Business Weekly

Taste of chai takes off

November 15 - 21,2017

Gulf Weekly Stan Szecowka
By Stan Szecowka

Gulf Weekly Taste of chai takes off

SOMETHING is seriously brewing on the hospitality front as the kingdom gets a satisfying taste for tea from a café with a difference.

FiLLi Café was unveiled in Manama last May and has proved so popular two more outlets are set to be unveiled today and plans are in the pipeline to introduce the franchise across the causeway in Saudi Arabia.

The refreshing concept has been brought to the kingdom by business development manager Marcus Njorge and Bahraini businessman Adnan Gilitwala under the umbrella of Epitome Restaurant & Coffee Shop Management.

“There are many things that make FiLLi Café special, from the relaxed comforting feeling created by the café’s ambiance to the diversity of the menu,” said Kenyan Marcus, 30, who comes from the East African country’s capital city, Nairobi. “However, the most exclusive factor is the feeling of warmth, bliss and tranquillity that flows through your body after every sip of our tea.”

Located in the heart of Manama, across the road from the Yateem Centre, FiLLi Café aimed to become a ‘second home’ for tea-lovers with a range of uniquely-flavoured beverages that use top quality leaves from Sri Lanka, blended by leading tea-makers in Singapore.

The charismatic owner of the FiLLi brand, Rafih Filli, flew over from Dubai for the grand opening in the spring doing the honours with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting against a backdrop of live music.

Invited guests then enjoyed their first taste of the signature FiLLi Zaffran Chai, a unique combination of steamed milk, tea and saffron … and the outlet never looked back.

The innovative coveted ‘FiLLi experience’ promised customers a cool and relaxing atmosphere to savour great-tasting brews prepared by world-class specialists suggesting ‘tea n’ talk’ just got a whole lot more fun.  

FiLLi was established in neighbouring Dubai in 1991 and so far boasts 28 outlets in the UAE, three outlets in India, as well as one in Qatar and now a further three in Bahrain, with plans for further expansion – London and New York City within the next year and more than 100 outlets in the UAE by 2020.

When Rafih took over his Indian father’s ailing cafeteria – nestled among small convenience stores – he would pray every night for it to make just enough money so that he could pay the staff salaries.

Little did he know that a slight tweak to the menu, which mostly featured shawarma sandwiches and fresh juices, would lead to a change of direction and a chain of cafes he hopes might rival chains such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee in the next 10 years – all thanks to a strong cup of freshly-brewed chai.

Born Abdul Rafih, Filli was a nickname given to him by friends when he was in high school. So when he came up with his special recipe for the milky tea he added to the cafe’s menu in 2004, he called it FiLLi.

At the same time he took down the outlet’s original sign and renamed it FiLLi Café – and even went so far as to change his surname to match.

“My dad left the country when the cafeteria started failing, so I stepped in to help run it,” said Filli. “I was only 21 then. After three months, I added tea to the menu – this was tea the way I liked it.”

After a month of playing around with the recipe and offering free samples, he began attracting a steady stream of loyal daily customers.

“There is no secret recipe,” he is reported to have told one regional newspaper, at the time revealing that the distinctive flavour boils down to the ratios of Assam tea, milk and sugar. “And lots of brewing, of course,” he added.

The success of the ‘FiLLi’ brand has also been based on an unwavering commitment to service of the highest level and a consistency of product quality, taste and freshness that is ‘second to none’; not only is the blend of tea and food combinations unique, it is healthy too with no artificial flavouring, no preservatives and no flavour-enhancing monosodium glutamate … in a ‘tea-cup’, it is simply ‘fresh and delicious’.

The message certainly appears to have been sold to customers in Bahrain, especially those who had already experienced the café during visits to the UAE. And, it wasn’t long before it caught on with locals and expats here.

“Our customers who were familiar with the brand from their time in Dubai were delighted that it was now available in Bahrain,” admitted Marcus. “We have also been able to successfully build a following of new FiLLi lovers from Bahrain due to the unique nature of the experience.

“As expected, our Signature Tea is our best seller, and the essence of our brand. It pairs well with our Paratha Bite and Grilled Chicken Salsa Wrap which are our best-selling foods.”

The prices are an attraction too. The Paratha Bite mentioned, featuring egg, cheese and Oman chips, costs just BD1 and the Grilled Chicken Salsa, in a spinach / wholemeal wrap, is priced at BD1.600.

And that saffron FiLLi Zafran Tea that Rafih made his mark with, starts at a mere 600fils (regular FiLLi tea is just 400fils) - the sweet taste of success, if ever there was one!

“Our next branches are located in Hamad Town, more specifically in the Souq Waqif, and a kiosk in Lulu Hypermarket’s branch in Riffa,” added Marcus. “Both of these locations will help us expand our coverage and reach people who we believe will appreciate our brand being closer to them.

“We will continue to expand our presence in Bahrain and deliver the exceptional standard of quality that has made it such a success in the UAE. We are currently also in the process of introducing the brand in Saudi Arabia where we expect it to be a hit too.

 “I came to the kingdom a couple of years ago and, just like many other expatriates, I came looking for opportunities to enhance my knowledge and propel myself to greater heights in the world of food and beverage.

“Epitome is a new company that is dedicated to enriching people’s lives through the beauty and complexity of food in all its shapes and forms.

“It aims to expose people to different culinary sensations through a combination of franchising as well as the development of its own unique concepts. It exists to revolutionise Bahrain’s ever expanding food and beverage scene by introducing new ideas that will propel Bahrain to both a regional and eventually a global capital for dining.

“I had the privilege to meet Adnan, a person with a great passion for the industry. His vision and purpose for the sector enabled us to come up with Epitome.

 “It is through this same drive that we were able to meet the people behind FiLLi Café who also wanted to partner with people with the same zeal as them. After a number of meetings we were able to successfully take the steps to establish the FiLLi brand in Bahrain. 

 “The only way to truly understand why so many people in the UAE and, now in Bahrain, can’t go a day without a cup of our FiLLi Tea, is to walk into the café and try it for yourself!”

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