When you think of the Dutch city of Amsterdam, you may think of a booming European city, elegant canals, Van Gogh and the Dutch masters — or perhaps the notorious red-light District. Falafels, we dare to guess, don’t spring to mind.
But thanks to a meticulous business model, Arianne and Scott Bennett have permanently linked Amsterdam and falafels in the hearts and stomachs of those who regularly eat in their single-food restaurant, Amsterdam Falafelshop. They’re also spreading falafel fever in franchises throughout the country.
The couple’s booming business was born when Arianne and Scott decided they could travel more if they saved the money they spent on cigarettes to buy plane tickets. In 1998, both smoked a pack a day. So, instead of spending $4.50 each on cigarettes, they diligently put that money in a jar for about 10 months until they had enough for tickets to the Netherlands, where their good friends had just moved.
In the Dutch city, Arianne and Scott fell in food-induced love with the hole-in-the-wall shops that served falafels with self-serve toppings. “Why didn’t we have anything like this in the States?” Arianne thought. They were convinced those in their eclectic Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Adams-Morgan would embrace a quirky top-it-yourself falafel bar that served fresh, healthy food with attitude.
To raise the money, Arianne, who had worked in administrative jobs in downtown Washington firms and had experience keeping meticulous records, wrote a precise business plan projecting potential customers and sales every day over a four-year period. The self-proclaimed foodies knew the neighborhood restaurant scene, and Scott, a local bartender, knew the hospitality and business side of restaurants in the area. The two calculated how many people walked by on a daily basis, how many would come in, what kind of mix the shop would attract and what customers would buy.
They presented their projections and plan to a local bank that was impressed with how much thought and time they put into envisioning their business. Even though the Bennetts didn’t have experience running a business, the bank was willing to support their dream. With backing from the Small Business Administration, $40,000 of their own savings, and financial help from family — about $100,000 total — they had enough to open shop in a row house on the main strip of Adams Morgan in 2004.
Within a year, Amsterdam Falafelshop was profitable, stunning their investors. The shop also earned accolades from critics and love from D.C. residents. (The restaurant is one of the highest rated Yelp brands in the city). Arianne describes their restaurant success secret as “a blend of ‘gourmet-ness’ with an upbeat Western European vibe.” She says, “We don’t have uniforms, the workers have to be locals, and everything has to be fresh. We don’t dumb down flavors for Americans. If we says it’s garlicky, it’s garlicky! There are many moving parts to make the magic.”
It’s important to the Bennetts that the falafel shops be part of the community. Their employees engage with customers. “They have sass,” says Arianne. “They’ll ask you ‘Do you really want to use a credit card and pay for that sandwich in two weeks?’” (The falafels run $5.95). They’ll also patiently explain to children (or their parents) what a falafel is and what each of the toppings tastes like.
The reward for the Bennetts is seeing regulars come in and bring their family from out of town. “We’re part of your life. We have a connection to our customers,” says Arianne. “We even had a marriage proposal at the cash register. That’s the payoff for us.”
Soon, people began asking for more Falafelshops, and the Bennetts considered what to do. “The options to grow as a restaurateur are limited to really two paths,” says Arianne. “One: You are the ‘owner’ of a bunch of restaurants. You are responsible for them daily and anything that comes up in them ...You can do this well for a geographic region, but as you grow larger, it becomes hard to maintain.
“Two: You franchise, and each owner pays attention to his region, giving it his all, because he owns it. He is deeply connected to it. And most importantly, our role is that of teacher, mentor and helper. We are the support system for the franchisee. We take great pleasure in making this possible in someone else’s life.”
How would they find people to carry on their very specific vision? Arianne says their interview process helps them get comfortable with candidates. “We are alert to key phrases, attitudes and perspectives on following a system’s plan, wanting to be a part of a larger organization that offers guidance, caring about our food product and total sensory experience in the shop, and yet not being afraid to be unique.” In addition to in-person meetings, Amsterdam Falafelshop’s franchise agreement ensures that franchisees respect their business model.
Two entrepreneurs signed on and opened shops in Boston and Annapolis, Md. Four more Washington-area shops and four more Boston-area shops are scheduled to open this year. In addition, the Bennetts just signed deals to open franchises in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and in Salt Lake City. With an investment between $385,000 and $495,000 — the amount it takes to open a new Falafelshop — the owner keeps the profits, and the Bennetts take a 5 percent royalty, which they, so far, have invested back into their business.
Arianne and Scott are now focused on finding more of the right people who can open Falafelshops across the country. What comes after that? Amsterdam Falafelshop may go global. In March, the Bennetts are flying to Saudi Arabia to talk about opening a shop there. Arianne is also eyeing Schiphol, Amsterdam’s bustling International Airport as a possible franchise location. “We’d love to have a place there,” she says.