F&B Interview: Aline Kamakian

Mayrig founder explains the business strategy behind the brand expansion
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Aline Kamakian is passionate about sharing Armenian culture.
Aline Kamakian is passionate about sharing Armenian culture.
In spite of the construction and noise in front of the restaurant, customers kept coming back.
In spite of the construction and noise in front of the restaurant, customers kept coming back.
The Dubai outlet is Mayrig’s flagship in the UAE.
The Dubai outlet is Mayrig’s flagship in the UAE.
Elder Armenian women were hired by the founders to prepare raw ingredients at home and then transport to the restaurant.
Elder Armenian women were hired by the founders to prepare raw ingredients at home and then transport to the restaurant.
Aline Kamakian and Serge Maacaron also trained in the kitchen to ensure they knew what went into making the dishes.
Aline Kamakian and Serge Maacaron also trained in the kitchen to ensure they knew what went into making the dishes.

Mayrig’s interiors, I’m told, are meant to resemble the inside of a traditional Armenian home, in this case, the founders’ grandmother’s — Manouchag.

Its Lebanon–based founders, Aline Kamakian and Serge Maacaron, are restaurateurs who had an unlikely start in the F&B market. Kamakian holds a Master’s degree in Marketing from Saint Joseph University, and Maacaron a BSc degree in Liberal Sciences from Lebanese American University. They both started their careers in insurance — she opened her brokerage firm in 1998, and Maacaron joined the family brokerage and real estate firm.

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Mayrig — which means ‘mother’ in Armenian — was born in May 2003, after a chance conversation over a family lunch. Kamakian reveals it was quick work, with the decision taken on a Sunday, and the fit–out beginning a week later. The journey continued from there, with the cousins now co–running three restaurants (Mayrig Beirut, Batchig by Mayrig, and Mayrig Boulevard Restaurant Dubai), a central kitchen (The Kitchen) and a catering company (M Catering).

Kamakian says: “Things grow organically. When we had the restaurant, some clients asked if we catered. The first answer was no, and then we started to do something small like takeaways and we learned. And since we had the central kitchen in Lebanon, it was easy to prepare; the location was there, we just had to add the service.”

Once the catering took off, the restaurateurs opened Batchig by Mayrig, which offers Armenian food with a Levantine influence, and then a boutique store called Made by Mayrig, which offers frozen items to use in home cooking.

Mayrig Boulevard Restaurant in Dubai opened in August 2013 as a flagship created in partnership with investors, as a management franchise. Since then, potential franchisees have been approaching the management to open new outlets in the GCC, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait confirmed as the brand’s next steps.

With the former, Kamakian and Maacaron have signed a franchise agreement with Rawafed Group, and the outlet is scheduled open in Riyadh by the end of the year. Kamakian stresses that the deal is not a master franchise agreement (MFA), saying she never signs MFAs, rather, single unit deals.

She explains: “Franchising your business should grow organically. I don’t want the franchisee to open five units. I want [them] to open one unit and the best unit. If this unit is very good, then we’ll talk about the other ones. It’s not about the money, I want to get to know you. The first outlet is where I’m getting engaged, the second one is where I’m marrying you. Franchising is very important, because it takes two to tango.”

Kamakian says her caution around franchising was related to a bad experience she had in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia a few years ago. “We had the wrong franchise partner and it resulted in collateral damage and direct damage on the brand, and on us. It was our first franchise, so it was damaging but we’ve learned a lot from it.” The restaurant is now closed.

She revealed the ex–franchisee did not follow the brand guidelines and started cutting on quality, changed the menu without approval, and did not manage the situation properly. She candidly adds: “If that mistake was made in Dubai, maybe it would have killed me. It did damage us but not as much as if we would have done the same thing here [Dubai].”

However, Kamakian also faced challenges in Dubai’s flagship outlet. Construction started on The Boulevard in front of the restaurant [related to the Dubai Trolley] and the loud noises [which Kamakian describes as a “jackhammer noise”] discouraged many guests, who were unable to sit outdoors due to the disturbance. She says she received phone calls at the time, asking if the venue had shut down.

Another challenge she says she faced was the constant competition. “Here, you are bombarded by new restaurants. I always say: ‘if you go for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 365 days to a new restaurant, you still won’t finish [visiting] all.’ To come back to a restaurant is a huge achievement. It’s a challenging market, it’s booming, and it’s a saturated market.

“Sometimes I walk around and see a restaurant that’s always empty… I don’t know what they’re doing! OK, you open a flagship just to be there, you pump money, but how much are you ready to pump and why? I’m not ready to pump money because I don’t have it. I started from scratch, I’m a self-made person.

