Staying True to Culinary Roots While Scaling a Restaurant Concept with Naf Naf’s Greg Willman

How can entrepreneurs take a local culinary concept and scale it nationally while maintaining authenticity and quality?

In this episode, Greg Willman, Chairman and CEO of NafNaf, shares his journey of growing a fast-casual Middle Eastern restaurant chain across the United States. With over 25 years of experience investing and operating in quick service restaurants, real estate development, and early-stage tech-enabled startups, Greg offers valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities of scaling a unique culinary concept.

Greg discusses the importance of remaining authentic to the founder’s vision while adapting the delivery model to enable growth. He shares how NafNaf’s commitment to cooking food from scratch in each restaurant every day sets them apart from competitors and resonates with customers seeking fresh, flavorful cuisine.

Throughout the conversation, Greg emphasizes the need for measured growth, building the right infrastructure, and maintaining a strong company culture. He also delves into the challenges of franchising, including finding the right partners, providing adequate support, and ensuring consistency across locations.

Greg opens up about his experience navigating the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic as a newly appointed CEO, and how focusing on what the company could control helped them survive and ultimately thrive.


Mentors that Inspired Greg:

  • The founder of NafNaf, Sahar Sander, whose passion for bringing authentic Middle Eastern food and hospitality to the United States inspired Greg to get involved with the brand


  • Gary Beisler, former Chairman of NafNaf and CEO of Qdoba, who encouraged Greg to take on the leadership role at NafNaf and has been a long-time mentor in the restaurant industry




Welcome to another edition of inspired stories where leaders share their experiences so we can learn from their successes, how they’ve overcome adversity, and explore current challenges they’re facing.

Anthony Codispoti (06:11.979)
Welcome to another edition of the Inspired Stories podcast, where leaders share their experiences so we can learn from their successes and be inspired by how they’ve overcome adversity. My name is Anthony Codaspote, and today’s guest is Greg Willman, Chairman and CEO of NafNaf, which is a fast, casual, premium destination for fresh, authentic Middle Eastern food. They’ve received a lot of acclaim, including being named as one of the top 40 hottest

startups in the fast casual space by QSR magazine, a top 100 movers and shakers by fast casual twice. Greg himself has over 25 years experience investing and operating in quick service restaurants, real estate development and early stage tech enabled startups. Now, before we get into the good stuff, today’s episode is brought to you by my company, Adback Benefits Agency.

where we offer very specific and unique employee benefits that are both great for your team and fiscally optimized for your bottom line. One recent client was able to add over $900 per employee per year to their bottom line by implementing one of our proprietary programs. Results vary for each company and some organizations may not be eligible. To find out if your company qualifies, contact us today at addbackbenefitsagency .com. Now, back to our guest today, the CEO of NAFNAF.

Greg, I appreciate you making the time to share your story today.

greg willman (07:40.273)
Thanks for having me, Anthony. I look forward to chatting with you.

Anthony Codispoti (07:42.667)
So Greg, for someone who’s never been to one of your restaurants, how would you describe it? What’s the food like, the price, the ambiance? Paint a picture for us.

greg willman (07:52.561)
Well, I’m going to steal from some YouTubers who did a little profile on us a week or so ago who described it pretty well, I think. They said, NAFNAF, in their opinion, was the love child of Chipotle meeting your favorite local Middle Eastern restaurant. And I thought that was pretty good.

Anthony Codispoti (08:15.178)
Anytime you can work Love Child into a description, I think you’re on to something.

greg willman (08:19.953)
I thought it was pretty good and I don’t claim it. I’m completely plagiarizing from those guys. But that’s, it’s pretty accurate. We’re a Chipotle style delivery model, right? Kind of old school, down the line, point and shoot, little of this, little of that. That is our service model. But it’s populated with products that are made.

Very authentically in our store every day, exactly the way that the founder of the brand, Sahar Sander, intended when he brought the recipes over when his family immigrated to Chicago from their lease in 2008, 2009.

Anthony Codispoti (09:04.874)
Talk more about that origin story. I know you weren’t the founder, but you’ve been involved with the company for a number of years. Talk more about sort of the genesis, the inspiration behind starting the company.

greg willman (09:15.601)
Yeah, it was really, you know, Sahar’s vision to kind of bring the food and the culture and the hospitality of his childhood, you know, growing up in the Middle East to Chicago through NAFNAF. These are, well, I guess to spin it all the way back, NAFNAF means, you know, let’s cook out. It’s an invitation to die.

Right. Let’s, let’s have a meal together. Let’s, let’s, you know, have a barbecue, right. And American parlance, right. and, and so he, you know, had these experiences, you know, growing up around food, in his home and the open air markets that, you know, he kind of, you know, ate at, and he really wanted to bring those recipes and that delivery model and that hospitality and that, you know,

those flavors and the culture of you know dining around in those environments with this food to this brand and So these are you know, these are the original recipes We still do everything in the restaurant the way he did it. We build shawarma by hand. We you know, marinade chicken in the restaurants We bake pita fresh every day every store So really, you know this this wasn’t a you know, a brand that was concocted in a boardroom somewhere

by a bunch of guys wearing suits, right? This was, you know, this really came from his heart.

Anthony Codispoti (10:46.857)
That’s great. And what is it do you think about the restaurant that has allowed it to, I don’t know, achieve so much momentum recently? What is it that you guys are doing so well?

greg willman (10:58.929)
I hope we’re remaining kind of authentic to Sahar’s vision. We certainly try to. I can say with a lot of confidence that I and others feel like we have best in category food. We’ve won a number of awards for our pita for our shawarma. We’re listed.

best shwarma by Smash Magazine at New York. We just relisted best falafel. I mean, it really is about the food for us. And we try to do it in a very authentic way. But we also try to pair it with a significant hospitality component. That can get lost in today’s environment, right? Especially if you’re a high volume, fast casual operation, that can get pretty transactional sometimes.

And we’re trying to maintain the warmth and the interaction that really Sahar embodied. And I take the market’s reaction to what we’re doing as a validation that we’re getting close to hitting the mark on those two fronts.

