor, during a recent interview.

Soon each was clutching a paper bag containing their own bun as an after-school snack. (Mum approved: she knows exactly what is inside.) Before having her family, Al Danhani studied entrepreneurship at Dubai Women's College, graduating in 1998, and worked in banking and property before running her own marine-themed spa for two years.

In 2008 she was on the lookout for a bigger business idea, one that had potential for serious growth. Although Dubai was deep in recession, Al Danhani couldn't help but think that the right idea would take off despite the economic situation.

The journey from Malaysia to the UAE

It was on a trip to Malaysia that she tried the bun, out of curiosity and with her business plans in mind. "I was thinking I need something which is new to the market and new to the UAE," she says. "Always you can see it's a kind of a trend. Now people are always looking to the burger shop, the five-star burger. I wanted something you can have all the time, that's a snack, but at the same time, it's unique. When I tried the bun I liked it very much ... I liked the taste and, you know, the first bite: it's crispy from the top and it's very fluffy inside and the smell - I am in love!"

She did some research, contacted the owner and asked about opening not just one shop, but becoming the master franchiser for the entire Middle East. "He was very surprised," she says, laughing. "Then of course he agreed."

The recipe for success

You wouldn't think that opening amid the downturn in the summer of 2009, in an expensive rental space inside the biggest mall in the world, during Ramadan no less, would be the way to approach things. But Al Danhani refused to believe the naysayers - even concerned members of her own family.

"People said: 'Are you sure you want to do something in food and beverage? And this time of the year?'" she says. "Whenever somebody asked me: 'Is it the right time'? I always said: 'Yes.'" Al Danhani believed that even in a recession, people need and want to eat.

She also refused to waver on her choice of location for that first-floor kiosk, recently joined by the second shop on the mall's top level: "I wanted to use the biggest mall in the world," she says. "The most important thing in any business is location."

While some of the first customers didn't understand - Al Danhani and her staff urged more than once "just taste it" to encourage customers that they weren't just selling bread - soon they were lining up. And since she knew there was no way to franchise an untested business, her plan to go it alone in Dubai Mall was calculated on more than one front.

"Especially at the beginning, when people are not familiar with the concept, you cannot, you know, just sub-franchise," she says. "I said, no, it's better to try it myself." She had been running the kiosk for about a year when the inquiries from potential franchisees started coming in.

The plan for eventual world domination

In addition to outlets in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, there are now almost a dozen Pappa Roti shops operating in the UAE, with 10 more due to open in the coming weeks, the bulk of those in Abu Dhabi. Al Danhani operates five directly - three in Dubai, where she has 70 employees, one in Sharjah and one in Abu Dhabi - and is the master franchiser for the rest.

She has since become the master franchiser for North Africa and the Commonwealth of Independent States - the countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. And, in a sign that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery - even if it means competition for sales - earlier this month a competitor, Roti Mum Cafe from Singapore, opened its first UAE branch in the Dubai Mall's ground floor food court. According to Yognesh Sajnani, the director of the Dubai Mall branch, six more Roti Mum Cafes are expected to open in the UAE this year.