While a lot of business owners don’t believe in shepherding their business’s day-to-day operations, Rasha Al Danhani isn’t of the same ilk. Since launching PappaRoti in 2009, she’s inhabited a variety of roles in its branches across the UAE. One day she’s barista, the next, a cashier. Then, the cleaner - she recalls days of training staff and mopping the floor straight after.
This hands-on approach has defined her business and its success over more than a decade – it’s what’s led her from a small kiosk in The Dubai Mall to 400-plus PappaRoti outlets across the world, from India to Belgium. It’s also often had the effect of shocking people.
She recounts a busy evening at the first branch in the mall, when she had to step in behind the tills. “An Emirati diner came up to me and asked why I was working as a cashier? And, I remember saying to him that I thought Emirati women were now so strong, they could do everything. It’s not like before, and we don’t just occupy the higher position in firms, we can work in all fields.”
When the man later gave her a tip, she asked: “Is it because I’m Emirati or for the service, and he said service, and I said I wouldn’t have taken it if he said it was because of my nationality.”
Gulf News Food sat down with the Emirati entrepreneur to find out how she took a simple bun and coffee concept, discovered in Malaysia, to dizzying heights in the UAE and beyond.
Does a hands-on business entrepreneur work better in the food industry?
Many business owners simply invest in their business and then have a manager to take over. Once a month they’ll meet the manager for an update. They don’t know what the core of their work is.
Before launching PappaRoti, I went to Malaysia and Korea to train and take a full course, and stayed there for a long time, which means I got to know each and every thing about the bun and the drinks. So I can now identify if something’s wrong just from the colour, what ingredient is missing, what the quality of the bun is. The bun has a procedure that’s not just normal dough like sourdough, but needs to be worked on the night before, rested until it rises by at least three and a half inches, and then placed in a proofer.
We started with five staff members. For me it’s not just a business – I can’t sit back and not know what’s happening behind the scenes. You have to have an ear to the ground. You have to be in harmony with the staff.
This has been a passion and a dream for me from the beginning – a dream to have my own business instead of working for others. So it’s very important to be hands-on with everything. It helps you understand. You can’t not know what’s going on.
How did you pick up on the concept of caramelised buns?
On a trip to Malaysia, I was fascinated by an aroma as I passed by a kiosk at the train station. So I went to try it, and that was my first taste of the PappaRoti bun. I immediately loved it. The next day I went in again, talked to the staff and asked for the number of the owner. Everything happened very quickly after that.
I called him and said that I really wanted to take this product to Dubai, but I wanted to start big, to take the franchise not just in Dubai but of the Middle East. He was surprised – not because of the request but because I was a woman – he said he didn’t think I could start a business as a woman in the UAE. I said I’d prove it to him that not only could I do it, I’d succeed doing it. And I did. We became such a big investor that now when they work with PappaRoti branches in other countries they ask for my opinion.
I signed for the franchise and for my first branch knew I wanted to start in a big central location. I chose The Dubai Mall, which was not fully operating yet, but I wanted to attract a multicultural dining crowd.
We launched on 9.9.2009, the day of the Dubai Metro launch. It was Ramadan, we needed to open after iftar, and I was there from the morning prepping everything. We started baking right after iftar and the aroma was so strong and enticing, people passing by stopped for a free taste. I saw them nod their heads and smile after a bite, and only then did I relax. I knew it would work. I had huge faith as it’s a unique product that the Middle East hadn’t seen yet, it was only available in Asia and Malaysia. It’s a pastry you eat every time, lunch or dinner not just for breakfast or at tea time. It’s a winning combination in a lot of ways - crispy from the top, coffee caramel and fluffy inside. The response was great, and still is.
You started PappaRoti right after the global economic downturn hit in 2009 and succeeded. What was the learning in running the business during the pandemic in 2020?
In 2009, I was able to look at it positively - even if it’s a global downturn you’d stop some services such as laundry or salon visits, and people usually cut costs there, but not food. A lot of people were against my decision to launch a new product then, and wondered why I was investing. I decided to challenge myself. I listened out of respect, but I ignored the comments.