Anthony Codispoti (12:09.288)
So I’m gonna guess most people listening to this are familiar in some respect with Middle Eastern food some of the foods that you’re talking about the the pita the shawarma the falafel But maybe there’s a handful of people that this hasn’t hit their their plates yet Can you help to introduce people to maybe what the flavor profile is like what they would expect what it’s maybe similar to?

greg willman (12:33.649)
Yeah, it’s really interesting. You can get pretty esoteric in this category if you want to, right, in terms of what you talk about and what you lead with and how you introduce people to the brand. I was in my former life, I was involved in the fast casual Mexican space, Chipotle and Qdoba and those brands, 20 or 25 years ago. And

And I know it sounds weird. I say this to people all the time, but this isn’t too dissimilar to what that category looked like then. I joke that, you know, kind of hummus is the new guacamole, right? But we were having to go through that educational process, right? People really didn’t quite get fast casual Mexican then. Right now it’s ubiquitous. And I say this to people and they’re like, what are you talking about? Right? It’s on every street corner. Everybody eats it twice a week, right?

But that wasn’t how it started, right? We had to kind of introduce people to that new version of Mexican food, right? And so there’s a lot of elements to that going on now in the Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Greek category, the broader categories, I think, that people think of it as. And so what we’ve tried to do is make it very simple and very comfortable and very safe for people to interact with us, right? Primarily what we serve.

is roasted chicken and fresh baked bread in the form of pita, right? And everybody understands that, right? About 60 % of our entrees are our chicken shawarma, right? Which is, you know, roasted chicken. Now it’s seasoned with, you know, Middle Eastern spices that we import. We marinate it for, you know, at least 24 hours in the restaurants before we rotisserie it off and, you know, kind of carve it for service.

But it’s roasted chicken. And pita is fresh baked bread, right? And who doesn’t like either of those items, right? So we’ve kind of led with that as we’ve gone into new markets and opened new locations to kind of lower the risk barrier or the fear barrier of, you know, I don’t know if I like Middle Eastern food. Everybody likes the primary components of Middle Eastern food, right?

greg willman (14:55.313)
And then you discover things like Baba Ganoush and you discover Skoog. And maybe you’re familiar with hummus, maybe you’re not. Most people are anymore. Maybe you’re familiar with falafel or maybe you’re not, right? But once you’re inside the brand and once you’re interacting with the food, it becomes easier to kind of explore your way around the menu. And so that’s been how we’ve kind of tried to educate people and introduce people and get them connected to the brand.

Anthony Codispoti (15:20.744)
I remember about 15 years ago, we were going to a family event that was kind of, you know, everybody brings something and we brought hummus and some pita and some vegetables. And my family, you know, where I’m from, kind of a smaller town in Northeast Ohio, it was really exotic to them. Ooh, tell us more about this. What is this thing? And so we kind of had a chuckle over that, but, you know, fast forward 10 or 15 years later. And, you know, I think several of my family members have,

hummus in the refrigerator. So it is becoming more popular, more common. I’m curious to hear more about the education component. And I want to hear about it for Knopf Knopf, but you’re right. I want to hear about it first for like a Chipotle or Qdoba, because you’re right. Everybody now would kind of like wrinkle their nose at you. Like, what do you mean you have to teach people how to eat Mexican food? Everybody just knows that. But.

25 years ago, that wasn’t the case. So what did that education process look like? How are you coaching your new clients, your new customers?

greg willman (16:23.313)
Yeah, it was just a frame of reference kind of thing, right? Their frame of reference was either their local Mexican joint that they love to go to, or it was a Taco Bell reference point or something like that, right? Which was a lot of Mexican rice or a lot of refried beans or a lot of shredded this or shredded that, right? And that’s not what those brands were, right? We eat cilantro, lime, or ice, right? Cilantro, lime, or ice is everywhere now. Well, I promise you it wasn’t.

when those brands started, it was there, that was it, right? I can’t tell you how many people said, you know, what’s the green stuff in the rice, right? Well, it’s cilantro, right? And so, you know, we didn’t have refried beans, right? We had black and pinto beans, but they weren’t refried, right?

And they weren’t constructed, you know, we started doing bowls, right? Bowls are ubiquitous now, right? I don’t remember any place having bowls, right? But, you know, prior…

Anthony Codispoti (17:26.501)
Now I grew up with Taco Bell and that wasn’t a menu option. It was tacos and burritos and yeah, that was it.

greg willman (17:30.705)
Yeah, that’s right. It was always in some kind of rap or whatever, right? So people had to kind of change their frame of reference, you know, to kind of get connected to those brands early on. Obviously, the, you know, from my other part of the business that I’m in, the product market fit was excellent, right? Because once people kind of got connected with it, it worked very well and has become ubiquitous, right?

So we don’t have the delivery model challenge, right? And we really don’t have the, you know, kind of the new food variation challenge, maybe that those categories did and those brands did. But what we have is a new cuisine challenge, a little bit, right? And we’re, you know, we’re Middle Eastern, right? Sahar, when he founded this, had kind of a…

you know, this this broader category of Mediterranean, right? Everybody kind of gets bits and pieces of that. And but if you tease it out, Greeks a little different and Middle Eastern is a little different, right? And so we have our little slice of it, right, which is which is really very authentically Middle Eastern. You know, we don’t we don’t have feta, we don’t have, you know, olives, we don’t, you know, have some of the things that you might see in a Mediterranean or Greek restaurant, right? So,

We’ve spent a lot of time really trying to engage our guests around what it is we do and how we do it. And back to the Chipotle reference, we take a very Chipotle -esque approach to our menu. And by that, I mean, we try to do fewer things and do them really, really well, really authentically. We don’t have the breadth of menu that some other brands out there have. And that’s by design for us, right?

We’re more of a street food delivery model, right? You know, think cart, think, you know, think, you know, being in an open air market, right? You go to one stand for hummus and you go to another stand for falafel and you go to another stand for pita and you go to another stand for shawarma. We’re more, we’re more that model. We don’t want to do everything, but we want to do the things that we do in a very, very authentic way. I mean, until just recently,

greg willman (19:54.033)
we were grinding chickpea in our restaurants to make hummus and falafel. Now the volumes have gotten to the point where that’s become impossible for us to do. But the biggest piece of equipment outside of the pita oven in our restaurants was a giant meat grinder that we used not for meat, but for chickpeas, right? We were grinding chickpea paste and using it to make hummus and using it to make falafel and all those kinds of things.

