Called satay in Southeast Asia, shashlik in the former Soviet Union, yakitori in Japan, souvlaki in Greece, sosatie in South Africa, espetada in Portugal, brochette in France, and shish kebab in Turkey, grilled meat on a stick is the ultimate international fast food with a history that can be traced back to the ancient age of Homer’s Odyssey. But it’s by its Persian name, kabob, that this multicultural classic has begun to make inroads into the modern American mainstream as a growing number of kabob shops establish themselves in the quick-service sector.
Kabobs are already at the top of the Eastern European fast-food market, particularly in Germany, Poland, and Romania where sales of grilled skewers of meat surpass all other offerings, says Chicago-based international foodservice consultant Charlie Baggs. “In the United Kingdom, they are a favorite after-hours snack.”
J. Newman Miller, chef of cuisine at Baggs’s eponymous consulting firm, equates the appeal of kabobs in quick-service to that of small plates in full-service restaurants.
“Kabobs deliver a lot of big flavor in a few big bites,” Miller says. “Even better, they don’t necessarily need a plate or utensils. The meat, usually cooked in neat cubes, can be slid from the skewer onto bread for a hand-held, portable meal or snack.”
While mom and pop kabob shops have long proliferated in many U.S. cities, three operators—Bethesda, Maryland-based Moby Dick’s House of Kabob; Schaumburg, Illinois-headquartered Kabob.a.Licious; and the Amazing Kabob House in Brea, California—are counting on America’s current craving for high-flavor, low-fat fast food to generate some serious multi unit growth.
Moby Dick’s, which took its whimsical name from a long-established eatery in Iran’s capital city of Tehran, began in Bethesda in 1987 as a single hamburger/roast beef sandwich shop. In honor of his homeland, operator Mike Daryoush, who became enamored with the restaurant industry while earning an electrical engineering degree in college, also featured a few Persian dishes on his menu. Over the next year-and-a-half Daryoush discovered the Middle Eastern selections were his best sellers, prompting him to abandon the burgers and stick with his own style of comfort food.
Currently, Moby Dick’s has 12 restaurants operating in the metro Washington, D.C., area. And, according to company vice president Mohammed Javan, several more are scheduled to open in the coming months. The eventual goal is to establish a national presence. Which is not unrealistic, considering that the clientele at the existing units is about 75 percent American. (At the downtown D.C. location, it’s more in the area of 90 to 95 percent).
With the success of its first location, which opened in a Schaumburg, Illinois, shopping center in 2006, Kabob.a.Licious is planning to expand its concept with two additions in the surrounding Chicago area over the next several months. The company is also “interviewing potential partners” who will enable the chain to move into new markets in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C., in 2008, says company spokesman Kazem Safari.