When Jihad El Eit ventured into a hotly contested F&B sector with his Man’oushe Street Lebanese bakery, he couldn’t tell one end of a loaf from the other. But the Lebanese-Argentinian did have two things going for him.

The first – entrepreneurial daring that had seen him move to Pakistan to take on Nokia distribution there, despite not knowing anyone. And the second – a hankering for a slice of home, and a desire to reconnect with the Lebanese food culture of his youth.

Both characteristics combined succinctly in Man’oushe Street – first known as Manoushe & Co., a bakery opened with the explicit purpose of reproducing the piping hot manoushe sold on Lebanon’s street corners.

It was a powerful idea. “Every single Lebanese person responds to manoushe. We were raised with the smell of manoushe. The manoushe with zaatar is something that we were all brought up with. It really is a classless commodity,” El Eit recalls.

Far from the maddening crowd

The first small bakery opened in Dubai’s Mizhar area, deliberately far from cosmopolitan Dubai. The rents were acceptable and the neighborhood quite insular. “We wanted to be in an area where we could learn. I didn’t have any experience in F&B, so I wanted to take it slow. There were hundreds of things to fix in the first year.”

In fact, the first year wasn’t one to write home about at all. For one, El Eit was still in Pakistan and travelling back and forth to Dubai. There were also hurdles aplenty. “We were challenged by so many things. First, to build a new kitchen is difficult. You have to ask people and find the right person to help you build. I wouldn’t say it was smooth.”

Monetizing the smell of baking

Man’oushe Street had entered a highly competitive market. And El Eit admits he didn’t expect the brand to go this far. “I wanted to recreate the small bakery, pay attention to the details and make it right. I took a risk.”

It was a risk that has paid off in spades. Today, Man’oushe Street has 11 fully owned and self-operated locations, and employs some 260 people. International partners have come knocking on the door to ask for franchising opportunities, resulting in the brand going regional. Three outlets are open in Egypt, with Qatar and Kuwait days away from opening. A franchised outlet is just about to light its ovens in Abu Dhabi, too.

And the brand has seen its revenues double year on year – from 2012 to 2013, and then again in 2014. El Eit says doubling them yet again is a mission for 2015.

A challenging dish

Dubai’s F&B market isn’t an easy nut to crack. Restaurants are plentiful, with provender from all over the world.

Recipes pose another serious question. “We tried back and forth to come up with the right recipes. We hired consultants. We did a lot of taste testing with family and friends – people who really are into manoushe. Then we ordered from all the manoushe shops in the city to see what works and what doesn’t,” El Eit admits.

And Dubai isn’t the easiest, or cheapest, place in which to set up. Over the years, rafts of regulations have been enacted to ensure everything is up to spec. But for El Eit the regulations are a good thing, even if they drive up the cost of conformance.

“Dubai’s regulations might be strict, but they’re strict for the right reasons, because that’s what keeps us on our toes. It ensures levels of service, hygiene and food are kept high, across the board.”

Investment was a challenge, too. Institutionalized financing options are a tough ask for a nascent business idea with no collateral. “I pooled capital with some friends. Between us, we raised AED 1 million [USD 272,000], which got us going.”

It was still touch and go at first. “The first year raised a lot of questions – chief among which was whether it was worth it to continue.”

In fact, the vicissitudes confronting the first bakery meant that El Eit and his partners decided to open a second in Tecom– just to balance things out and buffer the first with another.

A growing slice of the pie

In 2012, El Eit sold up in Pakistan. And that was when he decided the moment had come to go all in. “We decided to build a brand, as opposed to a standalone bakery.”

What followed was investment in people, infrastructure, and procedures. A hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) certified 8,000-square-foot central kitchen was put into operation, at a cost of some AED 6 million (USD 1.63 million). The liquidity came largely from El Eit’s exit from Pakistan.

The next step was franchising – a risky game. Many food brands have ruefully realized that rapid expansion can bite back if customers aren’t receptive to the core proposition. But El Eit says his self-owned branches have been his toughest school.

“Before you franchise, you need to master what you’re good at. I’m not going to sell what I don’t have. We’ve built from the ground up and proved the concept.”

It’s not just the concept but also the delivery. Each Man’oushe Street outlet, self-owned or otherwise, is governed by huge manuals and stringent standard operating procedures (SOPs). “Each location is treated as a franchisee when it comes to following procedures for training, baking, ordering, stocking. So moving to new territories is the same model.”

Million-dollar startup idea

El Eit is justifiably proud of how well his outlets are doing. Not a single one, he says, is in the orange, much less the red.

For any entrepreneurs wanting to chance their luck in the food market, El Eit says two things are essential– a million dollars, or AED 3 million, and the patience to wait out a year before turning any sort of profit.

It also helps if people are passionate and convinced, and not scared of failure. “If you have the right idea, fight and get the right numbers. And don’t think you’ll succeed the first time. You will succeed only because you have also failed. ”

As seen on Zawya Business Pulse. To see more, please click here