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Arabian Knights reveal the recipe for a successful restaurant in Sri Lanka

Are you a fan of Arabian and Middle Eastern food? Then there’s not a chance that you have missed Arabian Knights, (with a “K”) a casual dining restaurant located at 377 Galle Road, Colombo 03. They serve some of the tastiest and most authentic Shawarma, Falafel, Sandwiches, Special Juices and Rice Dishes.

Arabian Knights started off as a hole in the wall operation on Marine Drive when they flew down a couple of Syrians to start serving authentic Syrian Shawarma in town. They started in 2012 and now they serve a whopping 4000 meals on a given month!

We see so many restaurants and cafes popping up in Colombo but very few make it to the other side. Arabian Knights is one of them. If you want to know what it takes to create a successful restaurant in Sri Lanka, you won’t find a better post like this.

Managing Director/Founder, Naqqash Jaleel was humble enough to share how they created a successful restaurant from scratch with Jump. Not only that; if you haven’t been to Arabian Knights yet, he suggested some of his favorite dishes for first-timers. Wanna find out? Start reading then.

Who is Naqqash Jaleel?

I am the Managing Director of Arabian Knights. Arabian Knights basically is a side gig cum retirement plan.

During the day I work as Director of Product and Marketing for Amadeus IT Group, based in the exciting city of Dubai. I am a Computer Science graduate and basically an Information Technology and Operations professional. I don’t know anything about food or cooking. Hence the irony of owning a successful restaurant.

Arabian Nights Naqqash Jaleel
Naqqash Jaleel

How big is Arabian Knights?

On a typical month, we serve over 4000 customers or meals. Arabian Knights is very much a small boutique business. We have of course grown out of our initial little outlet and the new outlet has proved to be extremely successful and popular even though we did go a bit upmarket from the initial outlet and product positioning.

The clientele is a mix of locals, expats, and tourists and we do draw a lot of visiting Arab customers as well. Also, we have a very healthy database of delivery customers who like to enjoy Arabian Knights food in the comfort of their homes.

What made you start a restaurant rather than any other business?

My background is around Technology, Operations, Travel, and IT Consulting. The idea behind opening up a restaurant was to own something that did not involve me busting my brains every month. The initial thought was, let’s get a simple business that sells 500 sandwiches a day and then I can take it easy in life. I am yet to take it easy in life though as life keeps getting complicated.

Also as you know with IT or consulting, if you don’t have projects lined up, it is tough to sustain yourself as a business so I was looking for peace of mind.

Arabian Knights started off after a trip to Damascus where I was lucky enough to savor some authentic street Shawarma in the famous old Damascus Souq. Initially, we began as a partnership with my Syrian friend, however, due to various differences on how we should run the business we had to part ways.

We validated the idea by opening up the little outlet. From day one we knew we had the right product as we went viral in Colombo, the little outlet couldn’t sustain itself and there were long waiting times for the food. It was chaotic and we had to struggle operationally to keep things under control and maintain standards.

How did you fund Arabian Knights?

AK was funded through our personal savings. Even though the outlet did well, initially we had various operational challenges and could not manage to keep staff, consistency or quality. We had to eventually close that outlet and part ways. We busted about 9 Million Sri Lankan Rupees each on the old outlet and business.

The second outlet was again self-funded from savings, this time my wife stepped in and took over all food operations, the kitchen and is the de-facto chef. We had a list of about 45 mistakes we made with the old outlet and swore to never repeat them with the new one.

Big costs are usually rental deposits and advances, equipment and the interior/exterior work for the restaurant. You also have to budget for about 4 months salaries of your joining staff and be prepared for delays on just about everything. If the estimate is 3 months, you can be sure it will take you 9 months. That’s how things work here and it’s just something you have to live with.

Arabian knights

What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?

Being an entrepreneur means freedom, it means control and your destiny is solely and fully in your hands. Also, the limits of your success are only defined by you when you are an entrepreneur. I hate the rigidity, the bureaucracy, the politics, the untold rules and power structures of larger organizations; for me being an entrepreneur unshackles me from these frustrations. Mind you, I still live in both these worlds, seamlessly switching between the two.