“Serge and I didn’t inherit a billion dollars, so we had to have a healthy business model. And that means profit, otherwise you cannot sustain the business. How am I supposed to sell a franchise if my model is not good?

“I told people: ‘I cannot talk to you right now because my P&L is negative because of the construction during its peak.’ I didn’t have a terrace when no one wanted to sit inside, and yet I had clients. And I tell my employees: ‘Despite everything, look at our clients. They are here because of you, not because of the seating area.’ This is the most encouraging thing.”

In addition to the Riyadh opening, next up for Kamakian and Maacaron is Batchig by Mayrig in Kuwait, as a franchise in a mall.

What’s next? She reveals: “We are looking for a franchisee for London and we are looking for locations, so that we start the Europe part [of our expansion].”

While it’s been more than 10 years, Kamakian and Maacaron have carved out a niche for their empire — even more impressive when she reveals that at the beginning of her Mayrig venture, she didn’t know what franchising meant.

Kamakian frankly reveals: “At the beginning, when the first client asked us for the master franchise, I didn’t know what it meant. I had to look it up, I had to learn, I had to train, and I had to use manuals.

“Our growth wasn’t a strategic decision, we had to take the best decision for the brand. But it eventually became our strategy. If we cared about the money, we would have taken the offer eight years ago because it was a lot of money, but it wasn’t about that.”

Judging by what Kamakian says, her venture is all about passion and authenticity. This was witnessed when the founders hired elder Armenian women to prepare raw ingredients for dishes at home before transporting the semi–cooked items to the restaurant.

Kamakian explains: “We have Armenian mothers who supervise, they are in the kitchen. Here [in Dubai] they visit regularly and train [the chefs]. We insist on having women in the kitchen — this is our secret.”

In addition, Maacaron’s sister, Sandra Maacaron, worked on the interior design, and the co-founders trained in the kitchen as well, to ensure all the dishes tasted as accurate as possible.

And yet, they are not bound to strict rules, but have adapted to each market they entered. She says: “The whole franchising idea is to export or expand your business faster. Expanding means you have to keep the core of the business, but if you don’t adapt you will be lost.”

Kamakian explains: “In Lebanon if you want to eat fish, you eat on the boat. That’s why I don’t have fish on the menu in Lebanon. In Dubai, people ask for fish, and we have a lot of Armenian fish recipes, so we added it. We didn’t go out of the concept but we adapted to the market.

“Or in Saudi, they like to have rice next to the meat. We also noticed in Saudi that they like to sit on a couch, not a banquette, because they don’t want their wives to share that with anyone. Those are the small things where you should adapt — otherwise you’re out of business.”

Speed is important in this regard, she says, especially with a franchise, with each needing to have the same quality, training and food concept. Market research is done in every market they open, and suppliers are chosen with care. In the beginning of Mayrig’s foray in the UAE, Kamakian and Maacaron used to personally bring a lot of ingredients from Lebanon.

She says she emphasises the quality factor with her franchisees as well: “If there is anything that is not up to our quality, there is a condition that it has to come from Lebanon. In the beginning, I used to bring a lot of things from Lebanon; now, with time, I’m finding what I want or finding a distributor who brings them from Lebanon. And you have to also note your food costs. You cannot import everything... it’s not good.”

Kamakian shows a steely-eyed business sense amidst her passion for sharing the values of Armenian food. “There is a difference between passionate and realistic. I’m passionate, and I’m in love with what I do, but at the end I have to sustain it. If I’m not smart enough or if I don’t know how to manage it, I will lose it. I will never touch the quality; I will manage the costs, but I will not cut costs.”

She continues: “We still work with farmers for example. Earlier, I was carrying out transportation by airplane, now I’ve found a place with a big freezer where I can send by ship. So I bought the cost of the transportation down but I didn’t change my quality. Those are the things that you need time to fine tune when you start in a location that you don’t know. Now I challenge everyone, and I tell you, poultry is better here than in Beirut!”

She concludes: “We started as an idea, as a game. But now it’s different; we have the responsibility to continue the awareness of Armenian culture. Together with a productive business plan and a positive P&L, it’s the best combination that you can find because there is a mission behind it. It’s not just a restaurant that you’re going to. When you go to Mayrig, it’s to the Armenian culture, history, and traditions. And combined with a great P&L… the sky is the limit.”

CSR INITIATIVES

Aline Kamakian and Serge Maacaron lead a series of responsible business initiatives such as energy conservation and recycling programmes. Additionally, they have participated in events like the Beirut Marathon for Autism, donated food to The Food Bank, and gave away a percentage of the company’s profits to Armenian orphanages and halfway homes. They also offer assistance and guidance to young entrepreneurs.

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