Are we falling out of love with restaurants?

It is a horrible question to ask and a depressing notion to comprehend, but is Dubai falling out of love with the traditional restaurant experience?  When a new restaurant opens, we all go “Yay!’  But I’m sure there is, secretly, an inward groan highlighting our larger concerns. Keep shoving something down someone’s throat and they will eventually wretch.  I mean that in the nicest way possible.  I used to love Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn until it was played on every single radio station over and over; until I couldn’t bear the sound of it.

I fear for the enthusiasm of the market – I fear that because of this continuous, incessant stream of restaurant opening in every conceivable space in Dubai, people are, at the very worst, going to get bored and at the very least, ambivalent of this industry.  I fear for the over-reliance on F&B as the magic bullet that will solve all of retail’s problems.  Foot traffic down? Bring in some food trucks.  Got some dead retail space to fill?  Open some F&B kiosks.  Our industry’s saving grace has been a resilience and enthusiasm from our customers to continue to support the thousands and thousands of seats available across the city, every night of the week.  I fear for that continued gusto.

Perhaps people are bored already.  Home delivery is on the up and restaurant reservations are down. People are choosing Netflix’s The Crown and Uber Eats over traffic and a restaurant.  Deliveroo is building restaurants that live on their app as a “delivery only” option.  We’re not even bothering to build restaurants anymore – just a hot stove and a bike.

How have we got to that point where our restaurants are being threatened by luke-warm food (that is usually far below restaurant quality), impersonally delivered with little emotional attachment.  How have we become happy with an automated message asking for a rating as a replacement for an engaging, genuine table touch by a restaurant professional?

How have we got to the point where the majority of restaurants don’t need a reservation on a Thursday night, yet we have to wait up to an hour and a half for food delivery due to heavy demand?

The reasons are simple.

Too much mediocracy, not enough innovation.
Too much capitalism, not enough connection.
Too much ego, not enough egalitarianism.
Too much social media, not enough social skills.
Too much management, not enough ownership.

So, what’s the solution? How do we, as an industry, keep that fire alive?  How do we avoid becoming irrelevant?  We desperately need our guests to care about us because if they stop caring about us, we are lost.

Luckily, my thinking didn’t end there.  There are three things that I’ve identified as a food writer and a food professional that we, as an industry need to consider and get better at.

1. Accessibility

Is the restaurant easily within reach of your customers, physically, psychologically and financially?  Being accessible to your guest is ultimately about convenience.  How easy is it to visit the restaurant?  This includes fighting traffic, hunting for parking and distance traveled to get there.  Once there, how ‘open’ is the place?  A guest needs to feel welcomed and important from the moment they walk in, not alienated and awkward.  Finally, how accessible is the pricing of the experience?  The pricing should aim to encourage repeat visits, not remind guests to stay at home and order a chicken biryani.

2. Innovation

Innovation is the cornerstone of progress, especially in a fast-moving industry such as F&B.  It doesn’t have to be expensive; in fact, innovation is often born from frugality.  However, the very best restaurants are pushing boundaries and keeping things fresh.  Smashed avocado and kale will only get you so far.  A chef’s real job is to continuously explore flavours and technique.  A restaurant owners real job is to continuously reinvent service and experience.  Not enough restaurants here innovate.

3. Emotional connection.

This is the hardest to achieve, but the most powerful.  I’ve used this quote many times, but the great Grandmaster Flash once said, “Conquer your street.  Conquer your park.  Conquer your neighbourhood, and the world is yours.” Restaurants need to have a connection to the community they are in.  The local hairdressers should know the restaurant owners name.  The local dental clinic receptionist should have eaten there recently.  The guests should know who’s behind the business and buy into why they are doing what they’re doing.  Suddenly you’re not just eating at Café Abbaca; you’re supporting Lubna and Jonathan, and their dream of running a successful neighbourhood café.  You become part of that journey, part of something special.

What do you think? Are we falling out of love with restaurants? What do restaurants need to do better to get bums on seats? Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Comment below!

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