JEDDAH: It is traditional for popular international brands to be imported to Saudi Arabia, so it is always a welcome surprise when the opposite occurs.
A recent example was the opening in June of Al-Baik’s first outlet in the UAE. The Saudi homegrown chicken fast-food operator has amassed a cult following at home, and this was replicated when the opening of the outlet in Dubai Mall was met with long queues and a frenzy among Dubai fans on social media.
This fanatical dedication is normal for Al-Baik, with Riyadh customers often making the nine-hour roundtrip “chicken run” to Jeddah to get their fix, while a recently opened eight-lane drive-thru in Tabuk led to queues of cars trailing back 4 kilometers.
Repeating this kind of success for homegrown Saudi brands is one of the chief aims of Layla Abuzaid, the founder and CEO of global investment house WK Holding.
Her Saudi firm in June announced a joint venture with the US-based food tech platform Creating Culinary Communities (C3), in a bid to disrupt and revolutionize the region’s food, beverage and lifestyle industries.
The partnership is valued at $100 million, with C3 taking a 49 percent split and WK Holding retaining a majority stake through its subsidiary Smart Food Holding.
Launched in 2019 by American serial entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, C3 currently operates around 250 food locations throughout the US.
This year, the company also launched the Citizens Go app, which allows users to order from multiple restaurants as part of a single order.
Long term, Abuzaid said the joint venture is planning to open 30 locations within the first year and reach 550 branded locations across the wider region in five years, including food halls, self-service outlets, drive-thru, and mobile delivery services.
As part of its strategy, C3 Arabia is aiming to identify, mentor, and incubate local culinary talent in a move that will brand and export Saudi hospitality culture to the world and replicate the kind of dedicated queues Al-Baik has managed to generate.
“One of the reasons we have done this joint venture is to partner with and incubate local brands that serve the heritage of Saudi cuisine, through offering traditional local food, and offer them a global exposure through the C3 platform,” Abizaid said.
“Since food is one of the components that brings people closer to each other, this is one of our targets — which is something I believe we are still missing,” she added.
Through the partnership, Saudis will have access to 40 digital restaurant brands, including Umami Burger, Sam’s Crispy Chicken, Krispy Rice, Kumi and Sa’moto.
Founded in 2017 with Yasser Alobaidan, WK Holding is a lifestyle-driven investment company. Operating across five sectors — entertainment, food and beverage, trading, technology and lifestyle — Abuzaid wants to help promote Saudi as a global tourism destination.
“I believe lifestyle is a very important component for this movement … Saudi Arabia aims to be an important global destination, and it has all the components to be this destination,” she said.
In addition to the Smart Food Holding subdivision introduced this year to fund and incubate food and beverage brands, WK Holding’s profile also includes RAFA/MFA Company, a joint venture between RAFA (Saudi Arabia) and MF Group, a prominent event production Russian company.
In addition, the company has set up RUSSAD, a business hub for Saudi and Russian companies and the Luxembourg-based SAPEG PE FUND, which facilitates foreign investments into the Kingdom.
Russia attracted Abuzaid’s attention after she made a trip there in 2017: “I found a very interesting culture and very interesting opportunities, companies that have very strong know-how, they understand what they are doing very well, and they have the discipline … but they are not in the market yet.”
North American and European brands traditionally dominate the global markets, but Abuzaid believes Saudi and Russian companies can make that leap onto the global stage. “Saudis are extremely open-minded people and are keen to try new things all the time,” she said.
Abuzaid returned to her home country in 2010 and is optimistic about the investment opportunities.
“The main objective of my company is to bring investments from outside and co-invest with them in the Saudi market, bringing the know-how, the technology, and the business from abroad to the local market,” she said.