After a career working in corporate and government worlds, Doa'a Essa Abdul Wahab had decided 2010 would be the year she started her first business. Flouting the Bahraini entrepreneurship cliché of beauty salons and cupcake shops, Doa’a and her two friends—all female—started A2D: Bahrain’s first self-storage business (whose other founder Dalal Bushehri spoke to Wamda about founding the company).
After working at American Express and Bahrain’s Civil Service Bureau, she had not anticipated entering the restaurant industry—nor opening another business that same year.
“I love food, and I know how to cook, but I never considered getting into the restaurant business until I visited a friend in Kuwait,” she admits.
There, the foodie serendipitously discovered Salad Boutique Restaurant Co., which also has a location in Jeddah. She fell in love with the concept, and after thoroughly researching the Kuwaiti franchise, she was in business!
Among the mushrooming number of places to dine in Bahrain—mostly fast food or international cuisines—Doa’a says Salad Boutique is differentiated by its extensive “salad as a main course” menu.
Sourcing suppliers with consistent quality is one of her biggest challenges, she says. “Restaurants here are a risky business because once a customer has a bad experience, they will never forgive you! We had to get it right first time.”
The salad menu—the most extensive one I have ever seen—offers eighty types of salad including green, seafood, pasta, and meat salads. Customers can also customize salads; those that become popular enough are added to the menu.
Doa’a’s Kuwaiti partners allowed her to customize portions and prices according to the Bahraini market. Salads range from the cheapest priced at BD 3 (US$ 8) and the most expensive—the beluga caviar salad—priced at BD 100 (US$ 265)!
With calorie-laden choices like the cheeseburger salad and nacho salad, Salad Boutique also provides options for the not so diet-conscious. However, the restaurant will launch a diet line in Kuwait in 2013, which will eventually come to Bahrain.
Securing investment, refurbishing an entire building, and a state of national emergency were among the challenges the first time-restaurateur faced.
To secure BD 200,000 (~US$ 530,000) in seed capital, Doa’a had to really leverage her networks. Luckily, all of her six sisters wanted to invest in the venture, yet trust her to run the business.
The restaurant equipment was also both expensive and not readily available, she tells me. However she’s grateful to have received a lot of support from her partners in Kuwait, and Tamkeen’s Technical Scheme subsidized 50 per cent of her kitchen equipment costs.
Doa’a, who has an MBA and a B.Sc. in Accounting, says one of her biggest investments for the venture was in securing a location that marketed itself. Salad Boutique is perfectly positioned in Bahrain’s most bustling restaurant district and renowned address: Block 338, Adliya.
Since the building was quite run down, Doa’a decided to demolish and rebuild it, entering a tangle of permit problems and bureaucracies.
“I had to use all my networks to get things done as quickly as possible. Before the building was ready we had all this equipment and nowhere to put it, so Salad Boutique actually ended up being A2D’s (Doa’a’s self-storage business) first customer!” she laughs.
Boutique’s doors also opened a week before Bahrain began a State of National Safety in March 2011, yet it managed to draw crowds and only close for a short period of time.
Looking around the busy restaurant at 4pm on an off-peak Tuesday afternoon, I can see why many customers find the restaurant’s alcohol-free family ambiance a draw. Doa’a says Salad Boutique has seen its customer base increase by 45 percent since opening 18 months ago.
I ask her which of her two enterprises is the most challenging.
“Running a self-storage business is definitely much easier than running a restaurant,” she says. “Self-storage is pretty straight forward and doesn’t have the daily crises of a restaurant.”
Nevertheless, after two years, Doa’a is so comfortable in the restaurant business that she has already considered opening her own restaurant to franchise. Not giving too much away, Doa’a smiles and says, “I can promise you it will be unique.”