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From Pharmacist to Entrepreneur: Shawarma Press CEO’s Smooth Transition To Franchising

Sawsan Abublan, former pharmacist turned CEO, navigated the transition from healthcare to the food industry, filling a gap in the market and introducing the “shawarma effect.”

By Erica InmanStaff Writer
11:11AM 05/16/24

Sawsan Abublan, founder and CEO of Shawarma Press, transitioned from her career as a pharmacist to the world of food and beverage with her husband at her side. Inspired by the lack of Mediterranean restaurants in Texas compared to its popularity in other parts of the world, they decided to fill the gap by opening their own shawarma franchise.

Despite initial challenges, Abublan found the transition surprisingly smooth, drawing on her experience in navigating regulations and quality control. 

“The transition was not as hard as I thought because I had to follow a huge set of rules and regulations in food and beverage as well, and that is something that I deeply understood and I deeply committed myself to as a pharmacist,” she said. 

Abublan differentiated her brand by incorporating a strong community-centric approach, offering fresh food to shelters and engaging in charity work. 

As consumer palates evolved, embracing more diverse flavors, Shawarma Press benefited from a growing appreciation for Mediterranean cuisine. 

“Around 2017, Mediterranean became more popular, not only on the healthy aspect but also on the flavor aspect because it offers these beautiful flavors,” she said. “Biting into shawarma, we call it the ‘shawarma effect,’ and it's a true thing because people don't know how to explain it. It's like, ‘Oh my God! This is unbelievable; this is amazing!’ and we're like, ‘Yep, you're experiencing the shawarma effect now.’”

Shawarma Press did, however, face initial delays in its inception due to the pandemic. However, its strong infrastructure and community-oriented approach helped the brand stay resilient. 

“We did not shut our doors not even once during COVID; we just complied with all the laws and regulations, [such as] how much of the lobby should be open,” she said. “Our customers realized that and thought, ‘Okay, Shawarma Press was there the entire time.’ We emerged after COVID actually stronger because I used that time to increase my marketing, not scale back. And I also used it to refine my processes.”

Leveraging their marketing efforts during the pandemic, the brand emerged stronger, opening multiple locations in subsequent years. 

To watch the full interview, click here.

A summarized transcript of Abublan’s interview with 1851’s Nick Powills is included below. The transcript has been edited for clarity, brevity and style.

Nick Powills: Today, we're talking Shawarma Press. Alright, Sawsan, let's start with you. How did you accidentally fall into franchising? What's your franchise story?

Sawsan Abublan: Originally, I am a pharmacist by education, training and career aspirations. After moving to the United States with my husband, we pondered how far we could go in corporate before starting our own business. We decided on franchising, seeing the potential in owning our own franchise.

Powills: How was the progression from pharmacy into the restaurant business?

Abublan: Surprisingly, it was easier than expected. Pharmacy's stringent regulations prepared me for the similarly regulated food and beverage industry. Despite missing my patients, I found comfort in serving customers and the community through our restaurant.

Powills: How did you navigate the challenges of transitioning into the food industry?

Abublan: We established a strong community-centric approach from the start, offering fresh food to shelters and engaging in charity work. Additionally, our unique marketing strategy and focus on quality helped set us apart.

Powills: Flash forward to 2017, you open your first corporate store. How did franchising come into play?

Abublan: Almost immediately after opening our first restaurant, we were ready to bring on franchisees. However, the pandemic delayed our expansion plans. Despite this setback, we stayed resilient, adapting our operations to comply with regulations and focusing on marketing.

Powills: How did you maintain operations during COVID-19?

Abublan: We never shut our doors during COVID-19. While we closed the lobby, we continued serving customers through to-go orders and delivery. Our customers appreciated our consistent presence and support for the community, which ultimately strengthened our brand.

Powills: Looking ahead, what's the state of franchising for Shawarma Press?

Abublan: Despite the challenges, we've seen significant growth. We opened multiple locations in 2022 and 2023, with more in the pipeline for 2024. We're also signing multi-unit deals, indicating a promising future for Shawarma Press.

Powills: What advice do you have for potential franchisees?

Abublan: I prefer franchisees to be owner-operators, embodying the same passion and commitment to the brand as I do. Additionally, our franchise agreement includes allocating a portion of sales to nonprofits, which not only benefits the community but also serves as positive marketing for the business.

Powills: Any final thoughts for aspiring franchisees?

Abublan: I believe in betting on the jockey, not just the horse. Our success stems from our operational excellence and commitment to community impact. If you're looking for a franchise opportunity with a compelling story and a focus on values, Shawarma Press could be the right fit for you.