Sahar Sander, who took a former Taco Bell and turned it into one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the country, Naf Naf Grill, has died. He was 47.
The company confirmed that Sander passed away unexpectedly at home last week. The cause of death was not known.
“He was a special guy, no doubt about that,” Naf Naf Grill CEO Paul Damico said in an interview on Wednesday. “He will be missed.”
Sander, an Israeli native with close-cropped hair and a jovial, energetic style, opened a restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine in a Chicago suburb in 2009. The concept featured shawarma, chicken or beef seasoned with spices and cooked on a vertical spit and then sliced and served in bowls or pitas.
The company made its pitas fresh on-site, and it grew in popularity, ultimately attracting the attention of investors. In 2015, the chain received an investment from Atlanta-based Roark Capital—a rare investment by the private-equity firm in such a small chain.
Naf Naf has since taken off, with locations in the Midwest and along the East Coast, helping Sander fulfill his dream of taking Middle Eastern cuisine to the masses. Sales last year grew 58%, according to Technomic data, while units grew 52% to 38.
“Naf Naf” translates to “fan the flame” and is used an invitation for families and friends to share a meal together.
Sander had been the chain’s CEO or co-CEO until last year, when former Focus Brands President Damico was named CEO. Sander was a culinary adviser to the company.
“He was a strong influence in how this brand was created,” Damico said. “We feel responsibility to take what he has built, and for me personally, to take this brand to the next level because we have such a strong foundation.”
He described Sander as a “ball of energy” who had a real passion for the cuisine of his home region, and a strong desire to see that cuisine become more popular in the U.S.
“Sahar had a tremendous spirit and passion about his Middle Eastern culture and food,” Geoff Hill, managing director with Roark Capital, said in a statement. “He was a great partner to Roark and the original investors in welcoming Paul Damico and the team to take the Naf Naf brand to the next level. We extend our deepest sympathies to Sahar’s family during this difficult time.”
Sander is survived by his two daughters, Gabrielle and Elya Sander, his parents Nissim and Sara Sander and siblings Einav Sisso and Inbal Chalaf. Services were held on Sunday.