Franchisee interview: Hani Ali Mirza

Omani firm Bin Mirza International has high hopes for the company's standing in the market
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FOOD & BEVERAGE

Bin Mirza International was founded in January 2004, with partner and managing director Hani Ali Mirza acquiring the franchises of Nando’s Peri-Peri Chicken restaurants from South Africa, and Second Cup cafés from Canada. In 2005, the company acquired the franchises for CinnZeo Bakery cafés from Canada and boutique bakery BreadTalk from Singapore, It also added American restaurant Steak Escape Sandwich Grill.

It’s been a busy time for the company in its eleventh year. In March, Bin Mirza International signed Spun Candy of London’s Covent Garden. It is scheduled to open the first store in Muscat’s Avenues Mall this year. And in July 2015, the company opened Nando’s Oman’s flagship outlet in The Oman Avenues Mall. “In total, we currently stand at eight Second Cups, four Bread Talks, and three Nando’s. We have another three or four [openings] in the pipeline for the next six months, at the building and concept design stage,” says Mirza.

Speaking to Caterer Middle East by phone from the UK, Mirza says the decision to found the company was purely down to his personal eating-out preferences. While studying in the UK, he fell in love with the flavours of Nando’s, but Oman did not have that brand at the time. He says: “Before heading back with my degree, I started contacting Nando’s to bring them back home with me. I thought it was a good opportunity, it was something I liked, and Nando’s is a fun brand.”

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Signing on Second Cup was not initially on his agenda, but “because the first location we started with was slightly oversized for Nando’s, we thought we need a café to complement the restaurant”, according to Mirza. And so Second Cup was signed.

Mirza says it’s important for him when signing brands to figure out which concepts he can imagine associating with. “We look for things we can be passionate about and deliver the right experience to customers. I wouldn’t go ahead and get something I’m not personally keen on. I have to like the brand, the product and everything about it.”

Plus, post-deal support and interaction is important. Mirza says: “Whenever we sign a new franchise or brand, we will send our staff to that particular franchisor for training, and bring that back to train the rest of the staff.

“Normally if it’s a new concept, we will have opening support. So we’ve built a very good relationship with all our franchisors.”

The company currently employs approximately 150 people, but is hiring more because of scheduled new openings. Mirza says: “We believe our greatest assets are our people, and those people make a difference to the customers. We are passionate, so we take care of our staff. If they are happy, they are settled in, we won’t lose a lot of staff. We invest in them, and we promote them, and give them training. And we don’t limit our staff to where they are.

“We have waiters who have been promoted to managers, we have an Omani guy who started as an assistant manager, and he is now the quality assurance manager in the company. People have grown in the company and we want to have that family feel, where we work together.

“We don’t have the bureaucracy of ‘I’m the MD, you’re the general manager, you’re the operational manager, and we don’t interact’. We have regular meetings, we go out together regularly, so we build that trust and family atmosphere.”

In a country where Omanisation is being enforced, finding the right staff can be a challenge. Mirza admits that sometimes the percentage required (30% for hotels and restaurants) is an issue.

But he adds: “We have amazing staff who are Omani who have been working with us for so long — some of them for 10 years. Once you get them on-board, then you click with them.”

Mirza reveals that 80% of the company’s Omanis work at the Second Cup cafés, but aren’t keen to move to the other concepts, which he says is a challenge.

“To open up tourism and hospitality in Oman, we need to be a bit more flexible. The government is trying — we have a lot of people trained by the government in various hospitality institutes. But getting them on-board and getting them to take work seriously is a challenge. Because some of them, I believe, go into it for the financial aspect. They don’t want to build a career from it.”

He also has a smart answer for any Omanis who may say something like: ‘I can’t clean a table, I can’t take orders.’ “I always tell them: if you look at it, in Oman we are well known for hospitality. When people come in to our houses, we serve them the food, we serve them the coffee, we clean the placemats and everything — so why can’t you do it for the rest of the world that is coming into Oman?”

Staffing concerns aside, finding the right location for concepts is also on the restaurateur’s agenda. There is a shortage of prime locations in Oman, along with many spaces not being equipped to cater to F&B, says Mirza. Malls are not easy either, he says, with the big players needing to see “solid operations” before trusting companies with a coveted unit.

Six franchise deals and 11 years later, it’s clear that Bin Mirza International believes in the concept of ‘slow and steady’. Did Mirza think about launching a home-grown concept? He reveals candidly: “We have thought about something, but Oman wasn’t ready and we weren’t ready because we didn’t have the experience. People in Oman are keener on brands than locally developed concepts.

“But now that we’ve built our trust with customers, to whom we bring high-profile, well-established brands, it’s about time for us to develop something. Hopefully by next year we should have something locally developed.”

Mirza is keen for the company to be recognised as firmly Omani in its roots “because a lot of the concepts operating in Oman are by people based in Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain”. He adds: “We had to establish ourselves as an Omani company, and then want to move ahead into the UAE, and maybe Bahrain. Even as far as the UK — we don’t have a limit on where we want to go.”

The Omani F&B market, Mirza says, is more price sensitive than others in the GCC. He also believes that the audience differs from those in other markets.

“In other markets there’s a culture of going out and there’s a mixed metropolitan feel to the city. In Oman, it’s a lot more conservative. The younger generation is going to change that, but it’s taking time. If you compare Oman 10 years ago to what it is now, it’s a big difference.

“But if you compare economies between Oman and Bahrain — similar levels of income, similar family cultures — Bahrain is more outgoing.” Currently, Omanis are focused on saving money for buying a house or car, and having a phone, according to Mirza, with dining out not at the top of their priorities... yet. But it will get there.

And meanwhile, in readiness for that day, he is focused on becoming “the leading F&B operator in Oman and to have the variety of getting the best brands in Oman”.

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