The new year hasn’t even got started, and Zahira restaurant at The H Hotel has already closed their doors, after trading for just seven short months. Two hundred and fifteen days was all it took for the owners to cut their losses and turn off the lights. That’s like getting a divorce during your honeymoon.
I have walked through a few closed restaurants myself, always with grief and sad reflection. Where there was once laughter and life and happiness, there is just silence. Where there was once good food and drinks being enjoyed every day, there is nothing but emptiness. The restaurant team scattered into the wind, each one of them responsible for finding work that will support their families. It is a surprisingly emotional event – someone’s hopes, dreams, and savings extinguished.
Zahira was a venue with a dream kitchen team, a slick, well-designed restaurant, and a quite delightful menu, conceived and cooked by none other than Chef Greg Malouf – the “Godfather” of Middle Eastern cooking. This restaurant should have had a waiting list weeks long. The food was critically acclaimed and boasted perhaps the best hummus and Ouzi in town. Greg himself was cooking alongside his talented and trusted head chef, Troy, six nights a week. The pricing point was excellent, and the bar had some decent bottles behind it. Alas, after suffering a torrid summer and seeing no upturn in business over the remainder of the year, the writing was on the wall. In capslock.
Having read the online social and trade commentary about the Zahira closing, and understanding a little of the history of the restaurant, some interesting things became apparent.
The first thing is that the Dubai F&B industry is a close-knit community, despite everyone ferociously fighting for the same diminishing dirham. When a new place opens, industry colleagues pass by, partly to have a nosey and check out the “new place” but mainly to support and congratulate their industry peers.
Similarly, when a place closes, there is an outpouring of condolences and support, as if a dear friend had passed away. For the most part, there is a real integrity and mutual respect for what every restauranteur is trying to achieve out here. It’s these little things, in moments like this, that make me proud to be associated with this industry.
Additionally, the strong empathetic reaction is not just because Greg is a popular chef and personality, but also because every restaurant owner and chef know they could easily become the next Zahira restaurant. Closure is just a bad weekend away for some operators – that is the reality, unfortunately.
Another thing I realised is how easy it is to perform a back-seat autopsy and claim the closure was because of this or that. Poor management, an undefined concept, lack of marketing strategy – there are hundreds of reasons why restaurants fail, and it’s easy to throw the blame around when it’s all done and dusted.
The astonishing part and this is what impresses me the most, is the desire to do it all over again. Reflect, learn (find new investors) and stand back up, again and again.
The very best traits of this industry are its persistence and resilience and eternal optimism.
Zahira might have been the first casualty of 2018, but unfortunately, it won’t be the last. Yes, the challenges are there, and this is not an attempt to sugar coat them. The industry is approaching breaking point; rents are crippling, food costs are soaring, disposable income is decreasing, and yet there is hope. There is determination, and for the very best, for the ones who will win, there is strategy and discipline and a commitment to excellence.
In a market that is softening faster than my soufflé cheesecake, it is remarkable that restauranteurs are still hungry for good locations and opportunities, and ways to serve food experiences that bring joy to the city.
I wish each of us the same resilience and optimism, and the very best for 2018.