I’d like to end the year looking back over 2018, as a reminder of what was important to us, what was talked about, discussed and celebrated, both locally and internationally in the F&B industry. I decided to put together an A-Z of 2018 as a year end review.
Thank you for joining me these last 12 months, it was a challenging year, but I look forward to a new and positive 2019, and may all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions!
Dubai likes nothing more than to celebrate accomplishments at every opportunity, and quite right too. However, industry award shows have long been viewed through a sceptical lens and taken with a pinch of salt. The Michelin guide is coming under increasing fire about their independence and relevance. The tourism authorities of both Thailand and Korea have reportedly forked out millions of dollars in return for a Michelin Guide. To add to the controversy, according to many critics and Michelin followers, the Seoul guide was questionable in its accolades and riddled with errors. 50 World’s best is under fire as well, for their less than transparent voting process, which has as much clarity as a FIFA World Cup bid. The growing consensus from the food media is that the 50 World’s Best is a great list if you are European, white and male. If you’re anything else, you better have 600k spare to host the event, because that’s probably the closest you’re getting to one of the awards.
According to the US-based Beverage Marketing Corporation, the UAE has one of the highest per capita consumption of bottled water in the world. A hugely debated topic this year was the menu cost of imported bottled water, which seems to get more expensive with every new opening. I think I saw one artisanal water on a menu that had a bank-sponsored payment plan attached. As calls for filtered tap water grow louder, can restaurants give up the healthy profit margins of imported water and respond to their customers’ needs?
2018 was the year of closures and not just in Dubai. As eating habits change, and technology continues to disrupt, many establishments found themselves having to close their doors. Some closures were neat and dignified, and others were prolonged and painful, but ultimately, the circle of life continues.
We are dealing with a monster of our own making. There is a terrible discount culture across the whole city, with restaurants finding themselves having to run multiple discount programs for an assortment of credit, loyalty and membership cards, vouchers and dedicated discount websites all eating into restaurants profit margins. This, in turn, forces up menu price, and the vicious cycle continues. A couple of real-life examples – one restaurant discounted almost 40% of their revenue, either through membership cards, or media and influencer freebies over the course of a year. They unsurprisingly had to close their doors. It’s not unheard of for restaurants to be running anywhere between 11 – 22% reduction in their revenue thanks to their discount programmes. Surely, restaurants would be better off lowering their prices and scraping this unhealthy discount policy?
Today’s customer is looking for an experience they can emotionally connect to. However, the majority of restaurants in Dubai struggle to provide experiences that resonate. Undertrained staff, ill-conceived menus, and lazy management are the main culprits for mundane and average experiences.
Finally, farming has taken off in the desert! From hydroponics and vertical farms in Al Quoz to oyster farms in Dibbah to rice paddies in sand fields, it seems that the desert continues to provide sustenance to its inhabitants. Chinese scientists have already started harvesting rice in diluted sea-water with aspirations to cover around 10 percent of the UAE with paddy fields, and agreements have been signed in implement desert soilisation technologies in the Al Ain desert. We currently import 80% of our food supplies, but the country aims to produce 60 % more food in the next 30 years.
Few chefs would admit to producing dishes specifically with Instagram and social media in mind, but the power of these user-led marketing tools is now impossible to deny. In a highly competitive restaurant market, getting your meticulously constructed dishes snapped and shared by a key influencer on social media can see your profit margins boom, and this is all the more likely to happen if your food has a visible element helping it stand out from the crowd. While contemporary chefs go on and on about wanting their ingredients to shine, and reflecting the highly hashtag-able concept of ‘authenticity’ through their food, who is going to say no to effective, fast-paced free advertising?
Everyone is seemingly celebrating the arrival of the home-grown restauranteurs, after decades of imported franchises and soulless hotel restaurants. However, let’s not forget that Dubai has been home to hundreds of home-grown independents since it was a small creekside village. A trip across the creek and a wander through the old streets of Deira and Satwa will educate you on the original home-grown restaurants. Iranian, Indian, and Arabic restaurants that have been serving customers for decades. Not everything is on Instagram and Facebook.
What a year for influencers – a prominent local chef got into a public spat with a well-known food critic, and another successful restauranteur was blackmailed and threatened when he refused to offer a free birthday party to an influencer. Many of the influencers refuse to acknowledge they are paid or given freebies by restaurants, and the whole environment is a lawless, chaotic and untrustworthy arena. However, love them or hate them, influencers are here to stay. Luckily, there have finally been some governmental controls imposed that hopefully will provide some boundaries and keep some of the ‘blaggers’ in check.
