Catering News speaks to Thorsten Ries, managing director of Nakheel’s hospitality division, about the master developer’s renewed focus on F&B and ambitious growth plans for the future.
Four years ago, Dubai-based developer Nakheel decided to put more emphasis on growing its hospitality portfolio. Thorsten Ries, who had previously worked for Italthai Group in Bangkok, overseeing a portfolio of 36 hotels, was brought in to head up the strategy for the roll-out of hotels, clubhouses and food and beverage outlets.
“They called me and said, ‘We’re going into hospitality – we’re looking at hotels, at food and beverage and malls and we need the expertise’” Ries tells Catering News during an interview at Nakheel’s Breeze Beach Grill, part of its Club Vista Mare development, which houses six other third-party operated restaurants and bars.
The beauty of Nakheel’s F&B venues is that they benefit from prime locations – either in malls or with a coveted sea view. “What we have are locations – that’s our gift,” states Ries, adding that this is paramount to the success of any F&B venue. “The first thing is location – if you don’t have this it’s a hurdle. We have the perfect locations and the best views.”
Breeze, situated at the end point of Club Vista Mare with expansive views over the sea, opened in 2016 and was followed quickly by Il Faro earlier this year. An Italian restaurant, located at Nakheel’s Azure Residences, Il Faro encompasses an indoor trattoria and an outdoor pizzeria with 360-degree views over the Arabian Gulf. These, in addition to Barrel 12 and Sun& on Palm Jumeirah, take Nakheel’s current operating F&B portfolio to four restaurants, and there are exciting plans in the pipeline for more.
“Once we have those 10-plus restaurants operating, we will need to restructure and source additional expertise”
An Asian concept is under development at Azure Residences on Palm Jumeirah, a residential beachside apartment complex with retail and F&B outlets underneath. Meanwhile a seafood restaurant is being planned for The Pointe, a waterfront dining and entertainment destination located at the tip of Palm Jumeirah, across the bay from Atlantis The Palm, which will have more than 200 outlets in total when it opens. These are in addition to a seafood restaurant and clubhouse at the new and improved Jebel Ali Club, expected to open before the end of 2017. A Dubai institution since it was founded 40 years ago, the Jebel Ali Club had outgrown its current facility and Nakheel wanted to update it with a more family-friendly feel and a larger variety of F&B options.
Ries explains: “The community has grown; the villa owners are mainly families. We needed to cater more to the new tenants and the Jebel Ali community by offering more on the family side – with child-friendly aspects and more live entertainment. Also, the question came up, ‘Why no Asian food? Why no specialised seafood?’ – it was a good time to increase the space. We’re going to have midscale, casual family dining.”
However, it wasn’t just a case of demolishing the existing facility and starting again – an important consideration was the strong following at the clubhouse, which enjoys 80% repeat visitors. It was decided that the pool, gym, squash courts and tennis courts would remain and be upgraded and a new facility would be built next to the old one, housing seven outlets including a dine-in cinema concept and two restaurants operated by Nakheel – a seafood restaurant and a new clubhouse. Only once this is completed will the original clubhouse be knocked down.
“When I first started four years ago, I went to the club and quickly understood how important it was for those people – it’s like their home,” comments Ries. “When we told the guests we were going to have a new one on the hill, you can imagine their reaction – they were worried we would come up with something new and modern that wasn’t their home.”
Instead, Nakheel devised a clever plan to ensure the Jebel Ali Club-goers would feel just as at home in the new facility, Ries explains.
“We took about 50% of it and copied the old one and created a back entrance like a VIP entrance. You open the door and have the same carpet, the same ceiling lights, the same décor, the same overall look and feel – we even took the artefacts from the wall, such as the ship wheel. We wanted to keep those guests and they are happy we honoured their request not to change it too much,” he says.
Nakheel’s outlets will be the first to open at Jebel Ali Club, starting with the seafood concept and then the new clubhouse, which are expected to be operational by the end of this month. The third-party operated Spanish and Italian restaurants are also in advanced stages, so at least four new outlets are anticipated to be up and running in Q4 2017.
In addition to Jebel Ali Club and Nakheel’s existing Jumeirah Islands Club – home to a second Barrel 12 – several other clubs are under development. One is being created at Al Furjan, a 560-hectare community located near Ibn Battuta Mall, which will also feature a range of cafes and restaurants. “It will be a typical clubhouse concept with international food to cater to every nationality,” explains Ries.
There are also clubhouses coming up at the gated community of Warsan Village, Nad Al Sheba and on the roof of Jumeirah Village Circle Mall. All in, Nakheel is preparing to open five restaurants and two clubhouses in just 12 months – impressive growth for a company that only started to seriously focus on ramping up its hospitality portfolio four years ago.
“We’re growing a lot in a very short timeframe,” explains Ries. “It’s massive for such a small team if you consider the lead time – creating the concept, doing feasibility studies, etcetera.”
Ries explains that having the right people on board is what has allowed Nakheel to expand its F&B offer so quickly over a short period. “It’s important you hire the right people – the most challenging thing is hiring the right chef for the food concept and sometimes it can take up to six months. Our chef hiring process naturally involves many rounds of food tasting using testers from several nationalities and cultures and in terms of staffing we go for personality over F&B service-trained staff,” he comments.
However, Ries admits that as the portfolio ramps up considerably in the coming years, he will need to boost his F&B division. “If we’re going to triple the size we have now, plus new developments, then I’ll need more help. Once we have those 10-plus restaurants operating, we will need to restructure and source additional expertise,” he comments.
“Since we’re expanding so rapidly, this might happen sooner rather than later.”