We’ve had to go to contract packing some of those on our spec with our vendors, right? Exactly the way we made it in the store just because of the volumes, right? But we’ve tried to remain very committed and will remain very committed to those four or five items that really make up our menu and doing those in the restaurant every day, cook to order for every guest. That’s kind of the model that we’ll employ or we do employ and we will employ. And…

We feel like we can only do that and do justice to that if we kind of maintain a bit of a narrow focus around those items that we’re trying to deliver.

Anthony Codispoti (20:57.669)
It probably makes a lot of sense, especially since there is still a bit of an education component. A bigger menu is just going to serve to confuse people even more, right? If it’s McDonald’s, they can have eight variations of their burger and four different ways to get their chicken and all kinds of different fries, because people are already familiar with those foods. But a smaller, more compact list of choices is probably helpful to somebody who’s not as familiar with the cuisine.

greg willman (21:26.289)
It’s a little less overwhelming, right? And it gives us the opportunity to interact a little more specifically around a smaller universe of items.

Anthony Codispoti (21:34.981)
Do you guys offer kebabs?

greg willman (21:37.585)
We used to and kind of the brand had, the initial version of the brand was more of a Panera style model where you go up and order and then you go sit down maybe for 15 minutes and kind of wait for your food to come out. The first three stores were opened under that model. And under that model, they did have kebabs.

As they started to grow, the next 10 locations were kind of the delivery model that you see today. And that necessitated kind of a narrowing of the menu to a certain extent.

Anthony Codispoti (22:15.717)
I’m curious to hear more about that transition. You know, something was learned in the opening of those first three restaurants that you said, okay, this is working. We want to continue to grow this, but we need to change the delivery model. What was the thought process? What was sort of being understood at that point?

greg willman (22:34.449)
It was really around speed of service and scalability. The first two or three locations were being run more like a local sit down operation. And the wait times were a little longer. There was a higher requirement for more skilled labor in the building.

And I, again, I wasn’t around during this time, but as I understand it, there was a decision that was made that there was clearly an opportunity to scale this. And there were some hard discussions around, can we scale it under, you know, under this model, or do we need some level of simplification around menu consolidation, around the type and amount of labor that you need to have in the building, around service times, et cetera.

to really be able to kind of grow this thing to, you know, scores of restaurants or, you know, even hundreds of restaurants. And so they made the decision at that time to move to a more prototypical fast casual model.

Anthony Codispoti (23:47.425)
I see that you also offer catering. Is that a significant part of the business?

greg willman (23:54.353)
It actually is becoming a very significant part of the business. It’s about 10 % of the business today and growing rapidly. Our catering offering is terrific. This type of food, again, it’s kind of a street food, communal, you know, a little of this, little of that, you know, eat it with some pita bread and, you know, kind of pick it up and dip it in some hummus and, you know, get a little of this and a little of that on your plate.

So it’s perfect for those communal kinds of dining occasions. Food travels extremely well. It holds extremely well in those kinds of environments. And people really can get a very customized experience, right? There’s lots of different flavor profiles that we offer through the proteins and our toppings and our sauces. You can be as indulgent or as healthy kind of as you want.

with our cuisine, you really can kind of customize it in that regard too. So when you’re trying to satisfy a lot of people, right, with different taste profiles and kind of different objectives that they bring coming to those kinds of dining occasions, it lends itself very, very well to that.

Anthony Codispoti (25:04.037)
Yeah, I’ve been to both office events and parties that people host in their homes where they’ve had this kind of, like a BB bop or like a Chipotle kind of catering option brought in. And it’s so nice. It’s so convenient because now whoever is hosting the party or the event, they’re not going back and forth to the kitchen and getting all hot and sweaty. They’re actually interacting with their guests. I’m curious, do you have any sense of our

most of the people using the catering option, is it like in a professional, like an office environment? Is it more like a home, like party environment?

greg willman (25:42.705)
Yeah, it probably skews slightly off us, but not dramatically. And part of the reason for that is a couple of years ago, we felt like we had a little gap in our offering and it was around this kind of smaller group, kind of an environment. So we developed a product that we call Family Style, which really serves this, you know, five, six, seven person, kind of a smaller group.

or even a couple of those maybe to serve 10 to 15 folks. Our full -blown catering offering really serves 20 or more in terms of the size of the pans and kind of all the accoutrements that you need to get a big group. But it was too much for a group of eight to 12.

And so we developed this family style offering, which has filled that gap really, really very nicely, more for the, you know, the medium to, you know, quote unquote larger size in -home group, which might be 10 to 20, right? Versus the office environment, which might be, you know, 20 to whatever. We’re doing a group, I’m in Chicago this week, we’re doing a group down the street for 150 tomorrow.

And so we’ve tried to provide offerings, you know, kind of across that spectrum outside of just, you know, walking into the store and ordering ten entrees, right? You can, there’s other solutions besides that.

Anthony Codispoti (27:16.064)
You mentioned one of the reasons switching to this Chipotle love child delivery model being the simplification of the labor that was required in -house. And as everybody sees, but especially in the quick service restaurant space, finding good, reliable labor is a real challenge. I’m curious if there’s anything that you guys have tried as a company or you’ve seen your franchisees try.

that has helped to recruit and retain folks on your staff.

greg willman (27:51.729)
Yeah, I mean, you know, everybody approaches this differently. And I don’t know that there is any silver bullet to this, right? Our view of it is you’re trying to not only attract, right? You can attract people a lot of different ways with money or work environment or whatever. But we want to retain, right? And so our approach to that has been…

to really be clear about who we are and where we are in the evolution of our brand, right? We’re an emerging brand, we’re a startup, right? And that has pros and cons associated with it, right? I’ve spent my whole career in early stage stuff. I love it. I couldn’t imagine, you know, not being in kind of the early stage part of a brand’s development because I view it as, you know, such a creative process and such a collaborative process, right? You’re trying to…

figure it out. You’re trying to see what resonates. You’re trying things. You’re testing things. You’re changing things. It’s very dynamic and I find it very energizing. Other people, it probably drives them insane, right? Because they crave stability or they crave consistency or whatever. And a startup is not that. So we kind of lead with that and try to find people who are looking for that.

kind of environment where they can grow quicker. They can operate more horizontally, right? Their job tasks are not so narrow. They’re not so well defined, right? We need multitaskers, right? So, and we say, you know, we want people to come here and make more money than they’ve ever made anywhere else and have more responsibility than they’ve ever had anywhere else and do both of those things faster than it’s ever happened for them anywhere else, because that’s what we need, right?

