Following the Italian Cuisine World Summit, which convened in Dubai last month, and the strong contingency of Italian producers at the Specialty Food Festival, as coordinated by the Italian Trade Agency, Michael Gordon investigated the importance of Italian F&B for the Middle East region
The Italian Trade Agency (ITA) helps to develop, facilitate and promote Italian economic and trade relations with foreign countries, focusing on the needs of SMEs and entrepreneurs, and supporting Italian firms in their internationalisation process.
As a government agency the role of the ITA consists of promoting the “Made in Italy” brand all over the world and helping Italian and foreign businesses to connect with each other through market research, information about laws, rules, regulations, custom duties, identification of potential business counterparts, bilateral meetings, trade delegation visits, official participation in foreign fairs and exhibitions, and seminars with Italian experts and a variety of other initiatives.
Currently, the Italian food industry accounts for more than €130bn in revenue (estimated at over €134 billion for 2015) of which €29bn, or about 22% comes from exports, with 58,000 active companies and 385,000 employees. Bilateral ties are reflected in trade growth of more than €6bn last year, and Italy is the second largest European Trade partner to the UAE.
Haifa Alia, ITA trade analyst, says: “Italy is striving to offer to the world a very wide range of high quality products from fresh fruits and vegetables, to dairy products – mainly a large variety of cheese – pulses, dried and canned foods, dried and frozen foods, grocery products, olive oils and vinegar, and juices, not to forget sweets and snacks.
The UAE is the largest growing market for the Italian food industry and it remains a very attractive market thanks to the development of tourism and the prospects of EXPO 2020 for which many additional hotels will be built and consequently hundreds of new restaurants, including Italian. The Emirates also play a pivotal role as a hub in the Middle East and the Gulf Region.”
The sales of Italian food products in the UAE has been steadily growing over the last three years. The Italian exports of agriculture products, food industry and beverage industry show a significant growth from 2012 (+39.1%) to 2013 (+39.5%) and 2014 (+9%) with a further upward trend for the first quarter of 2015 (+23.6%). The total Italian exports of food and beverages to the UAE in 2014 are equal to €241.3million.
Food sector imports from Italy accounted for €81.8million for the period from January – June 2015, with an increase of approximately 18% over the same period last year.
The fluctuation of the Euro versus US Dollar, and therefore towards the UAE Dirham, has had a positive effect on the exporting economy of goods from the Eurozone and from Italy in particular.
By way of enforcing or encouraging that relationship, 25 of Italy’s top Michelin starred chefs converged on Dubai’s world-class restaurant scene last month for the seventh Italian World Cuisine Summit, which ran from the 27 October – 5 November.
This annual foodie extravaganza, took over the kitchens of some of Dubai’s most celebrated Italian restaurants such as Alta Badia, Bice Mare, Cavalli Club and Roberto’s; showcases the finest in Italian cuisine and culture.
Guests were transported to the cucinas and tables of Italy with live cooking master classes, demonstrations and special limited edition menus designed and prepared by some of Italy’s most celebrated master chefs.
The Summit, was held under the patronage of the Italian Embassy of Abu Dhabi, the Italian Consulate in Dubai and the Italian Industry and Commerce Office in the UAE and was sponsored by Grana Padano, Unox, Ferrari, Rivoli, African+Eastern, Molino Quaglia, Monviso, and Luxottica amongst others.
In partnership with the JW Marriot Marquis Dubai, the summit hosted the United Nations by Italian Cuisine – Michelin-starred Chefs Gala. As an unprecedented tribute to Dubai the event featured an array of 25 Michelin starred guest chefs from Italy, boasting 35 stars between them, 15 chefs from Dubai’s top international restaurants and 10 from acclaimed Italian restaurants around the world.
In all, the event featured more than 170 chefs from around the world, working together to create a culinary experience like Dubai has never seen. Guests were invited to explore the ballroom and indulge in culinary creations from each of the Michelin starred maestros and chefs from Dubai’s top international restaurants, as they prepared their signatures dishes at live tasting stations. Star chefs included Colin Clague from Jean George, Greg Malouf from Cle’, Luis Ezqueta from Urban Paella Dubai, Rafaie Othman from Zuma, and many more.
Now in its seventh year, this is the third time the event was held in Dubai, following four successful years in Honk Kong. Haifa add: “The overwhelming success over past years, not least because of the many Michelin-starred chefs involved, has been a sensational way to promote the international profile of Italian food and wine.”
For the first time, the summit, which began in Dubai, became a road show, taking in Hong Kong (11 – 14November 2015), Tokyo (17 – 23 January 2016), and New York (27 – 30 January 2016), with talks on-going to add Beijing to the calendar.
“There are many culinary professionals and specialists involved with the events calendar as the Summit keeps gathering top Italian chefs, each representing Italy’s most renowned and commercially acclaimed restaurants, cooking techniques, and fresh ingredients,” says Haifa
Chef Aira Piva, culinary director of the Italian World Cuisine Summit, adds: “With a total of 400 Italian restaurant currently operating in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and more than 600 Italian expatriates working in the HORECA business in the region, this year we tried to use Italian cuisine to involve chefs of all nationalities to see how they would interpret our recipes and products.”
He adds: “Our summit originated in Honk Kong it is one of the key capitals of the food scene globally; where you can find the best Italian restaurants outside of Italy. But everything is developed there now and the market is saturated, so when we discovered Dubai we realised it could be the new Honk Kong as it’s already a hub for a lot of international products exported throughout Asia.
