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“The casual sushi” – interview with a co-founder of FishFace Amman

When I came to Amman in October 2017, I was recommended to try FishFace, a new Japanese-Mexican fusion place. The restaurant seemed busy at the time. It operated from a small venue in Abdoun and served a variety of sushi burritos, wrapped in nori instead of tortilla bread, and ‘poke bowls’, in other words: sushi in a bowl. ‘Brilliant’, I thought.

I was taken aback both by their food and funky branding (check it out here). Thus, I met with Sahel Haddadin, a co-founder and a manager of FishFace to get to know more about this initiative.

Aleksandra: You graduated from engineering and worked in the construction sector. How does one progress from being an engineer to becoming a manager of an innovative fusion restaurant?

Sahel: I always enjoyed cooking, and I always wanted to open my place. One day, I decided that it was the right time. I found Tamer Al-Sayegh, my partner, who had already extensive experience in the restaurant sector. I showed him a concept of sushi burritos, which I got from Instagram. After I picked the location, Tamer was like ‘let’s do it’. Soon after we started working with chefs on the menu. It was busy six months before the opening.

 

What are some trends that you see in the food scene in Jordan?

Right now: fusion. Chefs take Arabic Lebanese food, and they try to diversify it, and further develop it. Simple example: a falafel sandwich. Some places add new innovative ingredients to the classic sandwich or use falafels in salads. New food concepts are blooming. The other time, I saw a place that makes chocolate-coated jameed (dried yoghurt, a main ingredient of mansaf, a traditional lamb stew served with rice. It has powerful ‘sheepy’ smell). I haven’t tried it, but people went crazy about it. (laugh)

A lot of Burger places open right now. I think that it’s easier to open a burger place than to invent a new concept. That’s why I’m afraid that the chocolate jameed may not work because it’s simply too much.

 

FishFace is a type of restaurant that is very popular in some other parts of the world, like the US, where did you get the idea and what made you think it would work in Jordan? Can you tell us a bit more about the story of this restaurant and the challenges that you faced?

Mexican food is not big here. However, people like sushi, so we focused on it more. Initially, we planned to start at the beginning of 2016, but due to delays in obtaining legal documents and licences, we opened in December, eight months after we rented the physical space. Finding skilled labour was also an issue. Legal regulations protect Jordanian workforce making it very hard to hire foreigners or refugees. Sometimes, it’s tough to find specific skills in the domestic labour market. Where should I look for Jordanian sushi masters? Eventually, we succeeded, and we currently employ four Phillippinos. However, the process of getting their work permits was long and complicated.

On the bright side: restaurants in Jordan get tax exemption for the first earned 30,000 JD. For us, the discount didn’t last long. (laugh)

 

Do you develop your recipes yourself? Where do you get the inspiration?

I do. It’s a trial and error process. I invite friends, ask them to taste new combinations and let me know what they think. I tried stuffing burritos with beef, but I didn’t like it. Steak neither.

 

Where do your chefs come from and where were they trained?

I have four Philippino chefs who used to work in sushi restaurants. We started with two. Thanks to our marketing strategy, Amman had been talking about us even before we opened. People flooded our promotional events. A day before the soft opening, I spoke to my head chef, and I told him: you better find a third chef by tomorrow, or we will be in big trouble. Thank God, he did, and we were able to serve all the customers. That day, we served one burrito every two minutes! My chefs were working on eight different items at the same time.

 

Was it easy to find them?

Once you find one, it’s easier to find the others. (laugh) We provided them with quick training because our burritos are slightly different than sushi: they are much easier.

 

What’s your secret to keeping customers coming? What have been some of your successful promotions, and where did they originate?

The 1st month was insane. I don’t know how many people we served in the first week. We organised a soft opening, and we were open for 4 hours from 6 pm to 10 pm. We didn’t do promotional campaigns, but we slowly expanded our portfolio. First, we opened for 4 hours, and then we started working longer hours, next step was to introduce home delivery. I feel that we have more publicity now than before, so I want to register at Talabat (a Jordan-based platform for food orders). Next week, we may add side dishes to our menu. We’re always trying to offer new things so that customers don’t get bored.

It’s not easy to keep people coming. Other than social media, we continue introducing new and innovative items. I don’t like to give discounts in FishFace because we are already cheap. But I know that people like that. We were also thinking about sponsoring a kids’ football team.

 

Your website and brand are very media friendly. Your packaging is very eye-catching, who designs it and where does the inspiration come from?

Finding an original name is hard. We were throwing names left and right. In the end, we agreed on FishFace. We wanted a name that is personal, and not generic like for example Burger King (no offence). We wanted it to speak for itself. We got lucky with the branding company: Rock, Paper Scissors. We gave them the name, in return, they gave us three different branding strategies. We picked the one that you can currently see in our promotional materials.

 

What about the packaging?

We conceptually designed the packaging, and our branding company developed the actual prototypes. We wanted people to have a particular experience, to be able to crack their burritos in the middle. It’s much easier to eat this way; it’s less messy. People can share. We also wanted to cut it in half because it’s more photogenic this way.  We wanted social media to be embedded in the concept. We even suggested people take a photo of the burrito while doing a FishFace. And it helped a lot with our marketing efforts.