So we try to go find people who are looking for that and feel attracted to that and feel like they’ll thrive in that. Now, a lot of people say, I want to be a part of a start -up or I want to be a part of something early because it sounds interesting and exciting and romantic and sexy and all of those things. And then you get inside it and it is either all of those things to you.

greg willman (30:09.873)
Or you realize pretty quickly that, you know, this, I made a mistake, right? This isn’t the kind of environment that I’m looking for. So we’ve tried to use that to our advantage. And we’ve kind of tried to lead with that and try to attract the folks who are looking for that kind of an experience and a work environment. Because once they get connected to it, they can’t imagine being anyplace else.

Anthony Codispoti (30:33.055)
So one of the reasons you guys are growing so quickly, obviously you’re doing a lot of really interesting things with the menu choice and the sort of the ambiance and decoration of the restaurants themselves. You guys are engaged in a franchise model. Let’s talk about what that franchising opportunity looks like.

greg willman (30:57.585)
Yeah, it’s been an interesting evolution for us, quite honestly. We probably started franchising a little earlier than maybe would have been ideal. And I can say that with authority because I was franchisee number one of the brand. That’s how we got connected with this brand.

They had grown on the company side primarily in a couple of different markets, Chicago and Minneapolis. They decided to start franchising. A gentleman who was the chairman of the company at the time is somebody that I had had a long standing relationship with. He was the CEO at Qdoba when my group was the largest franchisee in the country for Qdoba.

so we know each other for a long time. Gary calls me one day and says, hey, are you guys still looking for brands? And I said, yes. And he starts describing this brand to me. And I said, I stopped him. And I said, are you talking about NASNAS? And he said, yeah, how do you know NASNAS? I said, I was saw it a couple of years ago. We wanted to make an investment in it, but they were capitalized. And we were looking for something to buy maybe or get significantly involved in.

beyond just being a franchisee. And so we kind of moved on. We said, well, you know, I’m not sure there’s an opportunity to invest. There may be, but we are starting to franchise. And do you guys have interest? And we were, we thought the brand was so compelling, right? That despite the fact that we weren’t sure if we could make an investment in it, and we thought we might only be able to franchise, just be a franchisee in the system, we still got involved because we really thought there was something here.

And I’m more convinced of that today than I ever have been. Our instincts were right in that regard. But the brand had never franchised, it didn’t really have an infrastructure for franchising. And so it was a little lumpy, kind of that first phase, which is not, that’s not atypical. And –

Anthony Codispoti (33:10.046)
Yeah, there’s a lot of work that goes into getting all the infrastructure in place to set up even that first franchise. People don’t realize that if they’re outside the space.

greg willman (33:16.753)
I think way more than people understand. I think they think it’s kind of a mailbox money model, right? Where you just say, hey, let’s start selling franchises and start collecting royalties, right? And it’s not nearly that easy. And it takes a long time to kind of really get it up and running and efficiently, right? There’s a lot of infrastructure. There’s a lot of investment that has to go in.

to setting it up and it takes dozens or maybe even 100 stores on the other side of it before it really starts to kind of pay off in terms of cash flow generation, that kind of thing. So it was a little lumpy on the front end and we got some groups that were maybe a good fit for our brand, not good or bad or anything like that, but…

But we’re a culinary brand, right? We cook food from scratch in our restaurants every day. And that’s different than if you’re a heat and serve brand or if you’re a sandwich assembly brand or something like that, right? And so we may not have hit the mark in terms of the relationships on the front end of some of that in terms of.

people understanding who we were and what we did or what we do. As we’ve been clear about that, as we’ve expanded our franchising, the people that we’re attracting to our system come more from backgrounds that will serve our brand well and where they won’t be surprised and haven’t been surprised about the culinary aspects of our business.

And so we’ve had to work our way through that a little bit, but I think we’ve been pretty successful at doing it. We’ve got about a dozen groups signed up with the brand now. We’ve got 16 or 17 open franchise restaurants. We’ve got another 40 or so in the pipeline in terms of contracted commitments for new store openings. And really, we haven’t really done much outbound in terms of trying to sell franchises. It’s been mostly…

greg willman (35:36.657)
inbound to us. We will get more aggressive about that in the back half of this year. We’ve just refiled our new FDD and our new item 19. We’re working with a PR agency to kind of help us have a little bigger profile out there among the franchise community. And you’ll see start to you’ll start to see some of that come out into the market in the back half of this year. But we’re very, very excited about that. We think that and non -trad.

along with some level of company development, but franchising and non -trad will really be a significant growth engine for us over the next 24, 36 months.

Anthony Codispoti (36:15.963)
What’s non -tread?

greg willman (36:18.609)
airports, universities, those kinds of settings that are more run by contract operators, the Aramarks and the Delaware Norths and the Cinexos and the SSPs and the, there’s lots of them now. There’s six or seven or eight of them, which are, you know, kind of sizable, you know, significant international players and then a lot of other smaller players. But,

They will contract in these venues to provide food service. And over the last year and a half or so, we’ve developed a lot of relationships in that space. And really a lot of the work that we’ve done on our model, our operating model, to simplify it, to shrink our footprint, et cetera, was done so that we would be able to partner with those folks and go into those kinds of environments where there’s a high demand for our type of cuisine.

Anthony Codispoti (37:18.267)
You said you haven’t really been doing any kind of outbound marketing up to this point. The folks who have found you so far, the franchisees that have come to you, how have they been familiar with NAFNAF? How did they know that this was an opportunity?

greg willman (37:32.017)
say the vast majority of them knew the brand from Chicago. Either they lived here or they traveled here and experienced somehow or had family here or something, but they had some experience with the brand in Chicago and inquired. Now, if you’re digging, you can find out that we’re franchising, right? But if you’re kind of the casual person out there, it’s not coming across your desktop, it’s not coming through your newsfeed.

That part of our outbound effort hasn’t started yet. That’s the part that will kind of start later this year. So most of the folks, they may have done some digging and found out that we were, but most of them it was through some direct experience with the brand that they enjoyed so much that it caused them to reach out and say, hey, is there an opportunity for me to get involved with this?

Anthony Codispoti (38:20.923)
Now that speaks volumes to the experience they must have had in your restaurant as a customer to take that step.

greg willman (38:28.017)
It does and we’re very proud of that and very thankful for that because that’s right, that’s where the river meets the road. And if they see us in that environment and are that favorably impressed to reach out and inquire, we take that, we’re very prideful of that.

