Catering News speaks to Milos Zekovic, the recently appointed operations manager of Hakkasan Middle East about the company’s upcoming Riyadh venue and staying relevant in a market flooded with contemporary Asian concepts
Having been in the UAE for 10 years now, Milos Zekovic, the recently appointed operations manager at Hakkasan Middle East, takes pride in his regional experience and his six years with the brand, which has allowed him to watch Hakkasan’s Middle East portfolio grow and develop with inspiration and innovations from the brand’s restaurants across the globe.
In 2011, a year after Hakkasan’s regional debut in Abu Dhabi, Zekovic joined the upscale modern Chinese brand on the pre-opening team for the Dubai venue as senior restaurant manager, attracted by the company’s big expansion plans for the region and worldwide.
“I knew Hakkasan from my past travels to Abu Dhabi and I felt it was the right fit for my experience – I had been here for four years before joining and I had done some pre-openings before,” the Serbian national tells Catering News during an interview at the Dubai outlet.
With venues in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, the next regional ports of call are Riyadh and Bahrain. Hakkasan’s sister brand Yauatcha – a contemporary dim sum tea house concept with a Michelin-starred venue in London and outlets in India, Hawaii and Houston – will make its Middle East debut in the first quarter of 2018 in the Saudi capital.
“We’re mainly focusing on Saudi Arabia and the next project will be Yauatcha,” says Zekovic. “It’s our sister brand and it’s quite interesting – we are working with full speed and pace toward this project in order to meet the timeline for opening.”
Yauatcha will be launched in partnership with Al Khozama Management Company, which owns and operates hotels and real estate developments in the kingdom. Situated on Olaya Street, within the company’s Al Faisaliah Mall, the restaurant will be the first alcohol-free Yauatcha.
“It’s quite challenging yet interesting to develop other sides of the beverages, which are non-alcoholic,” Zekovic comments. “We’ll be working on some interesting mixed drinks and the market will be interested to find out more once we’re closer to the date of opening.”
The upcoming venue is part of Hakkasan Group’s ambitious plan to open five outlets in the next five years in the kingdom – including the Hakkasan brand. Meanwhile, there are plans for a restaurant in Bahrain also, but the brand has not been decided upon yet.
Zekovic says: “At the moment we are still considering what brand we will put in Bahrain so that project is a little way off but I think some time in 2018 we will have better clarity on moving forward with the Bahrain project.”
There might be opportunities for Yauatcha elsewhere in the region, he says, but that depends on whether the modern Asian market is oversaturated in the UAE, or not. “At the moment, we are still exploring the market and whether that is something that would fit in Dubai because we already have Hakkasan in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and a second similar concept would be a question of whether there is still growth of the market to make that profitable,” he says.
Since Hakkasan first appeared on the Middle East market seven years ago, competition has ramped up considerably for modern Asian concepts with many having replicated the sophisticated, dark and glamorous appeal Hakkasan is known for.
It’s no surprise then that Zekovic’s new role comes with its challenges as he focuses on maintaining the success of the Hakkasan brand in the region. “There are many [competitors] and it continues to evolve – the market hasn’t stopped. At Hakkasan, we focus on having the best product. Our consistency and delivery in terms of F&B is spot-on and the guests always come back because of that.
“At the same time, it’s making sure we have engaging service that isn’t intrusive to customers and which brings them back. Taking into consideration how many regular guests we have, I think we are very competitive on the market in terms of the other places offering similar cuisine.”
For example, while there are several ‘signature’ dishes available at all Hakkasan outlets around the world – such as the bronzed Peking duck with crispy skin paired with salty caviar – one of the things that keeps the brand locally engaging is it’s ‘Only At’ menu, which celebrates each venue’s local culture and cuisine. “It gives the chef the opportunity to be more creative and use local influence and products, while creating the dishes representing that unique space,” says Zekovic.
Having completed 10 years in the region, Zekovic looks forward to spending the foreseeable future here, believing this will be beneficial for his career as he develops his knowledge and skills with the Hakkasan Group. Looking ahead, he is excited about the company’s pipeline and what he can contribute to this.
“We’ll be focusing on upcoming projects because there are many of them, which makes this period exciting, yet challenging,” he says. “We need to make sure we’re all in line within the operations and obviously to keep on the successful running of the existing ones.”