The entrepreneur is changing minds about what a kebab can be with German Doner Kebab, one bite at a time
You could say Athif Sarwar was always destined to become either a politician or a businessman. His father Mohammed has been involved in politics and built up a business empire, while one brother, Anas, is a Member of the Scottish Parliament and the other brother, Asim, runs United Wholesale, the family business that’s taken on the German Doner Kebab franchise. So as you can imagine, dinners with the Sarwars inevitably turn into lengthy discussions about either business or political issues.
In fact, while they were still kids Sarwar’s dad would typically identify which family members might be suited for politics and who would be cut out for the business world. But the choice was always crystal clear for the entrepreneur. “Politics is too boring and there’s no money to be made,” he says. “I’ve been drawn to business since I was 16.” Hungry to learn, Sarwar would help out in the family shops whenever he could and when he went to the University of Glasgow, he chose business-related courses like management and economics.
All this prepared him for his big break at the age of 21, when he took over the family’s cash and carry business. While most of his friends were still at university or delaying adulthood, Sarwar was steering the direction of a company that was turning over around £35m a year. Although this might overwhelm some, the plucky Scotsman felt quietly confident. “It wasn’t that intimidating because I was already familiar with the business,” he says. “I knew exactly how the buying worked and who the customer was. I was also working with a team of people who had been there for years, even decades.”
His first foray into franchising came a few years into his role when, along with younger brother Asim, he decided to bring a number of existing United Wholesales stores together under the banner of Day-Today. But rather than slowly franchising the stores over time, Sarwar jumped in with both feet. On April 1 2004, he announced to the press that he was about to take on 30 franchisees – all at the same time. Was it a joke? Could he really be so daring? The media lapped up the story, which spread both online and offline. But underneath his cool exterior, Sarwar was feeling the pressure. “I was bricking it right up to the night before the announcement,” he admits. “It was a very tense six months preparing the franchisees for the launch.”
Having accumulated a healthy portfolio of food businesses and grown the Day-Today franchise network to include 532 stores, Sarwar wasn’t necessarily on the market for another franchise opportunity. But an aha moment while on holiday was impossible to ignore. “I had a kebab in Dubai at a German Doner Kebab restaurant,” he recalls. “I thought it tasted so good that I went back to the hotel and told my whole family I was taking them all out for one the next day.” Though his wife and kids were sceptical to say the least – they certainly hadn’t travelled abroad to eat an Emirati take on German street food – the whole gang was won over by the fresh flavours and his kids actually lobbied to go back every day during the trip. Impressed and feeling confident that he had the necessary experience in both franchising and the food business, Sarwar looked into bringing the franchise to the UK – a nation that already had a long-standing relationship with kebabs.
That’s not to say there wouldn’t be a few challenges though. “To be honest, I had some reservations about the name,” he says. “People are pretty patriotic in the UK and I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about the word ‘German’. But I was confident people would forget all about the name once they tried the food.”
To help put a British stamp on the brand, Sarwar invested heavily in social media and locally relevant marketing from the start. And hitting the right note with the communications was particularly important not just to help people come to terms with the name but also to overcome some pretty ingrained preconceptions about kebabs. “Most people think of kebabs as something unhealthy you eat at one o’clock in the morning when you’re stumbling out of a pub and then regret when you wake up the next morning,” Sarwar says. “I wanted to change the way people saw them and show they could be made with fresh and healthy ingredients.”
While getting people to see kebabs as a legitimate lunchtime meal – rather than a dirty snack gobbled by the kerb with a side order of self loathing – might seem like a tall order, Sarwar is drawing inspiration from another guilty pleasure that’s been given a makeover recently. “Just look at what’s happened with the rise of gourmet burgers,” he says. “Those businesses have taken a normal fast-food product that contained low-quality meat and turned it into something that you can enjoy without the guilt. We’ve done the same by taking a product people love and cleaning it up. Our food contains 100% lean meat, comes with handmade bread and is lower in calories.”
As his first franchise launch showed, Sarwar isn’t one to take a wait-and-see approach. Within nine months he had brought 23 franchisees on board, each of whom have multiple-store deals. But is the entrepreneur worried he’s growing a little too quickly? In a word, no. “When it comes to food, it’s OK to grow fast. We’re not reliant on immigrant workers; the only source of contention is the fact that we import meat,” he says, referring to the fact that the company has been bringing in all its meat from Germany. But with the pound’s devaluation following the EU referendum, costs have inevitably risen. “Right now, the situation with the euro is making it a bit more difficult,” he says. But a solution is coming: with help from his current German supplier, Sarwar plans to open a UK plant that will be able to source and process British meat without the need to rely on imports.
This fits in with a wider plan to expand the network in Britain to include 200 outlets over the next five years. “I’m most interested in starting something from the ground up and building it up before passing it on,” Sarwar says. He’s certainly giving it his all, investing in both marketing and senior management talent to give the initial batch of franchisees a lift and prove that the concept will work on UK shores. If all goes to plan, the sighting of a German Doner Kebab shop will soon be regarded as evidence of a neighbourhood’s gentrification.