Anthony Codispoti (38:47.098)
What geographies are you looking to expand into, Greg?

greg willman (38:51.345)
Well, we’re in 13 states now. We’re primarily in terms of brand presence. Our two biggest markets are Chicago and Minneapolis. But we’re, you know, and by definition, when you start to expand, right, everything’s, you know, the first store in a new market, right? So we’ve got a lot of one store markets currently, but we’re in Milwaukee, we’re in Atlanta, we’re in Charlotte, we’re in Dallas, we’re in Fort Lauderdale.

We’re in New Jersey, we’re in Philadelphia, right? We’re starting to get these first unit outposts in a number of other markets around the country that we obviously hope to expand in. Our Wisconsin franchisee just opened their third location. Our Charlotte franchisee in about two weeks is opening their second location. We have two stores in Dallas, right? So we’re really on the front end of this.

where these brand pioneers are taking this new cuisine, new brand into new markets and opening restaurant number one. And that’s not a small undertaking to try to take a new brand someplace and get it established.

Anthony Codispoti (40:09.114)
It was going to be one of my questions actually, if you guys find it challenging to be sort of spread out so much geographically in terms of whatever the raw food materials are that need to be supplied to each of these locations, is that infrastructure of the sort of the food delivery to them easy or is that relatively complex?

greg willman (40:30.961)
It’s, I would say somewhere in between. It’s, it’s, we have a national distribution relationship with Cisco, which is extremely helpful. but opening up a new opco with them or new distribution center with them, has its challenges and, and the economics, can get a little challenging when there’s maybe only one store in a market, right. In terms of inventory turns and, and, and shelf space allotments and those kinds of things.

So as we go into a market, we try to establish some presence relatively quickly with the second store or third store, just to make sure that we hit those efficiency points as early as possible. But they’ve been a very good partner. I think over the last couple of years, they’ve become very, very bullish on our brand and the growth opportunity that exists here.

and have been very willing to work with us to get to open up new geography, right? Which means opening up a new opco or distribution center with them, even if it’s only one store in a market, they’ve been very helpful in making that workable for us.

Anthony Codispoti (41:42.809)
I’m not sure what kind of regulations exist, but are you allowed to say more about sort of the economics of what a franchise opportunity looks like, like average investment, maybe sort of the typical return that folks have seen historically?

greg willman (41:56.977)
Yeah, not really. We’re kind of restricted by this FDD process, right, which is really a prospectus, right, in kind of the restaurant space. And all of that information is in there, but it really, that’s the place where we communicate that kind of information to prospective franchisees.

Anthony Codispoti (42:16.281)
Got it. How do you think about balancing growth with being able to support it? Obviously, you’re very excited about this great concept that’s got a lot of momentum, a lot of interest from franchisees, and you want to be everywhere all at once, right? That’s how an entrepreneur works. Like, we just see growth, growth, growth. But as somebody who’s been through this, you’re a seasoned veteran, you also know that there’s a dark side to growth that’s

you know, unsustainable, that’s too fast. How do you sort of think about finding that balancing act there?

greg willman (42:53.073)
Yeah, no, that’s a really good, insightful question. And that’s one of the primary challenges, I think, early on in trying to figure this out, right, is what’s the right pace? I think about it this way. There are mileposts along the way, I think, as brands evolve. And most brands,

you know, kind of have it don’t survive this, you know, 10 to 100 part of the journey, right? That that’s where most of the, you know, the, the, the settlers die, right? Somewhere is between there. What we’re trying to do is, is be really, really smart about, you know, kind of getting from where we were when I came into this seat about three years ago.

to 100 open restaurants, right? And really build that infrastructure correctly, build the culture correctly, make sure the unit economics work, make sure that our supply chain relationships and all of our other relationships are in place, our tech stack is right, and really figure all that out over the early part of this journey so that getting from,

100 to 500 is a pretty easy lift. We’d rather do the heavy lifting and the hard work now, really on our own dime to a large extent. A lot of this is internally funded from investors that have been with the brand for a long period of time and really build a model that we can then go fast with. Because this is a marathon.

Right. This is a growing category that we’re in. There’s a lot of white space. it, you know, there, there are no dominant players yet, but you know, there’s, there’s one, one brand that’s out there kind of ahead of the pack right now a little bit, but there are no dominant players. and so, you know, can you, can you build your brand to, to, to get to five or six or seven or 800 or a thousand locations? Right. we, we think.

greg willman (45:17.425)
we think that’s the right way to approach this and kind of that’s how we’re going about it. So measured growth is what I would call our approach. We don’t want to get stretched geographically too much for supply chain reasons and for other reasons like brand presence, right? Having more locations nearby, not even necessarily in your market, right? Gives you a higher profile.

Higher profile tends to grow volume, right? Volume tends to grow profitability, right? All those things feed into the box economics, right? We wanna see all that play itself out in a way that we know works so that we can then really go fast, you know, once we’ve proven all that.

Anthony Codispoti (46:04.087)
Why do you think so many concepts die off in that 10 to 100 space? What’s the biggest contributing factor?

greg willman (46:10.865)
Well, look, I think it’s really, really hard to grow rapidly and be profitable, right? It’s easy to do one or the other, right? But it’s hard to do them both at the same time. And unless you are one of the fortunate brands that is just extraordinarily well capitalized, you have to be very mindful of not biting off more than you can chew.

right, economically or otherwise. And so I think that’s just a difficult thing to piece together. I think the reason I’m here is that’s my history. My history is being able to do that. And so hopefully I can shepherd this brand through that phase and get it on the launch pad, right? I mean, really get it on the launch pad to where this thing can have

Anthony Codispoti (46:53.079)

greg willman (47:09.233)
bunch of locations and a lot of longevity in a category that certainly presents that opportunity.

Anthony Codispoti (47:17.014)
It’s really all about finding the right pace.

I’m curious, Greg, what kind of fun or interesting things have you guys done for the grand opening of a new store?

greg willman (47:31.025)
Well, I mean, they’re different kind of market to market. I’ll give you the latest example, which I thought was really cool. Our franchisee in Milwaukee on their third location, we try to be very active in the local community, particularly with our franchisees, right? They live in the communities and want to serve those communities.

in every way possible, right? And so we do a lot of fundraising. And this particular group did a different fundraiser every day with a different group for the first five days they were open. They went out in the community, they got to know a bunch of people, identified, you know, people who were in their trade area, who were interested in our brand, who had fundraising needs.

and kind of teed one up, teeing one up, you know, on your opening week is challenging enough sometimes, right? You’re dealing with staffing and all the other stuff that you’re dealing with on the first week of open. And they literally took the first week of open and took every single day and did a different fundraiser with a different community member, which I thought was very cool.