Running the business through the pandemic has, believe it or now, been tougher. In 2020 we got locked down, malls closed, the UAE airport closed, transits stopped. During the downturn people were being careful about their money; even if people were willing to spend, they couldn’t go out to do it.
It affected us as most of our shops are in the malls, and sales dropped; my staff were sitting at home, but I retained all of them - I didn’t terminate anyone and that’s something I’m very happy about. They are working for their families, and I just stepped into their shoes and wondered what I would have done if I were in their place. I couldn’t let them lose their jobs amidst all this. I knew we had no choice but to wait it out and be patient. Now we’re moving on, through a focus on new products and product development, and more money in media promotions.
From a kiosk in the mall to hundreds of outlets across the world – what has the journey been like?
We now have over 400-plus outlets, and that’s a huge success. I get a lot of requests from people about opening in their countries, and I could have made millions off it, but I wanted to establish everything in my market at home first – have an operation manual, have a marketing wing. I opened up a marketing company to support the business as well. I decided early on that only after I was a 100 per cent satisfied would I start opening the franchise door to others for sub-franchises. Every country has its own culture and rules and procedures, so it takes a while to study the market, think about how many shops to open, what prime location to choose. If I am franchising to anyone I ensure I work very closely with them to ensure its success.
You have developed a dedicated following – what tip would you give an entrepreneur starting up to achieve similar success?
Firstly, your idea is key. There has to be lasting creativity there, and not just a trend like cupcake, or donuts. Initially everyone opened burger spots, and people quickly got bored of it. You need to search for a very unique product; it’s not about copying the same thing and that’s why we are still surviving.
Second, you need to get a business plan done. I have seen a lot of business ideas from both women and men, who have some great ideas but don’t know how to establish them. You need a business plan, something people don’t prefer spending on in a bid to cut costs, but a plan is the mirror for the future and will demonstrate what is going to happen in the next six to eight months. It helps you to grapple with and tackle all the necessities of the business. Location is important too, along with good staff, your image, the type of development, hospitality.
Third, work very closely with staff. Before the pandemic I walked into at a PappaRoti store in City Walk that was short of staff, so I took off my abaya and went in to help as the prep area was missing the dispatcher. You should be ready to be one of the staff at all times, and always hear out their concerns.
Fourth, always keep innovating.
Fifth, employ secret shoppers. I have a secret shopper department not only in the UAE, but for my stores worldwide, and they are enlisted with the task of maintaining quality. I take on the role of secret shopper too when I travel, I keep trying things and make a list of comments and send trainers in if I feel something is wrong with the service in a particular store.
Sixth, spend more on social media. With an ongoing pandemic, spending more might be the last thing on your mind, but you don’t know where the market will take you, so patience is key with investing in social media. Spend in the short term for the long term.
What are your plans for the future, both of the Pappa Roti chain and otherwise?
Our plan is to continue on this path of growth. We started with the Middle East franchise and now have almost half the world under our belt. We want to keep adding new countries, with a minimum of three shops in every country.
We have to keep innovating so people don’t get bored. We introduce different toppings such as pistachio, and are going to have buns filled with ice cream on our menus soon. We’re constantly thinking up new drinks, and launched drinks such as cookies and cream and pistachio milkshake last summer that ran through winter too. We work with a drink developer every three months to examine if a drink is too sweet, and modify it accordingly.
We asked Rasha Al Danhani for her favourite coffee recipe: Find out how you can make a delicious Pumpkin Latte at home
• 2 shots espresso
• 2 tbsp pumpkin puree
• 1/3th cup heavy cream
• 1/4th cup whole milk
• 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice (available in online stores)
• 1 tbsp erythritol sugar substitute (or just sugar)
• To garnish: Whipped cream, ground cinnamon
1. Add the prepared espresso to a small saucepan. Whisk in the pumpkin puree, heavy cream, whole milk, pumpkin spice, and erythritol. Heat until steaming, then remove from the stove.
2. Froth the contents with a hand-held frother or whisk.
3. Top with whipped cream and a little cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice - enjoy!
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