CEO Interview: Johnny Tomazos

Starting out as a small family business, Food Fund International has grown leaps and bounds with a number of reliable and well-known concepts in the region. Its CEO, Johnny Tomazos, talks about how the company ensured its longevity in a competitive market.
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Johnny Tomazos, Food Fund International, The Meat Co, Dubai Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Meat Co Dubai

The Meat Co in Dubai has been around for more than a decade, and it’s set to undergo a renovation before a re-opening in September 2018. It’s a testament to the sticking power of the steakhouse brand, which comes from the stables of Food Fund International (FFI). Its CEO Johnny Tomazos says the home-grown philosophy that his father followed when he launched the company is still around today — making it the reason for the company’s success.

Tomazos’ father was a Greek immigrant in South Africa, and had “the skills of a chartered accountant but the passion of a restaurateur”. And Tomazos caught the restaurant bug from his father, and eventually worked his way up the company — working in the scullery, as a waiter and across the world before he could take charge.

Tomazos reminisces about the time the company got an opportunity to open up The Meat Co in Madinat Jumeirah. He says: “At the time, no one wanted the location. It was a success from day one because the location was quite iconic, the staff were engaging and friendly, the concept... everything just worked.”

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As with many companies, FFI was faced with the challenge of whether it wanted to expand the organisation, and how. Tomazos reveals that the decision was made to remain company-owned, and not franchise any of the brands. The idea was, Tomazos comments, was to “go slower and have better control over the quality of the food, people, and to be fully in control of the quality of the experience of our product”.

He supports the power of home-grown whole-heartedly and says: “We started becoming opportunistic and we said to landlords that we would develop brands that are locally grown, company owned, we won’t open up many stores and we would make bespoke concepts for the locations that we think will work. We tried to do the usual in an unusual way. We would develop home-grown here. That’s basically Food Fund’s philosophy and that is what we have been doing for the 12 years that we have been in the region and we have been doing some pretty exciting things.”

One of the exciting things that Tomazos is referring to is developing a variety of brands which have expanded in the last 4-5 years, one of which is Eat Greek. The idea behind launching that brand, which not only leans back to the family’s heritage, is that, Tomazos says, there was “no Greek branded product around the world that’s done properly”.

He says passionately: “[A concept] that is branded, that is run well, that is about quality of food and not breaking plates and dancing, making it thematic, about proper good ingredients, quality of food, and décor that isn’t blue and white tables and a picture of Santorini!”

At the time, the aim was be the first Greek-branded operator globally, starting off in Dubai. But as is the case even today in the market, they faced hurdles — despite the success of the other brands in FFI’s kitty. Tomazos reveals: “When we went to landlords, we couldn’t get a location because everyone said it wouldn’t work because everyone’s eating hamburgers and wants American brands. Why would I want to be another hamburger concept?”

But, they persevered. The team worked hard to create a casual dining concept with flavours of a five-star restaurant, says FFI’s CEO, and built something that they believe represents modern Greece rather than a stereotype. Fast forward to now, with four outlets opened since, the most recent being within Athens International Airport. Tomazos is pleased with how that came about and recounts that the airport team contacted FFI about Eat Greek. He says: “I asked why they didn’t go to a Greek restaurant in Greece. I was told there’s no Greek-branded product that’s run to standard, rather there are a lot of one-offs. There’s a success story: we developed a Greek brand and it went back to its birthplace.”

While admitting there’s a general global slowdown, he says this has done a lot of good for FFI. He comments: “It’s made us re-look at our business and understand where we’re going wrong and the customer’s expectation level. We went through an unfortunate cost cutting exercise… but we’re stronger as we have come out of it.”

And expansion continues to be important. “We have always got plans and we still want to grow but we want to grow carefully in the right areas, with the right rentals and right landlords. Once we tick all those boxes, we will take units. There are still lots more locations in Dubai we could be in, different segments of the market that we’re not in, different parts of the region. We are not in Saudi, we are looking at another store in Bahrain. Even in Africa. We spent time in Kenya and Zimbabwe and we are thinking of the concept Grill Shack (which we opened in Dubai Mall’s food court), of opening one in Kenya and Zimbabwe this year. There are things coming and different geographies.”

He touches on the renovations to The Meat Co concepts as well, and adds: “Having said all that, we are opportunistic. If someone comes to us with the right location and we think we can execute a new concept properly, we will develop another concept.” Here’s to seeing what these restaurateurs do next.

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