A restauranteur friend taught me a word, which I think was perhaps the word of the year for many restauranteurs in 2018. The word is Jugaad. The Oxford dictionary definition is a “flexible approach to problem-solving that innovatively uses limited resources.” However, it seems much more than that. Jugaad is a new way to think constructively and differently about innovation and strategy. It’s a way of maximizing resources. It is about businesses adapting quickly to unforeseen and unfavourable situations in an intelligent way. It means thinking frugally and flexibly. However, most importantly, Jugaad is about encouraging, perhaps even demanding innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit – something the F&B industry is well versed in.
Kitchens without restaurants are becoming more and more popular in 2018, with Deliveroo launching their Editions – otherwise known as Dark Kitchens – industrial kitchens that pump out a kaleidoscope of cuisines, based on big data analysis and market opportunity. The Noodle House also created a solo kitchen, to serve its expat suburbia fan base as a delivery model and preparation kitchens provide meal plans, both pre-cooked or pre-portioned with easy to make instructions.
Landlords need to focus less on lording it and focus more on becoming partners for their F&B tenants. Profit is important, but never underestimate what a popular and successful restaurant can do to a community. It raises community well-being, creates a sense of place and belonging, and encourages residents and businesses make that place their home.
Dubai has close to 260 people per restaurant (compared to 420 people per restaurant in the US). There are 138 hotel projects currently underway with an average of 5 restaurants per hotel. Dubai sees a rate of four new restaurant openings per day. These are some pretty hard hitting statistics – let’s hope population growth and tourism continue to support this supply.
Three things are certain in life – death, taxes and new Dubai restaurant openings. Despite all the warning signs and the struggles and complaints of high business costs and over-saturation, restaurant groups are still opening spaces, still looking to steal market share, and still investing in new greenfield sites. As I finish this article off, Emerald Palace, Bluewater, Caesar’s Palace and W Hotel are all launching their considerable restaurant portfolios. It reminds me a little of the Mr. Creosote scene in Monty Python. The Dubai market is Mr. Creosote, all the new openings are John Cleese and we are just a “wafer-thin” mint away from exploding.
The most significant disruption to the restaurant industry at the moment is the online delivery movement. This new delivery space is exploding right now. Deliveroo, Uber Eats, CarremNOW, Carriage, Zomato, and Talabat are your culinary drug dealers, promising to scratch any itch you might have. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. Poke Bowl and Falafel sandwiches? You got it. Burger and Sushi burrito? On its way – don’t forget to tip your driver. The ordering counter of a modern Dubai restaurant has more screens than the launch room of KhalifaSat.
Restaurants will start figuring out ways to serve that magical sub-150 dhs meal experience in 2019. Since the beginning of our species, humans have been connecting and socializing around food, the collection, preparation and consumption of it. However recently, prices have been getting quite punchy, and as a result, more and more people are eating at home. 2019 will see a significant market correction and the rise of the better-priced restaurant meal. There is a battle raging between restaurants and online food delivery and at the moment, delivery is winning. 2019 needs to find a better balance.
Quality and lack of it has been a big topic in 2018 and will continue to be one in 2019 as well. We are very good at hyping up an opening and a new restaurant, but the proof is in the pudding. If we are going to be one of the most expensive eating out cities in the world, the quality of the experience also needs to be the best in the world. Start by creating a proper career path for service workers, so they commit to this industry. Train them, test them, empower them and hold them accountable to your standards. Stay true to good ingredients and honest, genuine hospitality, and you won’t go far wrong. Focus on quality, throughout the entire customer journey.
Rise of the Chef
Thanks to popular publications such as The 86, (haha!) there is a new found love affair with the “homegrown” chef. There are a growing number of locally based chefs who are making Dubai their home for their culinary careers. There has been less focus on these absent celebrity chefs and more emphasis on the real chefs that are behind the line 6 nights a week, cooking great dishes and serving great food. There is also a super exciting movement of young Emirati talent starting to do great things in their kitchens too.
The whole #stopsucking movement really took off this year, with Jumeirah Restaurant Group, Gates Hospitality, and Freedom Pizza all committing to removing single-use plastic in their operations. I even came up with some solutions myself in the absence of straws. Feel free to implement them if you want.
