The UAE’s Rasha Al Dhanhani, the mastermind behind the PappaRoti Café tells Alice Johnson about how she made her bun brand global.
Rasha Al Dhanhani doesn’t do things half-heartedly. Back in 2009 she opened the first PappaRoti café in Dubai Mall. Today, she manages 400 franchised outlets in seven countries around the region. “It was a bit difficult,” the chairperson of PappaRoti admits of opening her first outlet, “because it was during the recession… but I took this as an advantage,” she says, adding that she realised the global financial crisis might stop other brands from making a foray into the market. “It was also a challenge to see if people will like it, or whether they wouldn’t like it,” she adds of the PappaRoti trademark buns, as it was a completely new brand for the UAE. Not only this, but gaining the retail space in Dubai’s biggest mall was a challenge in itself – especially for a new concept, she says: “It’s a very well known, famous landmark, so to get into the Mall was a challenge.”
At first, consumers weren’t sure what the product was, Al Dhanhani says, “they thought the buns were like normal bread – so we had to explain more about it, about its taste.” The sweet PappaRoti buns are caramel-coated, baked until the outside forms a crunchy layer, are topped with different flavours and include a soft, melted centre. “I kept hearing from everyone ‘mmm, it’s good’,” she continues of the taste tests they conducted upon opening. “So when I heard this, I knew I’d made the right decision.”
She first spotted the buns in Malaysia in 2009, and thought that the concept would work well for a UAE audience. Slowly but surely the brand has expanded to almost 60 across the UAE. It was in 2010 that Al Dhanhani took the plunge and decided to set up a franchise chain, opening a minimum of three outlets in each new country she approached. With each new country, however, comes a new set of challenges. “It’s not that difficult to expand in the region,” she admits, “but the difficulty lies in the paperwork. Some countries ask for different documents and certificates and so the process can be longer,” she says. “Each country also has their own rules and regulations and each time you move to a different region you have to follow these rules and regulations.” The buns have found popularity across the Far East, in countries such as the Philippines, China, Korea, and in Thailand. Unusually, the buns retain a single recipe across the world and the recipe has not needed to be localised. Seasonal favourites, however, have been introduced in the UAE, such as the saffron latte and Nutella-topped bun; and new recipes are introduced at festive times such as Ramadan and Eid.
Al Dhanhani studied General Business at Dubai Women’s College, and believes that Emirati women should take a chance and look at working in various fields. “You have to search for the right franchise,” she says. “A lot of Emirati women go into fashion or salons and spas. You have to get out of this sector and do something that is unusual,” she advises. The best experience comes from learning on the ground, she continues: “Some people think ‘you’re a woman, so how can you work in this field’, but I always say you can learn about a business on the ground – she can succeed in whatever field she’s in, but what’s missing is being creative,” she says, “it’s important to do something new or bring a new brand [into the market].”
Having that all-important light bulb moment isn’t all there is to it, however. Market research is imperative. “Some people have a great idea, but they fail in the middle [of their journey], because they didn’t study the product or the brand.” Not only that, but owning and making a business successful really is all about location, location, location. “It’s the most important thing for the business,” she adds.
Her success hasn’t gone unnoticed by the UAE, either. Al Dhanhani won the ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ award at the 2013 Arab Women Awards UAE, as well as two Dubai SME Awards from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. One of these was for running a small or medium business, while the second was entitled ‘Best Businesswoman in 2012’. These awards have spurred her on, encouraging her to push herself to do more. “Whenever you win an award you feel that you’re doing well, that you’re succeeding. Then you feel like you need to become more successful and win more awards,” she says.
Running so many outlets in the UAE and the global franchising of this now-popular brand hasn’t stopped the Emirati entrepreneur from turning her hand to other ventures, however. She also set up marketing company BrandNoise, which now represents a number of global brands in the UAE – with advertising, branding and design, digital and public relations services – as well as handling the marketing for PappaRoti. Al Dhanhani also runs Al Rasha Investments, which is an umbrella company for her other business interests.
And like a true entrepreneur, Al Dhanhani is always on the look-out for new brands and new opportunities. “I am always looking into other brands and concepts,” she says, “I like to have different types of businesses. We’re trying to expand into different fields - as well as in the food and beverage industry,” she adds.
So has the successful businesswoman got any words of advice for other entrepreneurial women in the UAE? “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”