What do you think is the core strength of your brand?

We wanted to casualise sushi. We didn’t want it to be an uptight experience. You know, people who come from the gym can pass by and still feel comfortable. A client can customise every burrito. He/She can make it as healthy as possible or as unhealthy as they wish. I wanted to serve people an affordable experience. Good portions, reasonable price, good quality.

Also, we are a small place; we don’t have massive storage. That’s why we always serve fresh products.

Do you have plans to expand with further restaurants or to reach new audiences (like school kids for example, with whom this type of food could be a big hit)?

We got lots of interest this year: people in Dubai, London, Saudi Arabia were asking us to create a franchising model, but none of these agreements has been finalised yet. We’re completing our papers, brochures to start marketing our brand outside of Jordan.

 

It’s your first restaurant, and it seems like a big success. How do you feel about that?

Nothing happened yet, but it’s a nice feeling (laugh). We planned this success. We knew that the market in Jordan was not strong. What I mean is that you can’t compare the buying power of the people here with those in the Gulf countries. So we wanted to start here and consider it as a prototype. Then, take it outside. Every element related to our place and product was custom-made. Our logo appears on each item in the restaurant. We documented our menu and the ‘the making of’ process. We prepared for scalability. In the 1st week, people would come in and ask us whether FishFace was a franchise, and where was the HQ? (laugh)

We have many people who come and say that our food is better than the same thing that they had in the US. It makes me feel proud.

 

What about new audiences?

We thought about targeting schools. Lots of school kids come here on Thursdays because our food is affordable, and kids don’t have much pocket money usually. Sometimes, King’s Academy bus parks here so that kids can get their burritos. For now, we thought about delivering lunch to some schools once a week. People from embassies often come here for lunch as well.

We’ll see.

 

You have many veggie fans, but you have only one veggie option on your menu, do you have plans to increase this, given that the theme of the food is healthy eating?

Do you mean to add more veggies in the burrito? You can add all the vegetables you want to your burrito. We also have quinoa and brown-rice based burritos. You can customise everything. The issue is that it’s a small kitchen, so we are also limited by space. Fish has its area, chicken its own. Had we add fried vegetables let’s say, it would require another fryer, which we don’t have space for.

 

What advice can you give to those who would like to open a restaurant of their own one day?

Marketing, marketing, marketing! We started working on our marketing campaign six months before the opening. First, we organised tasting events, to which we invited people that we wanted to attract to our business: people who were active on social media and had many followers. They took snaps and posted it on Instagram. So it was word of mouth, snowball effect. Once we had our restaurant set up and menu done, we invited the bloggers and other influential persons. We officially opened on Thursday. Tuesday and Wednesday were for the bloggers and influencers, and the place was packed. We wanted to make people wait for the opening. On that day, I also asked my chef to make the food very photogenic, so that people take photos, and share it on their social media.

It’s important to have your customer base well developed before you open a restaurant. You need to price everything beforehand. Imagine that you start working on the menu, and once it’s ready, you realise that your dish costs 18 JD. Who’s going to buy it? So you can’t just design a menu based on what you like. You have to determine first how much you want your final product to cost, is it between 8 and 12 JD, or is it between 20-30 JD? Then you develop the menu.

 

You managed to have over 22k FB followers in six months. I’m sure that many new entrepreneurs are wondering how to achieve this results. What would be your advice to them?

I wouldn’t focus much on FB. Because on FB, you can boost a post and get followers. So as much as you’re willing to spend, as many followers, you will get. The fact that someone follows you on FB doesn’t mean that they see your posts and updates. That’s why I rely on Instagram. We have 4,500 followers there. I feel that Instagram is more personal and more organic. We publish stories, our fans see it and comment on them. You can also boost a photo on Instagram if you have a business account. Again, you can target a specific audience. Just like with FB ads.

 

Who do you target?

Women.  (laugh) I noticed that around 60% of our customers are women. It’s more likely that in a place like ours you see a group of girls rather than guys. So we target mainly women in their twenties and thirties.

 

Does FishFace take into consideration environmental issues, social-corporate responsibility or social impact of its business on the local community?

We buy locally everything that is available in the domestic market. I buy vegetables from local suppliers. As for the packaging, we use paper bags and card box. However, we use plastic containers for our poke bowls. We looked into recycling possibilities, but it’s still complicated in Jordan. There is no municipal system in place. There are some collection points around the city, but this means that I’d have to drive with my trash all around the town. Right now, it’s too expensive for us. However, given that we expand, we will look into these models for sure. I still think that our burrito is environmentally friendly.

Jordan has been home to a large number of Syrian refugees in the recent years. Do you believe that individual business owners like yourself can do anything to support them in any way? 

Many Syrians worked with us in my previous sector, construction. They have an outstanding reputation as skilled craftsmen. I’m not sure what is their legal status now, and whether they can work legally or not. I’m afraid that I can’t advise on this matter.

Thanks a lot!

 

Check FishFace here:

Website

Facebook

All photos used in this post were taken by FishFace

 

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