When Wally Sadat joined his brother-in-law to run Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant The Kebab Shop in San Diego in 2008, he knew the odds were stacked against them. His only restaurant experience involved odd jobs during college. People in the U.S. weren’t familiar with the food they were serving. And the timing, Sadat says, couldn’t have been worse.
“It wasn’t the best time to make a career decision — big economic crisis,” he laughs.
But his brother-in-law was passionate about doner kebabs — thinly sliced meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie that Sadat likens to Mexican al pastor. He wanted to make doner kebabs approachable for all kinds of people, and as ubiquitous in San Diego as pizza, burgers, and tacos. That ambition inspired Sadat to get involved, and soon other family members wanted to help. None of them could have fathomed where that journey would take them. What started as family members pitching in to wash dishes and take orders (on pieces of paper stuck to the walls for the cooks to see, no less) at a single location has turned into a booming family-run restaurant chain. The Kebab Shop now has 19 locations — four of which opened during the pandemic — and plans for at least five more locations in 2021.
“When you own a restaurant, and it’s so intertwined in your family, you cannot let that restaurant fail. Because if it fails, my aunt fails, my dad fails,” Sadat says. “Everyone put literally all their money — everything — into this.”
How a digital-forward vision helped the business meet customer needs
Sadat had planned for massive growth in 2021 and beyond. Despite some pandemic-related setbacks (they had to permanently close one of their locations), The Kebab Shop has largely stayed on course, succeeding and exceeding expectations. Sadat expects to have at least 50 locations over the next couple of years, in large part, he says, because the company’s focus on being digital has helped them weather the storm.
“We were very lucky that we were already in a digital-forward position,” Sadat explains. “We already had online ordering; we already had contactless payments; we had QR code ordering already, mainly for people who had dogs and wanted to wait outside [for their food]; we already had a KDS [kitchen display system]. So there was really no reason for anyone to come into contact with us at our restaurant, unless they wanted to,” he says.
As a result, The Kebab Shop was quickly able to turn on new features like curbside pickup and on-demand delivery. He largely credits the brand’s foresight a few years ago to digitize their front-of-house and back-of-house operations, allowing his team to meet customer needs when the pandemic occurred. It gives him confidence that The Kebab Shop will be able to withstand future crises.
Future-proofing the business
“[Customers] want the same quality experience they got before COVID, you know, but what they learned through COVID, they don’t want to lose that either,” Sadat posits. “So all of those features of curbside pickup, contactless delivery … we feel like that’s going to have to remain for the future, because those are now convenience tools that I think people have gotten accustomed to.”
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While digital tools are currently being used to limit contact, looking to the future, Sadat believes they offer a way to build connections with consumers no matter where they are. And that, he says, is how he hopes to future-proof his business.
“The Kebab Shop is a brand where we want to hit you with all of the senses … what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling, what you’re tasting, what you’re seeing,” says Sadat. “But the experience doesn’t just start when you walk in the door. It starts when you go to our website, it starts when you place an order, all the way to when we fulfill the order, and then loyalty rewards, marketing, email blasts, Instagram. He adds, emphatically, “I will punch this into the sky: Your digital experience is now just as important as your food experience.”
Despite the fact that he has more expertise in cutting tomatoes than in social media, Sadat has grown the brand’s following to 23,000 just by experimenting and showcasing his personality. “When I’m making food, I literally take a picture of it,” says Sadat. “The other day I wrote, ‘Who’s your favorite rapper?’ People started to realize that we are just normal people who are making food [we] care about.”
Craving change, every single day
It’s no wonder Sadat and his team are always thinking about how they can be prepared for what’s around the corner with a company tagline like “Crave Change” — evolution is build into the brand. They constantly challenge themselves: How can they make their menu better? How can they anticipate customer needs? How can they empower their employees? How can they support fellow restaurateurs?
“We treat every day like it’s the first day we’re open,” Sadat says. “Sometimes we’ll be in the middle of a dinner shift or a lunch shift and we just look at each other like, what the hell did we just do? We came from just one store, and all of a sudden we’re in four major cities. I still feel like this is a dream. We’re just so fortunate that we’re making kebabs, we’re doing something we love.”
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