A fire has started in King of Prussia.
But don’t worry — it comes with fries.
Naf Naf Grill — “naf naf” is slang in Israel for “to start a fire” — opened last week at 100 Main St., the first location on the East Coast for the company.
It celebrated its grand opening Sept. 6 with a free pita sandwich plus fries and a drink for customers, who were also greeted with a live DJ and free Naf Naf gear like sunglasses and T-shirts.
Cheers from employees echoed inside as they pumped each other up for the big day and welcomed the long line of guests that wrapped outside the door.
Originally based in Chicago with 15 locations, Naf Naf recently expanded to four additional grills in Minneapolis and one in Madison, Wis. Philadelphia marks its 21st location.
It is set to open more locations in the surrounding area by 2017: Mount Laurel, N.J., Marlton, N.J., Malvern and one at 1919 Market St. in Center City this October.
For Naf Naf co-founder Sahar Sander, the restaurant has been a longtime dream.
Sander moved to Chicago from Tel Aviv in 1991 with his parents. He was only 21 at the time and it was his parents’ decision to move closer to family and opportunities, but he found there was something missing: Israeli food and culture.
“This idea has been on my mind for a very long time, ever since I moved here in 1991,” Sander remembered. “I always wanted to bring my culture, my street food, to the States. And seven years ago, I was able to fund the first restaurant and merge with my partner, David [Sloan, Naf Naf co-founder],” who he said handles more of the behind-the-scenes financial parts of the business.
Sander grew up in a home full of hospitality, homemade Israeli salads and decadent barbecue, so food was always a part of his upbringing.
“Falafel, shawarma is like Starbucks [in Israel] on every corner,” he laughed. “And the nice thing about it, even back home, people always go back to what they’re used to. And I’ve seen it in the States. Twenty years ago, I used to drive 20 minutes to get good falafel and shawarma [in Chicago]. Now it’s around the corner — besides Naf Naf, there’s plenty of other restaurants in walking distance.”
Sander thinks the new King of Prussia location of the privately-owned company will do well — as evidenced by the line out the door.
“We don’t even do advertising,” he continued. “We sent out a couple memos and that’s it. But it’s all word of mouth, and I think it’s a great location.”
When it comes to the Naf Naf menu, Sander said they’ve kept it simple over the years.
“The food is great. It’s not traditional, it’s not really a trendy food — it’s real food. It’s rice, meat, bread — that’s going to stick around for a very long time.
“American consumers love it. It’s something that they’re not really familiar with, but once they try it, that’s it, it’s simple.”
Each restaurant has a bakery inside, and the pita bread is baked in-house daily, up to four times a day, to keep it really fresh. And that definitely goes a long way as the pita bread stood out from the sandwich — it’s light and airy and warm to the touch.
The restaurant has the modern atmosphere of other places like Chipotle with a create-your-own selection of veggies, meat and sauces.
Customers can choose between chicken or steak shawarma or falafel, varying in either a hummus bowl, a couscous, rice or salad bowl, or as a pita sandwich.
Sides like fries, lentil soup, basmati rice or baba ghanoush are also made fresh.
“The menu is very simple,” he continued. “The reason it’s simple is because we want to make it right. We actually simplified the menu about four or five years ago. We wanted to get great execution. So everything we have on the menu — there’s really only three items, which is the chicken shawarma, steak shawarma and the falafel.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have great support, a great group of people, and the execution is very well, so everything is really good.”
Sander added that though this food reminds him of life in Israel, which he visits once or twice a year, the cuisine is overall just Middle Eastern.
“On our menu you can find items from Egypt, from Yemen, from Lebanon, from Israel,” he said.
“It’s a Middle Eastern food, and we’re a part of the Middle East,” he said. “We are partially Middle Eastern Jews or partially Ashkenazi Jews — the bottom line is it’s our culture, it’s everybody’s culture around the region, and we love to share it with everybody.”
Sander came up with the name Naf Naf from common Hebrew slang back home.
“Naf naf” (pronounced “nef nef”) had a nice ring to it, so he stuck with it.
“‘Naf naf’ means to ‘make fire, to start up a fire.’ It’s a slang for us in Israel to say, ‘Let’s go naf naf,’ ‘Let’s go start up a fire,’” he said. “I just wanted to have something to reflect to our culture. And ‘naf naf’ means ‘to start up the grill,’ so it’s pretty catchy.”
And since starting the business, that fire within Sander has not been extinguished.
“I was able to take something that I’m so passionate about, like the food and the culture and what I grew up with, and transfer it to the consumer, bring it to the people, share it with our customers, our workers,” he said. “For me, it’s a lot of passion. I don’t consider it a job. I’m fortunate enough to say it’s a hobby. I do it every day and I’m not getting sick of it. It means more than just a business.”
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