James Walker, senior vice president of restaurants at Nathan’s Famous, talks to Global Franchise about the iconic hot dog brand’s ambitions to crack the UAE market and beyond.
It’s well known that the countries that make up the Middle East – and the UAE in particular – are tricky territories for food and beverage brands to enter, what with the marketplaces already being saturated with Western fast-food and QSR concepts. But this doesn’t deter restaurants and hospitality industry veteran, James Walker, vice president of restaurants at Nathan’s Famous – in fact, he relishes the opportunity, and vehemently believes that Nathan’s Famous has the secret ingredients to succeed.
Joining the Nathan’s Famous fold earlier this year, Walker brings more than 30 years of senior level and management experience, working with companies such as Subway, Cinnabon, Johnny Rockets and Baja Fresh. It’s also helpful that he’s worked in more than 65 international markets, including extensive stints in GCC states.
With 87 per cent of UAE consumers visiting foodservice destinations at least once a week – compared to 74 per cent globally, according to Technomic – as well as presenting a market that saw 10 per cent new restaurant growth in 2018, according to Dubai’s Department of Economic Development, it’s easy to see why Walker is excited.
Speaking to Global Franchise ahead of the brand’s official Middle East expansion announcement at the Global Franchise Market in Dubai in November, Walker said: “What’s unique about Nathan’s Famous is that we bring with us over 100 years of business success. If you think of the number of restaurant brands that can make that claim, it’s a very short list indeed. This is a brand that’s been successful from 1916, which has the intellectual capital and historical knowledge of how to be successful. Additionally, our ‘four-pillared’ menu strategy allows us to flourish around the globe and go to international markets and have a broad enough menu. We offer a great customer experience and I love how we can create the New York food scene that is Nathan’s, anywhere in the world. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
A TASTE OF NEW YORK
Most people will be familiar with Nathan’s Famous due to its world-renowned beef hot dogs and golden crinkle-cut French fries – not to mention its famous 4th of July hot dog eating competition held on Coney Island that draws visitors and media attention from around the globe – and Walker states that its compelling menu strategy will serve it well and can be customized to suit any taste preference in every country. Not to mention the brand also offers versatile restaurant designs to accommodate a variety of locations, from food courts to free-standing.
“We are going to have a sophisticated approach to how we deliver the flavor of New York, which is our brand and menu positioning,” he says. “Nathan’s is the flavor of New York. We’re knowledgeable about how to translate that internationally on a market-by-market basis, utilizing as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible to reduce supply chain complexity. A lot of American brands go international – whether it’s to Asia, South America or elsewhere – and those launch restaurants are importing the vast majority of products. We’re working to deliver that same flavor of NYC, but do so in a way that utilizes as few imported products as possible and to take advantage of the supply chains that already exist in the country.”
While the brand has a presence in over 16 countries, Walker feels its growth has been at a sustainable and well-managed pace, with now being the perfect time to expand its offering to Middle Eastern consumers. “The UAE, from a foodservice standpoint, has competition that’s second to none, but we think our menu strategy allows us to compete very well,” he explains.
“I’ve got a lot of international experience, not to mention specific experience in the GCC, which informs me with things like avoiding supply chain complexity, ensuring the menu has broad appeal in the market, and making sure a brand delivers a very similar experience to what you would enjoy back home. If you think of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, they’re sophisticated and mature markets with well-traveled and well-read locals – these are folks that when they see Nathan’s in Dubai, they want to experience that same great product when they go to NYC on vacation or for business, so we need to make sure we deliver on that same level and experience.”
A MEASURED APPROACH
When it comes to growth, Walker states that the brand is more focused on finding the right franchise partners and opening the correct locations rather than just hitting high numbers. “We’re not focused on simply growing or how fast we can grow, we’re looking at how we can grow at a financially stable trajectory,” he says. “We want to open restaurants that are profitable with partners that represent the brand well. It’s not about hitting a number – it’s about the individual success of every restaurant we open.”
And what is Nathan’s Famous looking for in a business partner? “We’re looking for master franchisees and partners on a market-by-market basis,” Walker responds. “We want to meet people with the financial wherewithal and liquidity to get behind the brand and grow it. We’re also looking for a group that’s very communicative, and sees the brand through the same eyes we do. And considering how difficult it is to secure real estate in the UAE, we’re on the lookout for partners that have the ability to secure those hotly-coveted sites within the market.”
That left us with one final, hard-hitting question: will we ever see the hot dog eating contest take place in the Middle East? “When you think of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and how event-driven those cities are, I absolutely love the idea of having a regional qualifying hot dog match in one of those places,” he says. “It’d be over the top, but Dubai never disappoints!”