It also means you can give back much more to society. You provide employment, you help your suppliers; you are able to help the families of your employees and also can support initiatives that are dear to you using the success of your business. You can’t do all this when you work for someone else.

Finally, very importantly, I want to be able to take holidays when I want to, not when the boss or the organization wants me to 🙂

In the beginning, how did you market Arabian Knights to potential customers?

Sri Lanka is still a relatively small place. As they say ‘Well Begun is half done’. I think the impact of bringing the Syrians and the quality of the food initially was a crucial boost that created positive word of mouth. In no time we were well known in Colombo and had established a loyal base very soon.

We also use social media quite effectively – mainly Facebook and sometimes Twitter. We also have various partnerships with tour guides, travel companies, delivery services and banks. The best marketing for a restaurant is Word of Mouth that comes from a delightful experience. Nothing beats that.

We still believe our marketing is a weakness and will probably recruit a full-time digital marketing manager who can also drive our overall marketing initiatives very soon.

What were the biggest lessons you learned after running Arabian Knights?

  1. Have self-belief and trust your instinct. Don’t let the naysayers and people who ‘will you good’ stop you from achieving your dreams.
  2. Get the right people, empower them and ensure they will be loyal and stick with you.
  3. Do not compromise on quality and customer experience!
  4. Continuously keep innovating and improving on the smallest of things.

What were the difficulties you faced when starting and running Arabian Knights?

We had major differences in operational style and management between me and my partner who was Syrian and also a very good friend. One key lesson learned was, you may be the best of friends, but running a business is a whole new ballgame and you have to agree and put everything very clearly on paper before you embark on a journey. Most importantly you have to decide how decisions will be made and the specific areas of responsibility of the different partners. Also, trust and transparency are critical for any partnership to work.

We learned that being next to the sea is a massive pain. We learned that your location is crucial and parking is super important. We learned that you have to ensure you have the right landlord. We learned that bringing foreigners into Sri Lanka is not so easy.

We learned that discipline, strict operational controls and a regime that ensures everyone is committed to the highest standards are fundamental. We also learned that if your staff keeps leaving, you can’t sustain a quality experience.

During those dark times, why didn’t you abandon your goal? What kept you motivated day and night?

We knew we had a product that the market loved and that we had a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) as one of the very few proper Middle Eastern restaurants in town. We just had to get the operations right, get the team stable and have very strong controls on areas such as purchasing, portion control, recipes, procedures, and quality.

How do you manage your time and day? Any tips and hacks for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I have a full on schedule where I travel a few times a month, work over 50 hours on my day job per week and dedicate around 8-10 hours of time for AK per week. I tend to reduce time spent on social media, on gaming and unnecessary entertainment so I can ensure business success.

I am also an early starter and usually start the day at 5 am, this is crucial especially if you have kids and family commitments. If you can get the 5 am to 1 pm (8 hours of each day) right and fully progressing towards your priority goals then you can afford to take things a bit easier in the latter half of the day.

The key philosophy here is, if you can’t give your time, limit your entertainment/screen times and commit the required hours, then running a business is probably not for you. Also, ensure you get appropriate sleep so your thinking is clear and your thought processes are sharp.

What were your biggest mistakes or biggest wastes of time/money?

My biggest mistakes would be starting businesses with friends without getting everything in writing and understanding your respective roles. Apart from that, if I didn’t have a lot of family responsibilities like any normal Sri Lankan eldest child would have, I would have started businesses when I was much younger.

I studied quantum computing in my last year of University. The effort was enormous just trying to understand some of the principles. I still have no idea how quantum computing is helping the world and I had no idea I would be running a restaurant and selling Shawarma in the future.

Arabian Knights

What makes you happy?

My kids Haya and Nashwan make me happy. Business success and enriching people’s lives make me happy. Travel makes me happy, we make it a point to travel extensively with the family. Being able to help people out and improve their lot really makes me happy.

Apart from that, I am a voracious reader; a great book and some solitude put a smile on my face.

If someone is starting their first restaurant in Sri Lanka, what 3 things they need to focus so that they can create a successful business?

