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Big Smoke Burger expands to the Middle East

Before people went cuckoo for cronuts, before cupcakes were hot on the scene, there were gourmet burgers. Thanks to our insatiable appetites, "better burgers," as the food industry dubs them, have gone from craze to commonplace. When we're hungry, we like it our way, with some hand-cut fries and homemade ketchup on the side.

Signature touches such as spicy chipotle mayo and local toppings like smoked Canadian cheddar initially set Toronto-based Big Smoke Burger and Mustafa Yusuf, its founder and CEO, apart from the many competitors. "The market's already saturated," Yusuf says. This hasn't stopped him from launching an international expansion of his boutique fast-casual restaurant chain, into markets as close to home as Southwestern Ontario and as far away as the Middle East.

Dan Rowe, CEO at FranSmart, the franchise development company that, over 40 months in the mid-2000s, took Five Guys Burgers & Fries from four units to an international chain with 100 locations, started courting Yusuf shortly after he opened his first shop. "It's the best burger I've ever had," Rowe says, "and it's the best franchise one, because it's such a small unit with such a high-quality product." Yusuf waited until he had perfected his model before working with Rowe (Yusuf opened one Big Smoke location per year in Toronto between 2007 and 2012). They signed an agreement in 2011 and have been actively franchising for the past 18 months.

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The company's first U.S. location, in Denver, Colorado, started serving burgers last summer, and in the next few months, doors will open in a suburb of Detroit and in Manhattan's Chelsea neighbourhood. Expansion has also taken off rapidly in the Middle East. In November, 2013, a Kuwaiti location opened; in January, Big Smoke welcomed customers in Riyadh; and the first half of 2014 will see locations in Bahrain and Dubai, with second restaurants in Kuwait and Riyadh.

Born in Somalia, Yusuf, 39, lived in Abu Dhabi until age 11, when his family moved to Toronto. Yusuf says the Middle East expansion has been a positive experience: "I wouldn't change anything." And though he says that Canadians are loved in the Middle East, he admits that "knowing the culture and knowing a little bit of Arabic has helped." The Middle Eastern appetite for Western culture and cuisine has also helped: "95% of the people eating at our restaurants are Arabs," Yusuf says.

Perhaps the greatest contributor to Big Smoke's success in the Middle East is Rowe's experience in the region. He has spent the past decade building several brands in the area including Elevation Burger, a Virginia-based chain that Rowe describes as serving a "fast-food burger" versus Big Smoke's "restaurant burger," which meant his team was able to pair Yusuf with reputable local franchisees ("non-Arabs can't own businesses in the Middle East," Yusuf explains) and guide him through hurdles like the requirement for halal meat, the dearth of ready suppliers and labour issues.

"When you do business in the Middle East, all of your employees are imported. You need to bring in labour, which means you also need to house them and sort out how to get them to your restaurants to work every day," Rowe explains. "It's quite a puzzle." These added operating expenses are reflected in menu pricing, which Yusuf says is a bit higher than what Canadian customers are paying.

Yusuf has made an effort to maintain as much consistency as possible, whether in Colorado or Kuwait. His stores are equally sized, all ranging from 1,200 to 2,000 square feet; all kitchens use the same made-in-Winnipeg grill to cook the same 13 burger options and all cheeseburgers are topped with Canadian cheddar.

Aside from the menu pricing, the only significant difference found in the Middle East locations is halal beef, a legal requirement. Currently, halal beef is sourced from suppliers in Europe, the U.S. and Australia. "We're trying to promote Canadian beef and are working with suppliers," Yusuf says of the approval process that a factory must go through to be able to certify its meat as halal.

The market has changed since the mid-2000s when Rowe was growing Five Guys. "Then, basically nobody was competing with Wendy's, McDonald's and Burger King. Five Guys had a very easy time standing out. Now, there are a lot of people doing high-quality products, so you've got a higher bar," he says.

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Last year, Big Smoke's 10 locations dished out 900,000 burgers. Within the next two years, Yusuf's goal is to have a total of 50 locations worldwide. So, while he may think the burger market is saturated, he's still hungry.

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