Anthony Codispoti (48:47.413)

That’s a big undertaking, especially when you’ve got all the stresses of opening up the store for the first time. So it’s interesting to hear that even before you became the first franchisee that you had an interest in investing in the original concept. Before they had sort of revised the delivery model and had the love child with Chipotle. I’m curious, what was it that you were seeing even way back then in the early days that made you so excited about the concept?

greg willman (48:52.113)
It was. It was, yeah.

greg willman (49:21.265)
First and foremost, the food. We thought the food was incredible and we thought it was different than anything we had seen in the market. And we had looked a lot, right? We were pretty familiar with the players and what was out there and what was available. We had operated in the fast casual space for 20 years at a large scale. We were, as I mentioned earlier, we were the largest QDub operator in the country when we sold our restaurants. And this was just, this was wholly unique.

to us and fantastic. Just the food quality and the flavor profiles were just terrific. That got us initially interested and then we started to understand more kind of the emergence of this white space, right? The Mediterranean diet and the proliferation of local, you know,

Greek and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants and major metros around the country, right? Again, it looked a lot like the fast casual Mexican space to me, you know, 20 or 25 years ago. There were a lot of great local companies, you know, restaurants, some regionals, but nobody had really taken this and kind of packaged it up to deliver it at scale and deliver it well at scale.

Right. And we thought this brand had a chance to really do that.

Anthony Codispoti (50:51.893)
And so, okay, the opportunity then comes back around for you to become the first franchisee, not really what you were looking for, but you were so excited about the brand, you’re like, yes, let’s jump in and do that. How do you get from the first franchisee to now being the CEO of the whole enchilada? What happened there?

greg willman (51:13.201)
Well, as I alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of activity around startups. They’re not yet fully baked. And so there were things that were still trying to be figured out at the time we got involved with the brand.

And, you know, one of the investors that was in and had been in for, you know, quite a long period of time decided to move on and do something else. The CEO who was the founder initially was running the brand, the founder passed away kind of in 2018, I believe. So they brought in another CEO and

And that CEO had more of a franchising background, but the business really wasn’t franchising yet and wasn’t really ready to franchise yet. And so there were just a lot of moving parts, right? And so as our group got involved, as I mentioned, I had a long relationship with Gary Beisler, who was the chairman of the brand at that time.

But what really set the stage for all of this was COVID. We opened the first two franchise restaurants in the system just in time for COVID. And when COVID hit, the management team at that time decided to suspend operations completely across the brand for a couple of reasons. One, we were…

kind of overly exposed to these northern urban markets, which were really hit the hardest economically because they were shut down. Right. I mean, Chicago was shut down at one point, Chicago. We were trying to run restaurants. Chicago had a stay at home order, order and cook. Right. Well, stuck to run restaurants in that environment. Right. And Minneapolis wasn’t much different. So, so the brand fully suspended operations, right.

greg willman (53:32.785)
And the board and the investors and everybody else started trying to figure out what are we going to do? Right. Well, I was the newest set of eyes, involved with the company and we had just opened to franchise restaurants. So I began being asked a lot of questions, right? How’s it going out there? You know, how was it open in a couple of stores? Were we ready? What are your thoughts? Right.

And mostly these were conversations between Gary and I at the time. Gary then eventually asked me if I’d be willing to share my thoughts with the board and the primary investors in the business. I said, I’d be happy to. And out of those conversations, after four or five weeks of that, my phone rang and it was that group of people asking me if I’d have interest in taking over the brand.

that’s not why we got involved and, and, and I wasn’t really looking for, you know, a full -time job at that point, right. But we were in the system and we thought, well, we might as well, you know, we, we, we’ve got real skin in this game now. We might as well run it from the inside, right. As opposed to just lob in these thoughts to people. and, and so that was June of 2020. And, and I took over a brand with.

basically no open restaurants. And we started reopening and restructuring leases and closing stores where we had to. And really, you know, it was hard. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And it was a real grind and a real challenge. And there were many times I didn’t know if we’d get all the way through it and get to the other side of it. But now that we have and now that we are, it…

couldn’t have been better for me to have gone through that experience as the leader of this brand. Because I had to learn every inch of it, really from the ground up. And I think it’s serving us well now as we go forward.

Anthony Codispoti (55:46.034)
Let’s talk a little bit more about that tough time during COVID. We’re not that far removed from it, here middle of 2024, but it’s interesting as you talk to people, they’ve tried to block out a lot of it. And sometimes they forget like how not only hard it was, but the uncertainty that was there at the time. It’s one thing if you were in 2020 or 2021 and you knew that, hey, if we can just make it to this date, things are gonna get…

greg willman (56:01.265)

Anthony Codispoti (56:15.986)
more normal, they’re going to open back up, people are going to be clamoring to get back into restaurants and public spaces again. But we didn’t know that. There would be another surge, there would be a new variant that would come out, things would open up and they would close again. There was all this sort of back and forth. And so as somebody who’s trying to shepherd a new brand, very much a startup, during a very difficult and uncertain time.

What did you do to maintain your own personal sanity during this time?

greg willman (56:52.817)
Well, I don’t know that I did. I don’t know that any of us did. Right. You just you do the best you can. And and you know what we did was just try to deal with kind of what we could see in front of us. Right. We didn’t know when it was going to be over. We didn’t know if it was going to be over. And we just had to figure out a way to to survive literally. Right. So.

communication for us was, was everything. we, we communicated as a management team, you know, daily for awhile around this stuff. and we, and we just really tried to be focused on what we could control. and, and I think if we did maintain our sanity, it was, it was through that, right? We, we didn’t get involved in, in.

things that we had no impact on. All the nuttiness, the policy issues, the political stuff, right? We just kind of put our head down and look straight ahead and tried to open our restaurants, run our restaurants, serve our guests, serve our team as best we could.

