Local eateries ready to serve Middle East


Atlanta Business Chronicle - June 23, 2006

It's not hot dogs or apple pie, but Atlanta is exporting two restaurant concepts to the Middle East, where the ancient world is hungry for American food concepts.

In the last month, two Atlanta-based restaurant chains have signed master franchise agreements with Middle Eastern businessmen. The agreements will allow the foreign groups to sell franchises themselves, which will spur further business in the Arab world and beyond.

 Brent Gilbertson, founder of Fire of Brazil, an Atlanta-based Brazilian barbecue restaurant, or churrascaria, signed a multimillion-dollar agreement to make Abdul Wahed Al Kooheji in the Kingdom of Bahrain his international master franchiser.

Al Kooheji is already working on almost a dozen deals in Europe and the Middle East, and soon could finish a contract for a restaurant in Kiev, Ukraine. His business pner also is a royal sheik.

"After the [first] Gulf War, when Saddam got kicked out of Kuwait, for the first time we got satellite television," said Al Kooheji from his Bahrain office.

"It was eye-opening for the Arab world to get to see what there is in America. Everybody wants American products."

"When I was there," added Fire of Brazil's founder Gilbertson, "it was kind of strange. I'm sitting in a hotel room watching three versions of CNN: CNN Europe, CNN USA, and CNN for the Arab world. They see the rest of the world. We don't really see them."

Atlanta restaurant broker Harold Shumacher, who has traveled abroad extensively, said there is an almost magnetic lure to American products.

"Despite the politics, the United States has an incredible attraction throughout the world," said Shumacher, a former food critic.

"It's a cultural attraction that's driven by movies, television, pop music and all kinds of media. It's a symbolic representation of a country and its economy's arrival that there is enough money in the country to support these things."

He likened it to an American walking into a French restaurant. "It says, 'I have the sophistication and taste to walk in here and the money to afford it."

Of course, American franchises have been expanding internationally for years. Well-known chains such as McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbucks, TGI Friday's and Applebee's dot the landscape from Beijing and Dubai to Paris and Berlin.

But what makes the case of these two Atlanta chains unusual is that they have a tiny presence in the United States compared with the giant footprints of chains such as McDonald's. And, especially in the case of Fire of Brazil, its international expansion may outpace its U.S. growth.

Fire of Brazil currently has only four U.S. stores open -- two in Atlanta, one in Nashville and one in Wellington, Fla.

McDonald's, by comparison, has 31,000 units worldwide.

Both Atlanta restaurateurs jumped at the chance to cross cultural and geographic barriers to expand in the Arab world and beyond.

Fire of desire

Al Kooheji was on a business trip to Atlanta, when he had a meal at Fire of Brazil on Atlanta's northeast side.

"I thought it was a fun, unusual experience. The meat looked good, tasted good and smelled good. I thought it would be a good experience to bring to the Middle East and North Africa."

Al Kooheji quickly met with Gilbertson, a longtime Atlanta restaurateur who created the Brazilian concept in 2002.

Within a day, they'd signed a deal giving Al Kooheji rights to franchise in his native Bahrain.

Six months later, Al Kooheji asked for the rights to franchise all international markets, except North and South America and the Caribbean.

Amazingly, he has not yet opened his first restaurant in the Middle East.

But Al Kooheji, who has run franchises such as real estate office Century 21 and food concepts from Texas-based Johnny Carino's Country Italian to South African Nando's Chicken Restaurants, says he knows a good concept when he sees one.

"I've been in the food business for many years. I've got an eye for a good concept. [In the Middle East] we love meat, cooked well, especially over charcoal. I felt like there was a need for [Fire of Brazil] in the region."

Gilbertson says his U.S. restaurants do $2.5 million to $3 million in sales annually, for dinner only.

Al Kooheji sees a huge future for the Brazilian-style, all-you-can-eat skewered meat extravaganza both in the Middle East and Europe.

While Atlanta has a number of Brazilian-style barbecue restaurants and the ranks are growing in the United States, the concept is just hitting European and Arab markets, he said.

"There's only one in the Middle East, in Riyadh. It's in one of the most expensive and prestigious hotels. You can imagine the potential," said Al Kooheji. "It's only the beginning of the churrascaria."

Al Kooheji is already finalizing deals to bring the concept to Kuwait and Qatar. He's also working with three European groups to open 25 stores in three regions there, including Scandinavian countries, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

He's even talked to Australians about exporting the concept there.

"In the first four to five years, we'll have 40 to 50 stores."

As for Gilbertson, the chain's founder, he said he jumped at the chance to give Al Kooheji master franchise rights.

"I don't want to be dealing with people all over the world," he said. "It's a lot easier for him from his side of the world."

Aside from the multimillion-dollar fee that Al Kooheji paid him to be the master franchiser, Gilbertson will also split the franchise royalties with Al Kooheji.

Al Kooheji said he likes working with American franchises. "American franchises do it right when it comes to food and quality."

And American concepts offer strong training and support. They don't just walk away after he's bought franchise rights, something he's experienced with non-American companies.

Al Kooheji, 41, was educated in Australia and said he's been traveling to the United States for 20 years, so he's kept a close tab on food trends in Western countries.

Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa, a real estate and major businessman in Bahrain, is a pner with Al Kooheji in The Living Concepts Inc.

The company also is developing Maya Le Chocolaterie, which sells everything to do with chocolate, from candy to drinks, and a coffee concept called Dash Coffee, among other projects.

His first Fire of Brazil, in Bahrain, will open in four months.

Al Kooheji has had to make some changes to the menu to comply with Islamic and Jewish cultural taboos.

He's taken all pork off the menu there, and he's adding more seafood, such as king prawns and calamari. He also plans to put more lamb and goat on the menu, and have a local kabob.

Ironically, in Europe, especially Germany, Al Kooheji expects to add more pork items, especially sausages.


Local eateries ready to serve Middle East - Atlanta Business Chronicle

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