Earlier this year KPMG predicted a further 1,600 F&B outlets could open in the UAE, placing even greater pressure on existing venues to maximise profits. With beverages playing an ever larger role in revenue generation, Hotel News gathered Dubai’s top beverage experts to discuss market dominance, themed concepts and regulation.
In a snapshot observation, what do you currently see in the local market?
Adam Carr: Although Dubai is developing rapidly, with new bars opening every week, in my opinion compared to the rest of the world we are behind. That isn’t a negative, it’s just reality. For me, Dubai may be a trend setter in many ways, but when we’re talking about bar trends it’s a follower, not a leader.
Trends come from London, Australia, Asia and like any trend in any circuit, things come from elsewhere and we execute them, but hopefully with the level of talent coming here from all over the world we can begin to set our own trends.
Nabil Djabbari: Definitely. I think we are missing speakeasy bars and genuine, well made classics. You can get the bling factor anywhere, but we miss that authenticity in the bar culture here.
Halil Asar: We see the nitrogen and dry ice and smoke – a lot of techniques – but I have noticed also that bar tenders are more involved in not only preparing the drink, but also in what you are eating, both in alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks.
Marcel Haddad: I think what is missing is the education, not the guest education but the whole culture. We all bring our own bar culture here from different parts of the world – London, Lebanon – and try to apply here. With the innovation and new concepts coming, I think there is little else to do to a classic but change the glassware or presentation of the drink. So innovation of the new classic drinks is what is missing from this region; for a local bar tender to say they work in a certain place and created this drink. Using the power of social media a new drink can be global within 10 days and that’s how Dubai can set its own trends.
Djabbari: I think we also need to educate our customers better.
Carr: A lack of training is apparent also; it just isn’t executed as much here as elsewhere. As a training manager when you go into a venue you see many managers will invest in the look of a place, but forget about the training. It is changing, around the world, this is important, so Dubai will have to catch on.
Asar: The most important part of a recipe can be the person making it. If you look at how to make and present, training is vital to that.
Waweru IsaacNewton: As we are located in an Emirati restaurant, we are in a slightly different position. We have a whole range of signature mocktails that were created especially for the restaurant, each of which is designed to have a very distinct flavour. In our area, we are seeing more demand for crushed ice drinks and also exotic fruits.
There is a huge market for mocktails and we see people coming to the restaurant to drink them with a meal, or straight from the beach to cool down. In the context of the restaurant we use traditional ingredients and imported fruits and blend new combinations
Carr: We see menus being developed, which feature mocktails that are charged at the same amount as a drink which contains alcohol. For that price, consumers, do expect the same amount of love and thought to be put into their drink as an elaborate cocktail.
Anthony Gomes: Mocktails get much more exposure here than in European or other markets but they are being appreciated for the level of artistic creation that goes into them.
Asar: It is always the chef who will take the complements, but with creations like those the bar staff can too.
With this in mind, does it make business sense for venues and outlets to expand on their mocktail menus?
Marcel Haddad: It depends on your target and where you want to go with your venue and concept. Do mocktails make enough money for you? Are you purely a cocktail bar with only a few signatures? Perhaps it’s up to the company or the corporation to decide which way they want the venue to go then you can push your grapes list, or hops, etc. But don’t forget your occasion guest. For example, Zuma has huge order for mocktails and they have a large menu of signature mocktails that mirror the concept of the bar.
Carr: It’s essential.
IsaacNewton: Think about the time of day. In midday or afternoons you will not see the same demand for alcohol. I believe you need to develop and change these offerings and also keep your clients entertained and interested through these elements
Liubomyr Fil: We see people going for the lemon mint lemonade, but the demand for mocktails in our bar isn’t as sophisticated as you would see elsewhere. You have to know your client and why they have chosen to be at your venue.
Carr: The visuals are important. People see an interesting looking drink and want to try it. I previously worked at a bar where the most expensive mocktail was AED110 and had gold leaf. It was incredibly popular and it was luxurious and tasty. It caught on and was a big success.
Haddad: The clients appreciate the attention, the care, and that somebody can create that.
There has been a distinct rise in the number of sommelier offerings and the pairing of food with a whole range of drinks. How do you see that developing?
Fabio Pozzan: We have seen different cocktails being created to go with different foods. We have moved beyond the classic white grapes with fish combination and everybody is a foodie today so cocktails are now becoming part of that cuisine experience.
Carr: At Cocktail Kitchen, it’s in the name. We won’t match every drink with a dish because it becomes quite a large task – anybody who develops a cocktail menu does it for occasions. So a sweet drink is good for after dinner. To differentiate the offering further we are going to incorporate – and this is a trend which has been circulating for a few years – food products into the drinks.
