Cookie café takes fully baked concept to the Middle East
Ziad Dalal thought people deserved a better cookie when they were out shopping or getting ready to board a plane. And what better cookie out there than the iconic make-it-at-home Nestlé Toll House recipe.
Rather than tinker with the recipe to come up with a slightly different version of the popular chocolate chip cookie, Dalal approached the food manufacturer in 1998 to license the right to use the name and recipe for a mall-based cookie concept. It wasn’t an easy sell.
Toll House’s Ziad Dalal
“I begged and pleaded” for the right to license the product in order to roll out a number of stores nationwide, he says. The company finally relented, licensing him one unit as a 30-day test. Nestlé gave the concept its blessing, and its license, and the Nestlé Toll House Café started chipping away at the competition.
Why Nestlé chose to grant him the license rather than develop it on their own is purely conjecture on his part, he says, but he was told that as a large company they were a brand builder and a manufacturer. A food concept based on one of their products was too small a project to get involved in, plus it had too many moving parts. “Building a restaurant wasn’t their sweet spot,” he contends.
Initially the cafe only offered cookies, but it didn’t take Dalal long to figure out Nestlé had a lot more to offer, such as coffee drinks. Later ice cream and smoothies were added.
Taking the brand overseas presented a new challenge. The name Nestlé was known, he says, but not Toll House. However, since Nestlé was a trusted brand, it didn’t take customers long to believe what the Café owners were touting: “The cookies are the best, we’re not just sugar-coating it,” Dalal says.
Canada and the Middle East were the first two markets targeted. Canada because of its proximity and shared culture; the Middle East because of all the “Dubai-buzz” out there about U.S. brands being a sought-after opportunity.
Dalal, Lebanese by birth, has never visited other countries in the region. “I checked it out and was surprised how sophisticated the market is, how mature,” he says.
Realizing it was a big undertaking, Dalal said he wanted to “get all their ducks in a row” before approaching potential partners. In addition to his concept’s reputation, he had Nestlé’s branding to protect.
One of the adaptations they made for the Middle Eastern lifestyle was to add table service. While in the U.S., the product is a takeaway, there people wanted to sit at the tables to talk and people watch. This meant training employees to work behind the counter, and also step around it and bus tables and run food for the guests lingering at the tables.
This also means the average check tends to be higher in these locations.
The units also needed to be “a lot more luscious,” he points out. The seating is softer, because people are sitting in the chairs longer, and the countertops and lighting are higher quality, partly to fit into the more upscale malls in the Middle East.
Middle Easterners are more discerning about coffee. “They consume a lot of coffee and they are picky,” he says. “There’s no room for error.”
While malls are the ideal location for the cafes, the rents are inching up, he says, especially now that landlords from all over the world are attending the same real estate conferences, and learning about each others’ markets. “I don’t mind paying high rent if the location is right,” he says. “Quality real estate is expensive.” And paying the big bucks to earn the big bucks is just the way the cookie crumbles these days.