It’s funny you mentioned, you know, we just got to get to this date or we just got to get to that date. I can’t remember how many times that we said, if we can just make it to Labor Day or if we can just make it to back to school, right? They’ll open the schools and everything will get back to right. I mean, we all, right? I don’t know how many of those we had. You had to, you had to have something to kind of drive yourself toward.

Anthony Codispoti (58:37.84)
You had to give yourself these pep talks, you had to.

greg willman (58:44.817)
in a belief that it would change at that point, right? And then whether it did or didn’t, then you had to, you kind of had to deal with, you know, the facts, the new facts once you got there. And, you know, that’s all we did, right? We managed, you know, the people side of the business as best we could. But it was just, I don’t think, you know, if you weren’t trying to stay alive during it, like economically alive, not physically alive on top of all that.

I just don’t think there’s any way to get someone to appreciate how difficult and how challenging that was, particularly for our industry. I think our industry was hit as hard or harder than anybody. I mean, we literally weren’t allowed to operate.

Anthony Codispoti (59:35.608)
Now, Greg, what’s it like these days for a franchisee to work with you? How would you describe sort of the personal dynamics? Are you very hands on, hands off? What’s that sort of culture like?

greg willman (59:50.129)
No, we’re pretty engaged. I mean, I spent the majority of my career as a franchisee. And so I want us to be a franchisor of choice. Right. And so I think we provide a lot of support. We have a terrific management team. I used to say for a brand our size, we certainly have a terrific management team for a brand our size, but we have a terrific management team period.

And we have people with a lot of experience and a lot of success in this space working for many, many, many other large brands, right? Starbucks and PopBelly and I mean, I can name them 20 brands, right? These are the people that know what they’re doing, have done it successfully and can bring that to our franchise community kind of day one, store one. And that’s a bit unusual. And so we wanna be,

the best possible partner, right? Now, having said that, it cuts a little bit both ways because I’ve done this my whole life and I’ve done it at scale. And so it’s pretty easy for me to tell when a group is saying they’re committed, but they’re not really committed, or they say they’re doing the things that they need to do to be successful.

that maybe they’re not doing them at the level that they need to be doing them to be successful, right? And so I think we bring both a, you know, kind of a supportive approach, but we also bring a little bit of a challenging approach. And what I mean by that is, you know, there’s a role in this that only the franchisee can fulfill, right? And if they’re not able or willing to fulfill,

their part of the relationship, it’s not ever going to work as well as they want it to work. And so we try to kind of walk the line between doing everything possible for you, but also making sure that you understand what you got to do, what your role in this is, if you want to be successful. And I feel like I can come at that with a good amount of credibility. And I think it’s received in that.

greg willman (01:02:12.337)
At least I hope that it is.

Anthony Codispoti (01:02:14.735)
What’s some of the most common missteps that a new franchisee makes?

greg willman (01:02:20.688)
They are, this is not just for franchisees, any business, right? The number one reason most businesses fail is because they’re, well, they either have a poor product market fit, which we do not have here. We have a good product market fit. Second is they’re undercapitalized. They don’t fully anticipate what it’s gonna take to start a new business, start a new brand.

open a new geography, right? You can read the FDD, right? And that’s kind of the minimum, right? You need some capacity in your organization. You need to be able to go open a second or third location before your first one’s fully mature and operating and generating profit. You need to be able to send more people to training than you really need today, right? Because you’re going to lose some and because you need some capacity.

because you need a GM on the bench if you’re going to open another store. So it’s that upfront commitment level, kind of on faith. I mean, that’s why you signed up with the brand, our brand or any other, because you thought it was going to be great. The franchisees that most often get into trouble that I have seen over the course of my career, not just here,

or the franchisees who say, I’m going to open one and wait and see how it does. I almost now won’t have further conversation once I hear those words come out of someone’s mouth, right? You’ve got to be committed to it. You’ve got to go into your market and establish a brand presence. You’ve got to train your people. You’ve got to market the business, right? If you’re going to wait for the business to mature enough for you to be able to do that.

it might not ever mature enough for you to be able to do that, right? You’ve got to believe, you’ve got to lean in, you’ve got to give it a chance, you’ve got to give it oxygen, right? And when I see that happening, not only in this brand, but in any other brand I’ve ever been involved with, where there’s a product market fit, everything starts to spin forward, the flywheel starts to spin, right? When that doesn’t happen, doesn’t mean you’re destined to fail, right?

greg willman (01:04:46.673)
but it’s sure gonna move a lot more slowly and you’re not giving yourself your best chance.

Anthony Codispoti (01:04:51.982)
What are the things that you like to hear from a new prospective franchisee? What are kind of the words coming out of their mouth where you’re like, yeah, I like this man or woman, they’re gonna be a good fit.

greg willman (01:05:02.257)
When can I start training? Can I send more people than I’m required to? Do you have relationships with a broker that knows the profile on your real estate? Because we want to start looking for our second and third and fourth location, right? They’re going, look, I say this to people all the time, whether it’s with us or anybody, when you sign a franchise agreement, you’re committing and you sign a lease to support a location, you’re committing to a 10 year relationship, right?

approach it like that, right? Approach it like you’re committing to a 10 year relationship, because you are, you just have, right? And so those people that start interacting with us as if it’s clear to us and to them, that hey, we’re going to be doing this together for 10 years, right? That’s the right approach. The approach about, well, can I send two people instead of three people to training, right? Or can I cut this corner? Can I…

Can I not do this? Can I, right? Those are the wrong conversations and those are immediate red flags for us.

Anthony Codispoti (01:06:04.38)
Greg, up until now we’ve talked about the NAFNAF brand. I’d like to hear a little bit about your personal story. You had some work experience outside of the entrepreneurial and fast casual space for, I don’t know, 15 years or so. And then I think it was in 1998 you made the decision to become a business owner and purchase your first Qdoba franchise. Is that right?

greg willman (01:06:29.329)
and we actually, our entrepreneurial venture actually started a little bit before Qdoba, but that, that was the first restaurant part of the, the, the entrepreneurial experience.

