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Robert Plummer:

It speaks volumes for Brazil’s diverse blend of cultural influences that one of its biggest home-grown fast-food chains is an Arabic food franchise called Habib‘s. Although people of Arab descent make up a mere 7% of the Brazilian population, a business offering such delicacies as hummus, stuffed vine leaves and tabouleh as part of its menu now serves 120 million meals a year.

From a modest start 17 years ago with one restaurant in São Paulo, Habib‘s has grown to 260 outlets in 15 of Brazil’s 26 states, plus the Federal District that contains the capital, Brasília. That is small in comparison with US hamburger chain McDonald‘s, which has more than 1,100 outlets in Brazil.

But Habib‘s is still far more successful on its own turf than many better-known international brands. Even more surprisingly, the man who founded and still runs Habib‘s, Alberto Saraiva, was born in Portugal and has no family ties to the Arab world. Mr Saraiva, now 53, came to Brazil with his family when he was still very young. In 1973, he was studying medicine in São Paulo when his father Antonio, who had recently taken over one of the city’s Portuguese-style bakeries known as ‘padarias’, was attacked and killed by a robber.

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Niche
As the eldest of 3 sons, Mr Saraiva had to support the family and took over the bakery, during what he describes as ‘the most difficult time of my life’. ‘In that padaria, I learned to be a businessman. After that, I
had other businesses that I built up and sold in order to continue studying. In one of those businesses, I got to know an Arab cook – an old man of 70, retired – who came to me to ask for work. So I learned Arabic cuisine from him. Then I realised that Arabic restaurants in Brazil were very traditional places, not aimed at the majority of the population, and I saw there was a niche there ready to be discovered. I gathered up all the experience that I had gained in the other businesses, took the main dishes from Arab cuisine and founded Habib’s. It was aimed not at the Arab community but at the wider population, the middle classes and at people who like not just Arabic food but good food, served fast.’

The result was an immediate success. The first Habib‘s in Rua Cerro Cora, in the west of the city, attracted huge queues of customers from the start. Mr Saraiva built up a chain of 16 outlets before starting to offer franchise opportunities in 1992. Today, he owns 45% of the chain’s restaurants, while the rest are run on a franchise basis.

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Low prices
The most popular products at Habib‘s are the esfiha – a small, round flatbread topped with minced beef or cheese – and the kibe – a croquette of beef shaped like a rugby ball. These are deliberately priced as low as possible. Esfihas sell for 69 Brazilian centavos (31 cents; 18p) each, with the price falling to 39 centavos in some special offers.

In 2004, Habib‘s sold a record 600 million esfihas – more than 3 for every man, woman and child in Brazil – and 60 million kibes. But the menu contains about 50 other options, including pizzas and burgers. Various set menus are available, ranging from a full Arabic meal to a combination of esfihas, kibe, French fries and freshly-squeezed tropical fruit juice. Unusually for fast-food restaurants, a waiter takes your order at the table, while knives and forks are always provided.

Competition
The low prices and wide range of options are key ways to stay ahead in Brazil’s highly competitive food market. Mr Saraiva and his franchisees are up against padarias, ‘por kilo’ restaurants where you serve yourself and pay according to the weight of your plate, street vendors and many other low-cost outlets. But Habib’s has successfully seen off the challenge from most of the international fast-food chains that once saw Brazil as a target.

Apart from McDonald‘s, which has been in Brazil since 1979, most US companies entered the market in the 1990s, after the end of high inflation brought stability to the Brazilian economy. However, many of them have since withdrawn, unable to compete on price and unwilling to acknowledge Brazilian culture. ‘They didn’t study the market, they just came with the intention of doing what they did abroad,’ says Mr Saraiva. ‘They didn’t adapt to the country. Suddenly KFC wanted Brazilians to pick up pieces of chicken with their fingers, when it’s not the Brazilian habit to eat with your hands. Also, the pieces of chicken were served in cardboard buckets. Brazilians are not used to being served like that. These are basic mistakes which customers will not accept.’

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Profitability
Other innovations brought in by Habib‘s include their 28 Minutes Home Delivery Service – if it takes longer, you pay nothing – and a sponsorship deal with São Paulo Football Club that has put the firm’s distinctive logo on the sleeve of the team strip.

Mr Saraiva has even written a book, The Commandments of Profitability, in which he outlines the principles of his business philosophy.

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