People, people, and people. Get the right committed, honest and loyal people (there are some and they are very hard to find). Ensure you create an environment and a business that they love and that takes care of them when they need it. Ensure they don’t leave. Train them well and the rest, they will take care of you. I put my people before customers and have got into trouble a few times because of this. If the people didn’t create the right product and the right experience, the customers would never come. The only way you can maintain consistency in the restaurant business in Sri Lanka is by ensuring your people remain with the business and we are proud to have a very low attrition rate.

Apart from that, ensure you get the right location and that you thoroughly test your concept with 50-60 people who are not really friends before you launch.

Recommend ONE book every entrepreneur should read

I think reading and constantly reading can give you a huge competitive advantage in a small market like Sri Lanka. You don’t have enough time to experience every single thing yourself so do keep reading and benefit from others experiences and lessons as well. I would recommend a book called The One Thing which really teaches you how to focus, double down on a single goal and achieve success in a single area. It also helps you own your schedule, your priorities, and effort which is key to achieving success.

What was the toughest decision you had to make in your life? How do you feel about it now?

The toughest decision I had to make was when I finally decided to settle down and marry my now wife Sarvat. We are opposites in every sense; I am a morning person, she is a night person. I am more introverted, she is an extreme extrovert. I am soft with people she demands her rights. She is a great cook, I am not. She likes chocolate I like vanilla. She is Indian and I am Sri Lankan.

She has made all the difference at AK. She can just pop in and cook any of the dishes and run the kitchen. The teams love her and work with passion and this shows in the food. Initially, coming from a very conservative family, it wasn’t all smooth sailing with this relationship. But as they say, sometimes you have to stick with your gut and follow through on your decisions. This has indeed paid dividends on all fronts of my life and we truly balance each other.

Also, when you run businesses the demands on you can be a lot. Juggling everything and running a family can take its toll. She runs everything around the house, the kids’ education, the chores, the house help, the pets, the entertainment, the holiday planning and the AK Kitchen so I can focus on the businesses, the strategic elements, and the financial aspects.

What life skills or habits helped you to become successful?

I really don’t want to call myself successful – success is relative. But self-belief, visualizing your success and then getting off the couch and just doing it is essential if you want some level of business success. You also need to be able to take risks. I have risked all my savings twice on the AK business. The second time, all my well-meaning Sri Lankan relatives and parents were against it. This gave me, even more, motivation to prove everyone wrong and thank God it has paid off.

Being able to structure big projects, motivate people, help people grow and achieve things, executing plans and delegating effectively have all stood me in good stead so far. The journey for me though has just begun.

Running your restaurant requires exceptional employee management. Give us 3 tips to manage your employees.

Ensured you have a good top layer of managers who are committed, honest, transparent and pushing for the success of the business. Empower them, take care of them and train and uplift them.

Pay meaningful and above market (if possible) wages and constantly reward good performers.

Get rid of disrupters and people with low discipline and commitment as they spoil the broth for everyone else.

Ensure there is a pathway to success and some of your key team members can also make it big if your business makes it big.

Never compromise on the basics in areas such as safety, punctuality, discipline, cleanliness, quality, customer service.

What’s your favorite food on the menu?

I like the Beef Tagine which is made from a special blend of spices we get down all the way from Morocco. Also, the Double Kebab Sandwich is pretty good. In terms of dessert, the Walnut Baklawa is awesome.

What do you recommend to a first-time customer?

Our staple is the Mixed Grill or the Arabic plate Shawarma. Lots of Sri Lankans love these two dishes and also a dollop of hummus never went out of fashion.

What plans do you have for the future?

With Arabian Knights, we will expand the current restaurant by about 20 seats as we have challenges in Ramadan and weekends due to the existing demand. We also plan on launching some retail products and there is a surprise concept that will come out around August end. This could potentially revolutionize the Food & Beverage landscape in Colombo. We are on project mode on this and should launch very soon.

I also have some interests in a couple of startups around technology and travel that will be publicized soon.

How can someone reach you?

Any emails sent to [email protected] come to me. Also, I have access to our social media accounts and keep tab of any customer complaints, requests or needs. You can also message us on Twitter/Facebook and the messages reach me.

If you want to start an online business in Sri Lanka, we have a practical workshop for you. It’s called E-Commerce Essentials. To learn more and join the next workshop, click here.

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