Big Smoke Burger now open!




Big Smoke Burger featured in BOXPARK article in Time Out Dubai

How a Canadian burger outlet made its way to the Middle

The oil-rich states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) have high rates of obesity and diabetes, prohibitions on alcohol, cultural infrastructure that is just now in the planning stages,and plenty of disposable income. Eating out is an acceptable form of entertainment, which makes the region perfect to expand a burger business. At least that’s the reasoning behind Toronto’s homegrown Big Smoke Burger aggressively expanding into the region.

Big Smoke opened its first Toronto store in 2007, and quickly became known for its grilled-to-order, high-quality beef served with real Canadian cheeses and high-end signature garnishes such as horseradish mayo and cilantro-feta spread. Musafa Yusuf, Big Smoke’s founder and chief executive, soon got the itch for expansion. He partnered with Fransmart, a U.S.-based franchise development company, offering it global rights outside of Ontario, in exchange for his splitting the franchise fee for any deals Fransmart closes.

The first U.S. franchise opened last year in Denver, Colo., and New York City and Detroit locations will soon be opening their doors. But Fransmart, under the hand of CEO Dan Rowe (known for the rapid expansion of Five Guys Burgers & Fries), also quickly lined up franchise partners far from home. A Kuwait location opened in November and a Riyadh store opened in January. Nipping at their heels are franchises in the UAE and Bahrain. Saleh Al-Samadi signed on for 15 units with a primary focus on Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah — all developed by his family’s company Al-Samadi Retail. “There are already a lot of big players in the GCC, but we wanted something that was a fresh approach,” Al-Samadi said. “We didn’t just want a greasy burger slapped on a bun.” The Dubai store is slated to open in July.


Franchisees will need a bit of money to opening a Big Smoke franchise, starting with a franchise fee of $35,000 and a restaurant can cost from $225,000 to $450,000 depending on its size and location. Mr. Yusuf, who spent a portion of his childhood in Abu Dhabi, said the Gulf region is a hotbed not just for fast food but the new “fast casual” concept — slightly fresher, fussier fast food — pioneered by U.S. brands such as Chipotle and Smashburger. “For a lot of the Middle Eastern countries, they don’t have movie theatres and you’re not going to a bar,” he said. “A cool burger place can become the place to be.” Mr. Al-Samadi said the huge demand can be attributed to two keys things. First, there  are a huge number of Western expats working in the Gulf eager for a taste of home. 

Second, the locals are fond of “Western experiences.” “It’s a win-win,” he said. While the franchise ideal is to mimic the original experience, there will be distinct differences at some Big Smoke outposts. All of the beef in the region will be halal. Franchises in Saudi Arabia will have segregated seating for men and women, and some of the stores will be bigger. No pork will be served. But the food will nonetheless be the same, Mr. Yusuf and Mr. Al-Samadi promise. The ingredients will be identical to those supplied to U.S. franchises, with smoked cheddar sourced from Canadian suppliers. Prime AAA Canadian beef will be flown in fresh, not frozen. Mr. Al-Samadi said his focus is to ensure his customers get close to  100% of the Big Smoke experience in Toronto. “We have customers who have had  Big Smoke in Canada and in Kuwait, and they say it tastes the exact same,” Mr. Yusuf said. Doug Fisher, President of FHG International, franchise consultants, says opening in the Gulf is an understandable temptation — if not quite the course he would recommend for building a brand.“The logical way to grow a company like that would be to continue to expand close to home until you’ve saturated the domestic market,” he said. “That way, you can centralize marketing efforts and keep any potential problems at home.” (For the record, Mr. Yusuf is adding several Ontario locations this year, including in Ottawa and Niagara Falls, for a total of 12 new stores by the end of 2014.) Still, despite his reservation, Mr. Fisher suspects Big Smoke business could be a big hit in the Gulf. “Most of the North American concepts that have gone to the Gulf have done well; there is a serious demand for American comfort foods, from TGI Friday’s to [Canada’s] New York Fries.”


That passion for American-style fast foods and all things fried has led to increasing public conversations about health, and particularly growing obesity and diabetes epidemics. Roughly one in five people have diabetes in the Gulf, and the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are all in the top five most obese countries in the world. While there’s certainly no immediate risk of a ban on oversize soda receptacles, at least some are trying to reform the idea that the Gulf is the ideal place for a fast food franchise.“People here don’t know when to say enough,” Mr.  Al-Samadi said. There will be no pretenses that burgers are the healthiest meal, but he insisted Big Smoke will be serving real, fresh, unprocessed food — and the company is working on a gluten-free bun — which will offer a welcome departure from the current grease-laden fast-food landscape. In the Gulf, as in Canada, the food industry is facing an uphill battle for hearts and waistlines. But even in a market saturated with quick meal options, Mr. Al-Samadi is convinced Big Smoke will offer something new to consumers. And, he noted, the poutine is already a huge hit in Kuwait.

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