Since the 90s Ali Mubarak has been planning his quick service restaurant (QSR) empire. With family friend, Karl Nason, the duo set up the Sania Group around Ali’s dining table in 2013. Now they helm a company with 400 staff across the UK, operating 16 Pizza Hut franchises, three German Doner Kebab units, five You Me Sushi locations and will soon be bringing Italian coffee brand, Cafe Barbera, to the country
“No one knows to hustle better than a broke university student,” says multi-unit and multibrand QSR franchisee and Sania Group CEO Ali Mubarak. Ali first made his foray into the fast food industry in 1996, working part-time at a KFC while at university.
After graduating he joined the business full time, quickly rising through the ranks to become a manager in 1999 and then regional manager in 2002. However, after over a decade in the role, Ali decided that it was time to use his expertise in fast food to become a business owner himself.
So how do you go from owning one restaurant to a QSR empire? Ali and Karl boil this down to a single concept: a growth mindset.
When they started their entrepreneurial journey, it was never about opening just one or two stores, they were looking at always setting up a multi-unit and multi-brand operation. But even with all that planning and foresight, there were hiccups along the way.
“Being a regional manager, I was used to working on the business, not in it. And while we had great growth, the company grew too big without the correct support in place,” reflected Ali. “Although we had area managers, we realised we not only needed a structure but a head office base. Karl put to use his previous experience to manage the commercial side, and we hired an operations director, a finance team and established an HQ with a reporting system in place.”
While Ali’s history with the industry provided the group direction, having day-to-day operational plans were key to the company’s successful expansion. “When you look after hundreds of employees, you don’t realise how much time is taken up by the financial side as you want to be a genuinely good employer. We are the Sania family and you have to support and develop your family.
“So, we set up a head office to be in one location. We have multiple meetings about multiple things but the decision making is all done in one location. This way we can make quick, positive but correct, concise thought out decisions rather than having to rush it. A real positive of being in a head office is to make sure that we are working together collectively to drive the business in the right direction for growth,” explained Karl.
Consequences of Covid-19
There is no denying that the past 20 months have changed the business landscape and more so for the QSR sector. For Ali, COVID-19 brought “tremendous growth for the business”. While in-person dining closed, the delivery service more than made up and even surpassed growth forecasts for the year. “There were positives and negatives, but there were a lot more positives for the delivery service,” admitted Karl.
“We were forecasting three per cent sales growth for the year in 2020, but because of COVID-19 we hit 20 per cent growth,” Ali elaborated. “We are always on the lookout to diversify our portfolio and the pandemic presented an opportunity in the market.”
While the group counts iconic brands like Pizza Hut as part of its portfolio, Karl owes the company’s success to its robust research and development division that thoroughly researches the ever-evolving QSR marketplace. “It’s more about selecting and looking at the UK marketplace. What’s popular and not just next week, next month? We are looking at brands that have the potential to turn into the next iconic brand,” said Karl.
Although the pandemic strengthened the group’s profitability of existing stores and helped to spot new business ventures, launching new ones proved to be tough. “We initially signed seven German Doner Kebab territories and managed to open one two months ago, and are on track to open two more before the end of December, but with lockdowns it has been tricky,” said Ali.
If there was a negative to the business because of COVID-19, this would be it. Besides GDK, the duo was also scheduled to bring Italian coffee brand, Cafe Barbera, to the UK. “We were in negotiation to start building around February to March of 2020 but as I started seeing the issues of COVID coming in January, we luckily put plans on hold.
“One of the first units was in a shopping centre that went from 30 million visitors to none, so it would have been a challenge beyond belief,” explained Karl. in 2013.
Next big thing
As much as the Sania Group is diversifying its brand portfolio, it is also expanding its operations internally. Here is where Karl’s expertise shines through. He explained: “My history is telecoms and data. So rather than outsourcing this – web development, strategies, apps – we are setting it up in-house to mitigate the risks of losing valuable customer data.
“We’re looking at bringing in different services solutions, like voice over IP, to benefit all aspects of our business. This will not only benefit us now but also future franchisees of our brands.”
The duo looks at the Sania Group not just as a multi-brand franchisee – they believe it’s building its own identity in the world of UK franchising. After mastering multi-unit franchising with Pizza Hut, German Doner Kebab and You Me Sushi, the brand has become a master franchisee for Cafe Barbera to set up and perfect its own supply chain and distribution operations.
“We have assets and staff, yet our suppliers don’t know us. So, we wanted to create our own identity to show banks and brands we want to work with in the future who we are in the market, rather than just be known as a franchise partner of a brand,” explained Ali.
Each of these elements is a stepping stone to the group’s ultimate goal. “We have the expertise; we are building the brand identity, systems and infrastructure to eventually launch our own food brand in the market because ultimately, everybody loves and needs good food,” said Ali.
Amanda Peters is a staff writer for What Franchise and Global Franchise.