x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Wild Peeta to do for shawarma what McDonald's did for burgers

The founders of Wild Peeta plan to introduce fusion shawarma - and Emirati culture - to the world.

"What we aim to do with the shawarma is what Subway has done to the sub, McDonald's has done to the hamburger and Pizza Hut has done to the pizza." Mohamed Parham al Awadhi, 35, has franchising and shawarma world-domination plans for Wild Peeta, the new shawarma joint he cofounded with his brother Peyman Parham al Awadhi. Mohamed hums with enthusiasm for Wild Peeta, which opened three weeks ago. Not quite a restaurant, not quite a cafe and situated slap-bang opposite Raffles in Dubai Healthcare City, it certainly brings to mind a fast food type of outlet. Colourful pop art decorates the walls, a chalkboard menu hangs over the serving counter, meat turns on spits in the back and there's a nearby glass "thought wall" on which customers are invited to scribble comments in erasable pen.

More significant, however, are the kinds of shawarma that Wild Peeta is churning out, designed to appeal to as broad a market as possible. "The Evolution of a Shawarma," is the project's tagline, and evolve it certainly has. Wild Peeta customers don't head there for the usual shawarma - chicken or meat with tahini sauce and a few pieces of salad rolled together with chips - although it is, of course, on offer. Instead, Wild Peeta specialises in the "fusion shawarma".

The five types available are listed on the blackboard: Thai shawarma with satay sauce; Italian with red or white sauce; Mexican with bean sauce; Indian with makhani tikka sauce and the usual Arabian version. Pick whichever takes your fancy, and choose the kind of meat you want (chicken or just "meat"), or if you prefer, have a vegetarian or vegan version. Wild Peeta claims to be the first shawarma house offering such a thing. Then, shuffle along the counter (just like at Subway) and point out the salad and vegetables you want with it.

"We tell people it's kind of like when you want to go out and eat," al Awadhi says. "Sometimes you feel like Chinese food, sometimes like pizza or Indian. We tell them to choose their sauce accordingly, as we tried to pick them from every continent." For calorie counters, there are the Wild Paradise options, otherwise known as salads. These, too, are fusion-themed: Thai Paradise includes spring onions, peanuts and sesame vinaigrette; French Paradise includes capers, green beans and boiled potatoes; Arabian Paradise is essentially fattoush and Moroccan Paradise is spiced couscous with almonds, raisins and parsley. All come with a side order of Wild Peeta bread and, again, you pick the meat, fresh off the grill, that you want thrown on top of it all.

Lentil soup, hummus, breakfast pitta (with filings including egg, cheese, honey, potatoes, cream or jam) and ful mudammes (stewed fava beans) are on the menu too, along with specially created juices, teas and coffee. You could eat until you burst and still have change from a Dh50 note. And happily, perhaps unlike McDonald's or Pizza Hut, even the most puritanical of foodies would find it hard to quibble with the ingredients at Wild Peeta.

"We do not put sugar in our food or our drinks, we use very minimal oil, we make our bread here, we don't deep fry anything and nothing's frozen," al Awadi says, proudly sweeping his arm around the place. "We don't call ourselves fast food. We call it good food, served fast. Why does guilt have to be associated with eating? When did that start happening? It's ridiculous." The al Awadhis have been mulling over the project for some time - eight years in total. They both studied marketing in America, and registered the Wild Peeta internet domain in 2001 but struggled with financing. Help came in the form of a grant from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for Small and Medium Businesses in 2007.

"We always wanted to get into the food industry," al Awadhi says. "Food and cooking are like the arts to us. We're a pretty big family" - one of their brothers is DJ Bliss - "and the breakfast, lunch or dinner table were always great spots to be in." The name Wild Peeta was a family member's idea, and is one of which al Awadhi is immensely proud. "We place a lot of emphasis on the brand, and we figured that there might be a lot of copycats out there, so it's a way to differentiate. When you Google 'Peeta' only one name comes up."

The mention of copycats signifies the grand intentions that the pair have for their venture. The plan is to franchise it, first in the UAE, then the rest of the Gulf, the rest of the Middle East and the rest of the world. It's ambitious, but al Awadhi is confident that it will work. "We've already got offers for franchising from places like Cape Town, Montreal and Bangkok," he says. "Every colour you see, every table position, all the ingredients and the recipes have been set up so we can replicate it anywhere in the world."

First, though, he wants to get the formula right in the one existing Wild Peeta. Because it is a young, untested business, none of the malls was keen to take them on. "We're learning a lot and changing things as we go," al Awadhi says. "That's one of the beauties of having a small business versus the corporate suits." The brothers held several tastings among the family before the menu was created, and (in another nod to their marketing background) marshalled and consulted a legion of supporters through Facebook and Twitter. Wild Peeta now has more than 700 members in its Facebook group, and nearly 2,000 followers on Twitter.

"These tables and the chairs we're sitting on were decided by them online," he says, adding that Wild Peeta put options to its internet fan base. "We call them invisible shareholders." The thought wall, where visitors can leave messages, is another move to attract young, media-savvy types. It sits next to a panel on which a large spider diagram is drawn. This formed part of a presentation the brothers made to the TED conference when it came to Dubai in October. "To get the opportunity to speak at a TED event, we were very privileged," al Awadhi says.

The plan is not just to introduce fusion shawarma to the rest of the world, though; al Awadhi says the aim is also to export Emirati culture to those who know nothing of it. Music, art and "anything that embodies the Emirates" are an important part of this, which is why the al Awadhi brothers have commissioned young, Emirati artists to paint artwork for the walls. They feature pop art style Emiratis with speech bubbles saying things like "Marhaba!"

"It's our way to tell the world about Emiratis and at the same time get non-Emiratis to ask questions about us," al Awadhi says. Until Wild Peeta expands, though, the al Awadhi brothers will be based in their shop every day, watching as business ramps up. "It started with a few kilos of chicken and meat every day, and now it's more like 30 or 40 kilos daily," al Awadhi says. Customers are children and adults, "every demographic and nationality", he says.

The shop currently has two delivery bikes, and has ordered two more ("We aim to get to you within 45 minutes of your order," al Awadhi says), as well as a van. Head down there and you may well be served coffee or be handed a shawarma by one of the brothers themselves. You never know. If their plans for global takeover come to fruition, it may be something to tell the grandchildren.