Like many successful businesses, Naf Naf Grill was started by a couple of people with little more than a good idea and a lot of determination. What began as two friends, Sahar Sander and Elan Burger, serving authentic Middle Eastern food out of a converted Taco Bell with no air-conditioning in Naperville, Ill., has grown since 2009, into a thriving fast-casual restaurant chain with 21 locations and several more slated to open by year’s end.
“We came from humble beginnings, but we gave customers a great experience and great food,” says CEO David Sloan, who, along with vice president of real estate Justin Halpenny, formed a partnership with Sander and Burger six months after the first Naf Naf Grill opened. “We had a line out the door every day, and we’ve been going gangbusters ever since.”
In addition to locations in Eden Prairie, Maple Grove and two in downtown Minneapolis, Naf Naf Grill opened three new metro-area restaurants last summer, including one near the University of Minnesota and another at the Mall of America. The newest location, the first in the east metro, opened in August at Woodbury’s CityPlace, a 100-acre development that offers an array of shopping and dining options.
The space is airy and inviting, with clean lines and an open kitchen that allows patrons to watch as pitas are baked, meats are sliced and sauces are prepared. The menu is intentionally pared down “for several reasons,” says Sloan. “It allows us to focus on the highest standards of quality on fewer levels, and to make Middle Eastern food more approachable to people who’ve never had it before.”
Diners can choose from chicken or steak shawarma, a traditional preparation method in which meats are placed on a rotating vertical spit and roasted slowly for hours. At Naf Naf, the meats are marinated overnight in a dry-rub seasoning and roasted throughout the day, with shavings cut off the cone of meat and served in a made-from-scratch pita or in a bowl on a bed of hand-chopped salad, nutty hummus or turmeric-infused basmati rice. In place of shawarma, vegetarians can opt for Naf Naf’s signature falafel, flavorful fried balls of chickpea, jalapeno and onion.
The restaurant offers a range of garnishes and sauces to top off your meal, from made-in-house pickles and sliced onions seasoned with cilantro and sumac to vibrant tahini and harissa sauces made with fresh herbs and spices.
If you’re unsure what to order, you can ask the friendly staff for recommendations and samples; they’re happy to answer any questions a customer might have. One staff favorite is a chicken shawarma pita with s’khug hot sauce, with a side of hand-cut Naf fries and garlic sauce.
“At the end of the day, it’s just bread, hummus and meat,” Sloan says. “It’s food that is universally liked, done right.”
According to Sloan, the company chose to open in Woodbury after finding success in other Twin Cities suburbs, noting that the community’s diverse population makes it a great home for Naf Naf Grill. “We do great with workers and in the suburbs with a mix of demographics,” he says. “The great thing about our food is that it’s loved by everybody.”
He continues, “Minnesotans are pretty well-versed in different types of cuisine, so it’s not a huge leap for people to enjoy shawarma and falafel.”
The Woodbury location will also offer online ordering with in-store pickup as well as a catering menu perfect for business lunches or events. But be careful, Sloan warns: “Once you try it, you get addicted.”