“Dubai is also becoming a world food capital. In ten years the quality of the restaurants has improved dramatically and we believe there is a lot of further potential improvement which is why we come here.”
Aside from the chefs, another side of Aira’s job is to bring Italian producers and to introduce them to the market through the Specialty Food Festival, part of Gulfood. “This is a great platform to showcase their produce and to meet local distributors and chefs.
“Dubai is a big market with a lot of restaurants so products can be sold to Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and Italian clients – there is huge market even if confined to Dubai. You can make a name for your produce in Dubai.
“With the forthcoming Dubai Expo everybody wants an established share of the market to be ready ahead of time,” adds Aira.
In the year of EXPO Milan 2015, focused on the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” , Italy promoted the excellence of its food with a dedicated Italian Pavilion at this year’s Speciality Food Festival, which took place from 27 to 29 October at the Dubai World Trade Centre, coinciding with the Summit.
“In only six years, the Speciality Food Festival has earned itself a reputation as the region’s top venue to source highly-specialised, luxury and niche food products for retailers, distributors, chefs and hospitality players across the Middle East. The event marks a golden opportunity to evaluate this market’s response to the quality and variety of authentic Italian products”, said Ferdinando Fiore, Italian trade commissioner.
Among the Italian exhibitors, visitors could meet a group of companies coming from the four Southern Italian regions of Campania, Calabria, Apulia and Sicily. This initiative is included in the “Export South Plan”, a three-year special support programme exclusively planned for and customised to Southern Italian companies. Its aim is to promote their products and services in foreign markets and showcase the unique features and qualities characterising the excellence of these areas.
An array of different food specialties including pasta, coffee, olive oil, traditional cheeses and sweets were exhibited by 25 participating Italian companies, including Agrigenius, Agrumaria Reggina, Albergian, Caracciolo, Apulia Consortium, Caffen, Campo D’Oro Villa Reale, Casa Emma, Dolcerie Veneziane, E.T. Formaggi, Foodest Trade, Gabro, High Quality Food International, Italiana Confetti, Fungo e Tartufo, Meal Italy, Panificio Spar, Pastificio Fratelli Cellino, DTS Dolciaria, Domenica Manca, Siciliatavola, Silarus, Sole Trade, Streglio 1924 and Gusta la Sicilia.
Dolcerie Veneziane, a producer of Viennese biscuits and gourmet chocolates, attended the festival to further develop its plans to open a store in Dubai to cater for the Middle East market. Export manager Nicola Bullegato said that the company was exhibiting for the first time primarily to find distribution partners across the region.
“We currently export to Italy, Romania, Spain, Sweden, France, the Ukraine and Russia, but we felt now was the right time to show our products in the Middle East.” Bullegato said the company was interested in both retail and HORECA trade, and that its first outlets were anticipated to be specialist gourmet stores across the region. “Our first step is to find the right partner, someone that recognises quality and is not driven by cost.”
Taste of Sicily, a small-batch artisan producer of handmade Mediterranean specialities, was at the Festival looking to franchise its London-based store concept in the UAE.
Salvatore Romano, one of three partners in Taste of Sicily, was in attendance, seeking out potential franchisees and distribution partners.
“This is our second year of exhibiting at Gulfood. This is not such an easy market to operate in. We are having difficulty in finding the right distribution partner as they are all principally focused on the price point and we are a quality producer,” says Romano.
Offering high quality Mediterranean cuisine to consumers, restaurants and caterers, Taste of Sicily exports 90% of its produce to existing markets in Malta, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, France and Austria.
“We are now looking to expand into the GCC, and then later into Asia and the USA, targeting fine dining more than HORECA.
“We are set to open our first store in London in the coming months, which combines a retail store, delicatessen, bar and diner, and we want to franchise this concept in Dubai also, given the right partners.”
He adds: “As a product creator, we are open to working with clients to design products for them, under their labels, in an Arabic/Sicilian fusion.”
With a distribution partner in place, and 5% of its turnover in exports to the Middle East, Confetti Maxtris was exhibiting in an attempt to attract further outlets to stock its produce, although Gabriele Ascione, international sales manager, stressed: “We are not for supermarkets or mall, we are looking for high end boutique stores, as we use only the finest ingredients and premium production methods.”
Already working with Emirates Catering, Ascione said the company would be happy to work under a private label or to tailor make packaging to suit an Arabic consumer.
“Our biggest challenge is explaining our brand to clients, which is why exhibitions like this are critical.
As the CEO of Streglio, Sergia Arevato is also targeting gourmet stores across the GCC, avoiding mass distribution or supermarket retail. As a first time exhibitor, Segio was looking to meet distributors or private labels, and is progressing in talks with both the Hilton and Sheraton hotel chains. Currently 25% of Streglio production is exported, with around 5% coming to the Middle East.
The total sales of Italian food in the UAE have grown steadily over the last three years: Italian exports of agricultural products, food and beverages increased significantly in each and every year: +39.1% in 2012, +39.5% in 2013 and +9% in 2014, with a further upward trend in the first 3 months of 2015 (+23.6%). Last year, Italian exports of food and beverages to the UAE totalled almost €242million. However, Aira is confident that there remains tremendous growth potential. He says: “Every 5-star hotel has at least one Italian restaurant and now you not only have Italian chefs but Italian executive chefs, so demand can only grow.”