Founders of Hola, Yousef and Ali Karmostaji are savvy entrepreneurs who are shaking up the F&B sector in Dubai
Succession woes are the bane of any business – particularly so a family business. Very often the next generation is reluctant be the torchbearers for a venture that their parents began. That wasn’t the case though for 33-year-old Yousef Karmostaji and his 32-year-old brother Ali. They’re the second-generation operators of a fruit and vegetable business started by their father over 35 years ago. “My father began working in the fruit and vegetable business in the Seventies. When he first came to Dubai, he was working along with his brothers, but then decided in 1981 to separate from them and establish his own company. Since 1981 we’ve been importing fresh fruits and vegetables into the UAE and distributing it to five-star hotels, hypermarkets, western food chains, as well as the wholesale market. That is how the family business started,” explains Yousef.
The brothers elaborate saying that beginning a business of this nature required a considerable amount of elbow grease. “Operationally it was very challenging back then. Now we have forklifts, for example, that could do the job. But at that time my father started out, loading and offloading was all a manual job,” says Ali.
Starting ground-up meant limited financial and human resources. “Back then, it was only him, three salesmen and one driver. It was a five-man operation and they had just one truck. Every day, he had to go the market and buy and sell the fruits and vegetables himself. It was completely a hands-on operation.”
It eventually paid off. Today, the Dubai headquartered business has about 350 employees and uses 70 trucks and has branches in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi too. Yousef joined in 2008 and is now the General Manager for Shokri Hassan Trading Company, while Ali joined two years later in 2010 and is the Operations Manager. The brother can be credited with making the business more tech oriented as well as operationally efficient. Ali introduced e-commerce into the venture by catering directly to customers in the UAE through an app called FruVeg. “The idea for the FruVeg app came when I thought of ways to introduce e-commerce into our business. I wanted to build something like an Uber, but for fruits and vegetables. I developed a user-friendly simple-to-use app called FruVeg. We update the app daily with the fruits and vegetables we have in stock and its prices. The prices are more or less wholesale prices and much cheaper than the supermarkets. That’s a clear advantage for the customer. We do not charge anything upfront. All you need to do is place an order for a minimum of Dhs100 and we deliver to you the same day. After delivering the fruits and vegetables to you, you can pay for it only if you’re completely satisfied with what you have received. If you’re satisfied with only half of it, then you pay for only half of it. We deliver in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman and will soon be supplying Abu Dhabi and the other emirates as well.”
Yousef crunches some numbers with regards to the scale of the fruits and vegetables import operations. “We import more than 300 items by air, sea and land and sometimes buy locally. We do more than 20 containers of bananas a month from Ecuador and Philippines. We import five containers of pineapples and six-seven containers of potatoes a month. We do a lot of tomatoes and other vegetables by air, and also several berries like strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.”Fruits and vegetables are a highly perishable commodity and dealing in those quantities inevitable means huge quantities of food wastage. That gave the brothers some food for thought and was the inspiration behind a Latin-American inspired restaurant, Hola, focusing on fruit-based preparations that they opened in October last year in La Mer. “Fruits and vegetables are wanted as long as they’re still not ripe. The moment they are ripe, we cannot sell it and we have to dispose it. We were thinking ways to recycle these fruits and vegetables and put them to some use. We knew that one day we would have to do something like a juice bar. But I didn’t want a regular juice bar. I wanted something that was totally different. The inspiration came from Mexico,” says Ali who while studying for a bachelor’s degree in San Diego, would make frequent trips across the border into Tijuana in Mexico where he would be fascinated with the innovative ways in which street vendors would sell fruit-based concoctions. “The way they cut the fruits and season it in Tijuana is completely different to what you’ll find elsewhere – imagine lime, chili flakes or chili sauce on mangoes and watermelon.”
Ali who is the Founder and CEO of Hola along with Yousef, the co-founder of Hola, put together a business plan. Like their father, Ali and Yousef had their own share of challenges that they came up against when they decided to start Hola. “One of the biggest challenges was finding the suitable location. We were a brand-new concept and malls, for example, would not even consider you if you don’t have other branches or are an established model. We sent our proposal to Meraas and waited a year-and-half before we heard back from them. The moment we saw the beachfront location at La Mer, we decided that it was the right venue to launch our venture,” says Ali, while adding, “Meraas has many international brands like Starbucks which is right next to us, but they also give a chance to homegrown brands like ours.”Another challenge that Ali and Yousef encountered with Hola was menu development. “We usually prepare something that appeals to our own taste buds, but we’re catering to an international clientele here at Hola and we have to satisfy as many of them as we can,” says Ali. That Hola’s head chef is Mexican
and has vast international experience having worked in Venezuela and California helps mitigate that problem.
The tech-savvy Ali also admits to turning to social media feeds like Instagram when it comes to inspiration for preparation and presentation ideas. The specialties at Hola include dairy-free iced latte made from coconut milk, paletas which are updated depending on the season and availability of the fruits and fruteros which use exotic fruits with unique seasonings. All their ice creams and syrups are made in-house.
“I’ve got a couple of customers who have approached me and asked me if this is a franchise from Mexico or Spain. To hear something like that knowing that this is our first outlet and something we started from scratch gives us a good feeling,” says Yousef.
While the brothers were setting up Hola, their father encouraged them but said that he wouldn’t visit until it opened. Once it was ready he did visit. “The best compliment that we’ve received for Hola so far is from my parents who say that they’re proud we’ve made something like this,” says Yousef.
The brothers have ambitious expansion plans for Hola which include opening up branches in Dubai, and Abu Dhabi and eventually through the GCC. But they both emphasize that the most important business lesson they’ve learnt from their father is to be patient and not expect success overnight. The sons will do well to follow the pearls of wisdom coming from a man who has been on the job for nearly four decades.