It’s a well-known reality; the restaurant industry is a cut-throat, make-it-or-break-it kind of business. “You sit down at a new place for the first time and that one meal usually decides if you’re going to come back or not,” explains Bassel Osmani, co-founder of Pita Jungle, a Phoenix-based casual restaurant chain. “The customer and the market are smart, they know if you’re doing your best to give the freshest product at the best price that’s honest and fair.”
Delivering a high-quality, nutritious product at a fair price has been Pita Jungle’s mission ever since Osmani and his co-founders, Nelly Kohsok and Fouad Khodr, opened the first restaurant in the college town of Tempe, Ariz., in 1994.
Room for healthy, wholesome food
Growing up in a big Lebanese household, food was always something that brought Osmani and his family and friends together. Working in kitchens and dining rooms through college opened the eyes of Osmani, Khodr and Kohsok to the food industry and upon graduation, they started to realize a void in the marketplace and a way to fill it with healthy, wholesome food and traditional recipes adapted from his family’s table.
“My degree is in biomedical engineering, Kohsok’s is in broadcast journalism and Khodr is a mechanical engineer, but we all worked in the hospitality industry, from hotels to restaurants throughout our college careers at Arizona State University [ASU],” reveals Osmani. “None of us had any formal culinary training but we had experienced the industry firsthand for many years.”
As friends and roommates, the entrepreneurial team noticed a difference in the local food scene. “There were not a lot of healthy dining options in Tempe to begin with, but we noticed the market was changing and consumers were demanding better choices,” recalls Osmani. “There was a new subculture forming and we started seeing upper-middle class families looking for tofu and meat substitutes, while at the same time, there was interest from main stream consumers in healthy Mediterranean cuisine.”
At that point, Osmani knew the trio had an idea they had to act on. “The seed was planted in my brain,” recounts Osmani. “There’s a need. There’s a market. It was filled slightly by mom-and-pop grocers but the area needed it on a larger scale.”
While Kohsok and Khodr were excited to launch Pita Jungle, Osmani’s family was reluctant. “When I first told my parents they were mortified,” he shares. “They had helped me pay for this expensive college education, but it was our idea and we just had to do it so they supported me.”
Not the typical chain
Osmani and his partners launched the first Pita Jungle in Tempe in early 1994, focusing on simple recipes with fresh ingredients front and center. “When we first started we built our own tables, we painted our own walls,” he recalls. “We developed a program to rotate local art on our walls and it created a vibe with the artist community.”
Pita Jungle’s eclectic feel and fresh, healthy food began to draw quite a following and soon Osmani and his partners were ready to start up the second location. “People already started asking us what was next,” shares Osmani. “We knew one thing: it wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter store.”
“Today, we’re a chain and we have become what we loathe,” jokes Osmani. “Even though we have eight corporate and 11 franchise locations, what makes Pita Jungle special is every store embraces the neighborhood and the area. There’s no science to designing a store. It’s more of an emotional thing than a scientific thing. People would just come in and say, ‘This has a nice vibe.’ I think we’ve had a good balance between the three partners and it’s really struck a chord with customers in Phoenix.”
Beauty in simplicity
Just as Pita Jungle’s various locations throughout Phoenix Metro, Tucson Metro, Flagstaff, southern California and beyond are not typical chains, the menu flourishes with items that seek to balance greens, grains, vegetables, meats and fruits. “The secret is our recipes are simple,” explains Osmani. “We show off in the freshness of ingredients and large portions. Unlike other chains, we don’t get stuff in a plastic bag, microwave it and call it good.”
Every day, there’s a lot going on in the Pita Jungle kitchens because everything is made from scratch and prepared on-site. “Today, that’s our biggest challenge,” reveals Osmani. “Back when we had just two or three restaurants, my partners and I could oversee everything. Now, we have hired three executive chefs to shore up the culinary aspirations of our line cooks, because it’s all about surrounding yourself with the right talent. One or two modifications can make a dish go from good to great and it’s about knowing how to do that.”
Of course, not everyone has the same mindset. “Some people would say we’re crazy and that we should be manufacturing our products in an industrial kitchen and selling to franchisees, but that’s just not how we do it,” continues Osmani.
With its tagline, ‘The Art of Eating Healthy’, Pita Jungle takes fresh Mediterranean flavors and presents in a way that’s easy for consumers to palate and appreciate. “We have the usual suspects, such as roasted red pepper hummus, falafel and tzatziki, but Pita Jungle also has wood-fired pizza, healthier versions of burgers and we have even done some Asian-style menu additions,” notes Osmani. “We have taken the Mediterranean diet and added global flavors.”
The company is also offering more tapas, or small plates, during happy hour. The tapas concept, which originated in Spain hundreds of years ago, is becoming ever more popular in the U.S. Pita Jungle is bringing big flavor to the small plate with freshly made pitas with thyme and olive oil, garlic-lemon chicken with pine nuts, shrimp in ajo sauce and classic baba ganoosh and hummus trios.
In fact, the casual chain has been selected as the finalist for the 2014 Foodist Award for Outstanding Multiple Location Restaurant and has also been selected amongst The Future 50: The Fastest Growing Small Chains in America. “Our approach works because customers are getting more and more educated about their food choices,” adds Osmani.
With a strong presence in Arizona and a couple locations on the map in southern California, its Osmani’s dream to bring Pita Jungle to other viable markets in Colorado and Texas. The prospect of expansion comes as the restaurant looks to celebrate its 20-year anniversary. After two decades in business, Pita Jungle continues to not only make it, but shine in the competitive casual market by offering customers a healthier experience exploding with unique flavors.