The entrepreneurial friends tell us why they opened the new cafe/deli Slices in Abu Dhabi, and their hopes to achieve its goal of entirely locally sourced, healthy meal options.
Organic bistro brings 'slices' of life to four young Emiratis
They can't remember who said it; only that one of the group of firm friends, at one of their weekly catch-ups, voiced the opinion: "We need to make something happen." For some reason it caught their mood and it stuck. They just had to work out what that "something" might be. They set themselves a deadline and they set to work. They haven't stopped since.
It is one year since Amina Taher, 27; Faisal Al Hammadi, 26; Hamad Al Shurafa, 27; and Khalid Al Ameri, 28, decided to translate desire into reality.
They toyed with opening a play facility for children, considered putting a contemporary spin on cultural gifts and wondered about an interactive photo gallery. But the idea that won out was, as the best ideas so often are, the simplest of all.
The result is Slices - a soup, salad and sandwich store. "Not fast food," their tagline asserts. "Just fresh food, fast!"
"It seems that everybody who thinks about food wants to open a restaurant," says Taher, "but we wanted a simple model, something small and focused."
The simplicity of the ethos, and the clean lines of the shop, belie intense research. All of the friends work for Mubadala, each in different areas. Taher specialises in communications and marketing, Al Hammadi works in the healthcare sector while Al Shurafa and Al Ameri work in the giant company's service ventures department, in finance and shipping and logistics, respectively. The partners attribute their success to the fact that, while working together, they have drawn on individual strengths.
"Every day working in health care I hear about obesity and diabetes in the local population and the problems it causes," says Al Hammadi. "The government is doing a lot to educate but the market needs doers. So from the beginning we decided our food had to be a) fresh, organic and healthy and b) fast and convenient."
You won't find a can of Coke or Sprite at Slices, but you will find freshly squeezed juices, sugar-free smoothies and designer waters. Signature sandwiches include wild crayfish with lemon mayonnaise and rocket; rare roast beef with horseradish; and goats cheese with rocket, peppers and sweet chilli sauce.
Among the partners' first and most important acts was to recruit Darrell Guest as their general manager. The 46-year-old engineer-turned-chef has more than a decade's experience launching similar projects in the UK.
His hope had been to source all ingredients locally but that has proved impractical. Still, every ingredient is organic; what can be bought locally, is; and when fair trade items are an option, they are chosen. Baked goods come each morning from JAMM organic bakery in Dubai. The long-term goal remains that, by forming relationships with local farmers, most of the produce will one day be sourced locally.
"We took as our model the UK firm Pret a Manger," says Taher. "Like in Pret our products have no shelf-life date on the packaging because everything is made in the morning and what isn't sold by the end of the day we give to the community, to labourers and the needy, at the local mosque."
It is a laudable aspect to what remains first and foremost a business venture. As well as receiving funding from the Government's Khalifa Fund, the friends have invested their own money into the project.
"It's our baby," Taher says, smiling. "We all have full-time jobs, and I am mother to a 7-year-old daughter, but at some point every day we are here and at the weekends."
From menu choices to napkins, to design, to the name, all decisions have been subjected to quantitative and qualitative scrutiny. Put simply, they asked friends, family and target customers - the business and education communities - what they liked best, what they would buy and what they would pay.
They had intended to call the place So Go, - as in So Go Get It - but potential customers found it confusing as it was deemed "too Japanese". Slices was ultimately chosen because it was strong, the signature sandwiches are sliced and it shores up the identity they hope to create.
Slices opened on January 2, and the early signs are good - the store is serving between 400 and 500 customers daily. The partners intend to open a second branch in Zayed University's Khalifa City campus, and plan to offer a delivery service soon.
"We want to grow and maybe franchise," Taher says. "But we must do it calmly. We want it to be right. We look at what is happening globally, we benchmark internationally and we provide locally in our own way. In real estate they say the three things are 'Location, location, location'. For us it is 'Quality, quality, quality'."
If you go
WHAT Slices cafe
WHERE Al Mamoura Building B, Al Nahyan Camp, adjacent to Muroor Road
WHEN 7am to 6pm Sunday to Thursday, 9am to 5 pm Saturday
WHO Partners Amina Taher, Faisal Al Hammadi, Hamad Al Shurafa, Khalid Al Ameri; general manager Darrell Guest
EXECUTIVE CHEF Reon Dirks
More information 02 491 8559, www.slices.ae, Twitter: @SlicesAE