Asar: I believe too that we are going to see more edible parts in drinks, so for example cucumber in a traditional Asian drink, holed out so you can eat and drink together. Perhaps we could even see completely edible cocktails.
Haddad: Gimmicks. Now is a time where gimmicks catch on.
Anthony Gomes: We have a drink that incorporates a little olive oil, so at the end of the drink you finish with a savoury note and that pairs really well with the food.
Djabbari: I was in Germany and we were creating cocktails with light deserts but in my role here it is very different. We are serving maybe 5,000 drinks over the course of an event so quality and speed are our targets. You need a small speakeasy kind of bar to do that and the bar tender needs interaction with the guest to find out what they like to drink and what they are eating.
Carr: A worldwide trend right now is drinks that are low in ABV and Dubai will catch on to this because of the mass of restaurants here and because people in that time after work but before dinner, want something light and refreshing. There is also something quite sophisticated and elegant about them.
Asar: The bar nut is disappearing and that’s a good thing I believe. It shows drinks are more respected by the person making them and we see things like crudité and popcorn replacing that.
As an extension of that trend do you see any demand for more exotic, or perhaps even organic, ingredients?
Djabbari: I have noticed Dubai uses a lot of spice and herbs. London is a take on classic drinks with their own signature, here the market prefers traditional tastes.
Carr: Going back to exotic ingredients, when I first came to Dubai it was Marcel who introduced me to products like Zataar and I had no idea what it was. I didn’t know about the ritual around eating dates, or how jasmine could be used in drinks. Products from the Levant, Morocco, and guests had never seen anything like it. You can’t generalise, so if somebody wants a traditional drink you can’t ignore that, but Dubai has this huge expat influence and some of these people have travelled the world, so they want those exotic ingredients, and that’s a trend that exports. Sumac is now used in drinks in London for example. Now that came from the Middle East.
Haddad: In Dubai 70% of the people are under 35 years old so your market is after something totally different. Unless you are going somewhere for a specific drink, that is what you will find. Then on the other hand, many classics developed because of what was available. South American drinks are all based on lime because that’s what they had access to.
Pozzan: The culture here is very different, so there is an element of guest education. In Europe and Italy where I am from, alcohol has been a part of society since the time of the Roman Emperors. Here it is new so there is an element of people understanding what is in a drink and the craft of the cocktail. It goes hand in hand.
Haddad: But the bar tender takes the order and makes it, they don’t push for a guest to try something else. In previous jobs we have used special machines that nobody else had in Dubai for our own infusions and to create specific flavours. But when you have clients on a Thursday or Friday night, they’re not going to look for that level of sophistication and you also need to serve quicker.
Pozzan: You can’t open something like 69 Colebrook Row here because the audience isn’t ready for it. You want to convince your team to sell to them but really it isn’t just about “selling” it is advice about what the guest will like. But too many places see upselling as just money on the bill. It’s the wrong way to create a cocktail culture.
Haddad: I think people also don’t want to leave their comfort zone and they don’t want to admit that they don’t know something.
As managers does this affect cost control?
Asar: It doesn’t just affect our financial and waste management because it’s not only the machine you purchase but the glassware, ingredients and training. You require tighter cost control, but without affecting the operation.
Haddad: it’s not just cost control; that’s the mistake of sticking to this 25 to 30% in which you cannot do a proper signature cocktail. You have to think about it in terms of footfall if you want to sell that product in the best looking way possible to bring people to your bar.
Asar: Imagine how much creativity we could encourage if we didn’t have to answer to the financial department. That’s a huge factor.
Pozzan: You need to balance depending on the concept you have
Haddad: That is the great thing about cocktails because you have flexibility to provide the same product with alternative ingredients.
How does this cost element change for bars which are themed to a single drink? We recently saw the opening of Ginter at the new InterContinental, which serves a whole menu of drinks based on gins form around the world. Does this set up allow for more creativity within set budgets?
Carr: There is also W1 in Grosvenor House and it’s a great concept especially in that hotel because of the standard. The Vault was a similar idea at the JW Marriott. But in terms of business they make varying degrees of sense. Some drinks have an entire ritual behind them, as well as the versatility to create cocktails from them, others don’t so you will always have to extend the menu.
Haddad: It’s nice to visit a themed bar but you go once or twice and that’s it and you will have to serve everything else on the menu too. It’s the market and the market will change your concept whether you like it or not. You try to hang on to your idea because you believe in it, but it comes to opening night and the place is empty.
How big an influence does brand orientated training have on selling drinks? If a bar tender has been trained using a specific brand or edition of a drink, are they likely to experiment with alternatives?
Carr: You see a lot of very heavily brand-orientated training. It’s great that they offer this and very enthusiastic bar tenders go to these sessions; usually those who have very limited prior knowledge of cocktails and spirits, but the result if they are “brainwashed” to push only one brand.