- Restaurants hire extra staff with tiny ladles to pour beverages into customers mouths at regular intervals throughout their meal.
- You can buy your own reusable straw and keep it in your handbag or suit pocket. They can be retractable and customised, or in true Dubai style, made from precious metals and “strajazzled.” Totally made up that word.
- Dubai invests in a massive Dabbawalla style delivery service, that moves hundreds of thousands of personal straws around Dubai every day, with unerring accuracy.
I believe our current culture is to actively search out like-minded people and connect with tribes that resonate with our beliefs and pleasures. There are no longer mass groups of normal consumers, only millions of individuals, millions of small factions that share some commonality with each other, yet think differently, act differently and consume differently.
Tribes. It’s an important word because the restaurants that will succeed are the ones that understand the importance of their tribes and communities and the role they play in them. Those operators that resonate with their neighbourhoods, identify with their tribes and connect with their customers on a deeply personal level, will win. A restaurant needs to play a central part in a community, and operators need to understand this, reflect it and fulfill their customers’ needs.
The F&B industry has been under significant pressure in 2018; there is no doubt about it. In these challenging economic times, I hope that, as an industry, we remain ambitious and positive, but do not allow greed and panic to sully the fantastic progress and advances we have made. Being under pressure can bring out the best in people and companies, spur them on to innovate and double down on their core values and integrity. Don’t let pressure and panic turn your ambition to greed.
We all knew VAT was coming, but for some reason, none of us really believed it would be implemented. Sure enough, January 1st, 2018, it arrived as promised, but it took several months for people to realize its real impact on their spending. 5% on almost everything, from phone bills to electricity bills, to groceries and gas. What I think was most frustrating was that many retailers, restaurants included, took the opportunity to hike up prices by 15-20% and hide behind the VAT excuse. Anyway, taxes have arrived in Dubai, and they are not going anywhere.
Let’s start by calling it for how it is – globally, in the very best examples, women are underpaid, under-promoted and held to ridiculous standards. In the worst examples, they are subject to sexual harassment and blatant discrimination. There are always outliers, but for the most part, these observations hold true, especially in F&B. So, please remember that any woman working in the F&B industry probably has as much, if not more grit, determination, and resolve than her male counterpart. It is likely she has been teased, touched and tormented by co-workers and customers alike. Malicious or not, it is the same; it happens every day, and nevertheless, she persisted. So, I would like to shout out to all the women in our great industry – the chefs, sous chefs and commis, all the bartenders, cocktail servers and waitresses, all the hostesses, and supervisors, all the managers, and leaders that bring such balance, strength, and vitality to our industry. Thank you.
Just want to mention that Dubai is a truly inspiring city for accepting other cultures, customs, and people. The Burj Khalifa acknowledges Pakistan Independence Day and celebrates Divali, Ramadan, and Christmas with incredible light shows. We have mosques, churches, and temples. There is even a minister of Tolerance, and Sheikh Mohammed explained that when the Arab world was “tolerant and accepting of others, it led the world.” In a world where walls are being built, and we are being turned against our neighbours, it’s important to recognize that we are all “same same, but different.”
Collectively, You are almost 50,000 strong, you read, share and comment on my reviews, you come to my Supper Clubs, read my publications, and you have been incredibly motivating and inspiring. Truth be told, I am constantly surprised with the commitment from my readership to support FoodSheikh, especially when there are seemingly a million other things that one could choose to pay attention to. It would be short-sighted not to feel blessed and grateful that good people like yourself decide to read my work. It’s been such a fun ride, and I’ve learnt plenty along the way, but I’m going to let you into a little secret. I’m just getting warmed up. I have so much more planned and I want to get bigger, better and more exciting. So, please, keep being you, because you are awesome.
Zuma celebrated its tenth anniversary, and I was offered an opportunity for an exclusive feature or interview with Rainer Becker, the founder. I had a few questions, but my main one was based around a new Dubai industry word called ‘ Zumaof’ This was my question – ‘Zuma is regarded as a legacy restaurant here in Dubai and has become synonymous with high profile success and longevity. Consequently, regional F&B investors are all looking for the next “Zuma of [insert obscure/obvious cuisine here].” Is there a magic formula to Zuma and what would you say to those investors and restauranteurs who are looking to create the next “Zuma of..”’ My questions were unfortunately returned unanswered, but I was asked to come and Instagram their anniversary party instead. You win some and lose some. Happy New Year.