Interview: 54º East founder and CEO Rafia Al Mulla

Posted under Catering News ME, F&B, News.
by Crystal Chesters | Published 4 years ago

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As business-on-wheels provider Roundup prepares to open its Jeddah office, Emirati founder and CEO, Rafia AlMulla reveals ambitions global expansion plans for the young brand


What is your career background?

I come from a Dubai-based family; we have our own businesses in hospitality and other sectors. I studied in Dubai and I love the city so much; it grows so fast and creates a lot of opportunities. I studied a Bachelor’s degree in real estate and took a higher diploma in marketing then a hospitality services degree from Cornell University. Beyond that, what I appreciate is experience: you have your education but unless you put it to use, what’s the point?

Why did you launch 54 East?

It was my passion to be a trendsetter in the economy, so I looked at bringing a concept here that was not here already. When I set up 54 East, I even flew an award-winning branding agency out from the US and sat down with them to decide on a strategy for the next 10 – 20 years. I’ve run my own business for nine years, and 54 East was established in 2009, marking a big global movement in lifestyle.

“We can estimate that because Saudi Arabia is a larger market, it could have between 45 – 75 trucks by the end of the first year”

What is the USP of Roundup, the food truck division of 54 East?

We are a one-stop-shop for everything you need for businesses on wheels. We deal with a lot of day-to-day issues, whether our clients are small operators or existing, large corporations. We don’t just provide you with the food truck; we provide all the services you might need, from government trade license support to branding and accounting services. We make your life simple and we let you focus on your business development. We don’t define ourselves as automotive or real estate – we look at ourselves as completely unique.

Which brands are operating using Roundup food trucks?

The concepts are very creative and unique so it’s hard for the food trucks to clash. There is a burger van that does Mexican burgers and Chinese burgers, etc., while another has its own kebab machine, which produces kebabs in a unique way in just a few seconds. Then we have a truck specialising in liquid nitrogen ice cream. Overnight people can change their concepts immediately with no renovation costs or approvals.

Where do the trucks come from?

We have six destination contracts worldwide for the factories, making us the largest producer of businesses on wheels in the world.  We also do the fastest turnover, so you will get your truck within two – six weeks of ordering it, and that includes the freight. We compete on time, quality and money.

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Where does your business operate?

We work in Dubai, Sharjah, and globally as well. Our food trucks can travel from Dubai to Saudi Arabia so you’re not just limited to the UAE. This gives our members a lot of access opportunities, exposure and we arrange everything. We have already signed a deal in Saudi Arabia. We have very strong partners in Saudi Arabia and have secured big events there. It takes a day for Dubai-based food trucks to drive there overnight and at the Roundup headquarters we can order the legislation for the borders. A Roundup member just needs to tell us they want to be there and we make it happen.

What opportunities does Roundup offer small brands?

There are great concepts out here but real estate companies would just accommodate the big players. It doesn’t create an equal business system, so we’re here to reset that. Our prices are always reasonable – we match the highest quality with the lowest prices given the requirements of Dubai. We give opportunities to small, medium and large enterprises; there’s no similar industry that offers such fair competition and we add value to consumers. We focus on this day-in, day-out, and introduce new services almost every week.

What is unique about your services?

Our prices are competitive, we’re niche, and we know what we’re doing. We’re completely legislated by the government and have full approval from all the authorities. We’re fully supported by Dubai Chambers because we create a lot of job opportunities and a lifestyle for clients, so if you want to go out you don’t have to go to shopping centres; the food trucks are all over. In addition, our technology is quite unique and we tailor-make packages to each member’s requirements. We never accept open budgets because we look at what is most feasible for them. We minimise their costs while exposing them to the highest revenue. If we don’t see their concept working, we’ll tell them because we have a lot of data and experience, so we can offer the best advice.

“We don’t just provide you with the food truck; we provide all the services you might need, from government trade license support to branding and accounting services. We make your life simple and we let you focus on your business development”

How has demand for food trucks grown in the Middle East?
It’s very high growth; we have a lot of bookings. Sometimes people request private catering and ask if they can rent a food truck, but we don’t offer rentals. Instead we tell our members that an individual is willing to pay a certain amount for a certain amount of time. It’s never enough, and we don’t see it being enough for at least the next five years given the growth of Dubai and the upcoming Expo 2020, which we’re trying to sign Roundup up for. We’re looking for innovative ideas because we have great partnerships with a lot of large corporations, government entities, private firms, and sponsorship agencies looking to support us.

What technological developments will you introduce to streamline processes?

We’ve launched a new technology with the app and website, and the next is a payment gateway and GPS. The app is for IPhone, Android and on, the main official website.

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What are your expansion plans for Roundup?

We’re looking at global expansion and are seeking partners globally. There are going to be Saudi Arabia based trucks and because Saudi Arabia is a larger market, it could have between 45 – 75 trucks by the end of the first year. Our main office is based in Riyadh and we’re going to open offices throughout Saudi Arabia, including Jeddah over the next few months. We also have some early stage discussions with GCC partners but nothing has matured. However, we’re more than confident that by next year we’ll be all over the GCC. We’re looking at Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain. We have already exported some food trucks to those regions but we’re looking for a partner and as soon as we find one, all the food truck orders will come through our partners. We’re already exporting outside of Dubai to Africa and other parts of the world. Hopefully after the GCC we’ll be looking at MENA expansion and if we had a US partner that would be great. Asia and Europe are our next moves.


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