Haddad: They are very simple to work with. They have a good variety – not artisanal, but extensive enough. But these are the suppliers and you have no choice but to work within those two sources.
Carr: It would be good to see more special imports but that comes at a cost that few are willing to stretch to if you can’t be sure there is a market for it to be bought and they are reluctant to do it again. But on a positive note there are a more and more venues opening with one or two really rare and new products and I believe that once people see that, a few more venues will have it and the consumer will be happy. I think if you work with these brands in a manner which is realistic, then everybody can benefit.
At the end of the day they aren’t us here to sell us products, but also educate and we see that through their academy endeavours. Managers have to have integrity.
How do you approach training within each venue?
Haddad: Training is a right for every associate – they join the company to develop. We have training with department heads and they have yearly or six month schedules, which everybody must attend.
Carr: If somebody is there working a job simply to make money, they shouldn’t be in the industry. This industry is all about being hospitable; even if the venue requires a quick service because of volume. We are going to have even more high end venues here moving forwards, but the basics need to be right before we try to run.
Asar: We have development plans at regular intervals internally and also the branded training but managers have to think about what they want. Just hands that serve or an extension of the brand values? SOPs are crucial here, but often not integrated. Your in-house training manager isn’t going to be as relevant to bar staff as an external trainer; think about who you are bringing in.
Gomes: People in Dubai don’t get the proper level of training here and the balance between passion and knowledge is different here than in other markets.
Djabbari: It is the responsibility of each manager to know the level of training that is needed and who is talented enough for promotion. We as managers need to ignore the trends we see in the local market and always to know where the standards are how to meet them. Recently we had a training session on the idea of giving the guest something extra. So offer a napkin, or the right amount of ice for large tables.
Another issue is that I am not interviewing the staff. We have 4,000 people throughout the hotel so recruitment isn’t always inclusive of department heads.
Asar: You always need a two part process. The HR interview which takes it to shortlist then the department head. Otherwise you end up with people who when you’re training, you’re training is a paper exercise, not an addition to overall quality.
IsaacNewton: At Seven Sands the concept requires a high level of training but also a high level of quality control in the recruitment process and it goes from the large responsibilities to the smallest parts of our job, like when and how to crush ice for the drinks. We evaluate our service through a guest questionnaire so we can monitor the quality of service, but it has been known in some places that staff will amend or discard questionnaires they don’t like, so we use iPads and when the questionnaire is complete it goes directly to management.
Carr: We go to many different bars and restaurants with a service called “train the trainer”. On a very basic level we teach people how to respond to feedback and how to create the emotional connection. We train staff and management in how to give feedback to the staff and how to teach the staff how to receive and give feedback and create a healthy relationship. So if a guest complains you know how to apply that skill set and relay the information back to management.
How do you train staff to say no to a difficult customer?
Carr: All hotels and venues should adhere to clear guidelines in terms of their responsibility when selling beverages. They should be aware of promoting moderate drinking.
Pozzan: We all have a line of care towards our guests and to make sure nobody gets injured, because if something bad happens it also reflects on your establishment.
Haddad: It’s judgement and common sense and you can always contain an issue through security and decisive management.
Djabbari: We have an Arab customer who wanted to drive his car and I took his keys. His family came to collect the car the next day and it transpired he had been banned from a number of places.
Haddad: You have to be very careful in how you express yourself.
Carr: People don’t like to be told no, even in the most polite way. Although every member of staff should be able to diffuse any situation with the right training, it should always go back to the manager. The manager is there for a reason and this is the situation where they need to step in.
Asar: Then they want to speak to your boss and then they bring in the wasta and threaten to close you down for saying no.
Haddad: Just mention one word: police. It’s very simple. If they are not coming to their senses that is what you have to do. This country is very controlled security wise. Our security staff are just as well connected as any customer can be.
Djabbari: We often have guests who try not to pay the minimum spend and they react in the same way, but you have to be professional and not back down.
Do you find any challenges in terms of the regulations around beverages here compared to other markets you have worked in?
Haddad: Exposure. That’s the only issue. No matter what you do and no matter how creative you get, you are dependent upon word of mouth to fill your establishment. Social media is the best way to reach people, because even consumer magazines can’t fully explain the process you have put into creating a drink. The focus is always on the chef.
Prices are also expensive here.
Pozzan: The fact that business are effectively taxed twice as well does nothing to mitigate that.
Haddad: The market dominates in Dubai it isn’t as much about your education or experience and we have to adapt to that market. Even with suppliers. In Lebanon you can call at the last minute and they will go above and beyond for you to retain your loyalty. Here, at the weekend they are closed and your hotel could be on fire or you have 3,000pax to cater to but they don’t care about losing the business because they will always pick up more business from elsewhere. That’s what happened when there are only two companies dominating the industry.