Anthony Codispoti (01:06:33.835)

Anthony Codispoti (01:06:40.973)
Tell me a little bit about that art, Corporate America, to now out on your.

greg willman (01:06:46.129)
Yeah, so I, you know, I grew up, you know, in an environment where, you know, my mom worked for a company, my dad worked for a company, right? Everybody had jobs, right? You know, pretty, you know, lower middle class, you know, entrepreneurship was a was a theory. I didn’t know anybody who owned a business. I didn’t know anybody who started a business, right? It was something out there that other people had

had done and could do. But I always wanted to, right? I just didn’t know how. And so when school had some academic success, had some great opportunities, right? And took them. But they were corporate in nature, nine to five.

you know, get on a track. you know, my, my, my dad worked for the same company for 35 years, retired from it. You know, it was that, it was that kind of a, a view of my future. and that, that wasn’t necessarily how I saw my future. and, and so, you know, but I got on the train, right. Got us get out of school. You gotta go get a job. You gotta do something. You’re right. You can’t live in your parents’ basement forever. Right. So,

So I went to work in fantastic positions for fantastic Fortune 100 type companies and got tons and tons of learning early in my career, like lots of responsibility and really developed a really good skillset that I was able to take with me as I transitioned.

Got a glimpse of what was available to me on that path. Pretty quickly figured out that to do really what I wanted to do, even if I stayed on that path, I needed further education. Went and got an MBA. Pivoted out of that experience into smaller environments, more mid -scale.

greg willman (01:09:09.009)
which really appealed to me more. I was closer to the founding of the business. I was closer to the owners of the business. I was closer to the real critical decision making around the business. I wasn’t quite as removed as you might be at 25 or 26 or 28 if you’re in a Fortune 100 kind of an environment. I was kind of at the table or right around the edge of the table.

and got another great set of learning, more entrepreneurial, that I had gotten in my first go -round, kind of in the larger environment. And I thought maybe that would scratch the itch, right? But it didn’t. It just reinforced the itch that, look, I really want to be doing this myself. I really want to do my own thing. So got to a window in life where…

It was either I was either going to do it or I wasn’t right. I had flexibility. I wasn’t married. I didn’t have a family. If it all cratered, it was only going to be me that kind of went down with the ship. I wasn’t going to drag a bunch of other people with me. So I started looking for stuff. And the idea was I would start a little again, I had some success. I’d done well in that environment. I just.

It just wasn’t, it wasn’t where I saw me spending the rest of my life. But I made some money and had some money to work with. And I thought, well, we’ll start, I’ll start a little kind of mess fund, right. Then we’ll go start to find some stuff, early stage stuff that, that needs seed capital or, or needs some as financing or whatever. And we’ll, we’ll go start doing those deals. So I called a friend of mine, a guy I’ve known since we were 16 or 17 or 18.

And we had talked about this over a long period of time. And I said, I’m going to go do this. I’m ready to go do this. Do you have interest? And he said, yeah, I can’t free myself up right now, but yes, count me in and let’s start to conceptualize this thing. So I started looking around. And through those conversations, we decided to target some industries that one or both of us knew pretty well.

greg willman (01:11:30.417)
And then we had another list of stuff that we were going to stay away from. And item one on the list of things we were going to stay away from was restaurants. Legitimately, it was, right? So we go start looking around and we actually did a couple of deals. We funded a kind of a high tech manufacturing company that was run by a guy we knew. We funded a guy, this was back in the days of the

Microsoft A -Tech centers, their advanced technical education centers where they were kind of licensing people in certain geographies to run those. And we funded a guy that we knew and he got a license up around Chicago. And so we started down this path that was, you know, couldn’t have been further away from the restaurant space. The problem was I lived in the middle of downtown Denver about equal distance between the first and second

Qdoba’s was Zetek is which became Qdoba and an equal distance between the first two Chipotle’s and I could see what was happening at these places and and it was like nothing I had ever seen and so I convinced myself that we should figure out how to get involved with it and so I

I, the first thing I did was, was go down the street and, and talk to the guys at Chipotle and was in the middle of some pretty productive conversations with them about how they were going to expand and their thoughts on franchising and new markets and all those kinds of things when McDonald’s bought them. So my antenna went up that, Hey, we’re looking in the right spot here. So I went two blocks the other way from where I lived down the street and found the guys that owned Zetecca.

at what was called Zetecca at the time, and asked them what they were going to do and expressed our interest in getting involved with them. And then once I had convinced them that they should do something with us, even though we didn’t know anything about the restaurant space, but they were kind of beggars at that point, right? They weren’t choosers, they were beggars, right? They were just getting at eight stores, Chipotle just got bought by McDonald’s. They’re like, Jesus, we gotta get going here somehow.

greg willman (01:13:54.193)
You’re a warm body, right? We’ll talk to you, right? So thank God they reacted that way. So I called my business partner and said, I’m going to fly out in a couple of days. I want to talk to you about something. He’s like, well, just tell me what’s fun. I go, no, this requires face to face. So I flew out and I said, we got to get in the restaurant business. And he said, no, we don’t have to get in the restaurant business.

Anthony Codispoti (01:13:55.368)

greg willman (01:14:21.873)
I said, well, then we should choose to get in the restaurant business. And here’s why, and kind of gave them the spiel. And two days later, we hopped on a plane and flew back and kind of shopped all these restaurants, the Zetecas and Chipotle’s and everybody. And by the end of that, we both were like, there’s something here. We got to do this. And so we still debate it to this day. Were we either franchisee number one or number two in that brand?

And the other groups think they’re number one or number two, too. And we know these guys still. We have a great relationship with them. But we signed up and took Indy because the one thing we were smart enough to know is real estate matters and you got to know the market you’re developing. So we dumped a Kidoba development agreement, franchise development agreement into our little portfolio of brands.

And I set about moving back from Denver to Indianapolis, which is both of our home markets, which we really knew that’s backwards and forwards. And that’s how we ended up getting in the restaurant business. That was March of 1998.

Anthony Codispoti (01:15:38.152)
That’s terrific. That’s a great arc. Greg, before we go, I want to point people to how they can get in touch with you. We’ve got your website, nafnafgrill .com. So, N -A -F -N -A -F -grill .com. There’s a franchising tab there for folks that are interested in the franchising opportunity. We’ve got locations, catering, menu options there available for folks to check out as well. And then, of course, your own personal LinkedIn page. Greg Wilman will locate the…

I’ll put the links in the show notes here. But Greg, I just want to be the first one to thank you for sharing your story with us today. I really appreciate it.

greg willman (01:16:15.057)
Thanks for the invitation. I enjoyed talking to you. I thank you very much.

Anthony Codispoti (01:16:18.248)
That’s a wrap on another episode of the Inspired Stories Podcast. Thanks for learning with us today.