In a bid to build a world-class F&B industry, the Middle East has imported numerous big-name restaurant brands; but today, successful home-grown concepts are proving the region capable of developing winning food formulas for itself.
The Middle East offers a wealth of food and beverage concepts from around the globe, from fast food franchises to celebrity chef-endorsed restaurants.
This is, at least in part, due to local operators using international reputations to boost the destination’s dining credentials.
But today, certain hotels are bucking that trend – either by partnering with local independent concepts, or developing their own cross-property chains – in a trend that looks set to alter the dynamic of the regional dining scene.
Big brands and international chefs have had much to do with making the GCC a gastronomic hub, particularly in cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat and Doha.
Daniel During, principal and managing director at Thomas Klein International (TKI), notes: “People here love brands, they think that if it’s imported, it’s better. This is very sad indeed, as there is great talent in the region.
“And the issue is further accentuated by landlords who think there’s less risk renting to established brands than to newcomers.”
While importing an existing concept may be considered the ‘easy route’, there’s no doubt established names have done much for the local F&B scene.
Four Seasons Hotel Doha is home to the largest Nobu in the world, at 26,000 square feet. Rami Sayess, regional vice president and property general manager, calls it “just one of the many examples of Doha’s elevated new culinary scene”.
“It’s wonderful for the city on many levels, and encourages the sector to continue to flourish,” he says.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri has this year overhauled its Pears & Caviar outlet, partnering with two-Michelin-star Spanish chef and restaurateur Sergi Arola to deliver new tapas concept ‘p&c by Sergi Arola’.
Hotel general manager Thomas Guss agrees well-known chefs do a lot for the destination: “We are fortunate to have an environment where the best brands are encouraged and sought after…which raises the bar to a very high standard.”
On a property level, benefits are also manifold. The InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) Dubai Festival City has welcomed both the internationally franchised Belgian Café, and a restaurant boasting a celebrated French chef-patron: Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire.
Todd Roydhouse, executive assistant manager of F&B for the complex, expands: “When [Pierre Gagnaire] visits us, he’s such a hands on person – he gets into the kitchen and really motivates the whole hotel.”
Shangri-La’s Guss adds that the benefits of partnering with an established culinary master are not limited to their kitchen expertise. “Sergi Arola has loyal global following, and we’ve already welcomed guests from near and far who are keen to experience his unique approach,” Guss observes.
Today, the appeal of international names remains strong in the Middle East. Just recently, three-time Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened two restaurants in Dubai. In addition, Michelin-starred Brit chef Jason Atherton is poised to make a UAE debut while the renowned Richard Sandoval opened a Doha branch of his Toro Toro restaurant.
There’s no arguing with the clout of the world’s best-known chefs and brands; but excitement is growing in the Gulf regarding locally developed F&B concepts.
During notes “Kuwait is already well known for its many, very successful home grown brands, as is Lebanon”.
“Slowly, the UAE public is becoming more open to home-grown brands as well,” he continues. “Now the developers and landlords just need to accept them.”
According to Her Excellency Laila Mohammed Suhail, chief executive officer at Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment (DFRE) – organiser of the Dubai Food Festival – this change is underway, setting the scene for a more balanced F&B mix.
“Having long favoured international culinary stars and concepts, we are beginning to see a paradigm shift of focus towards home-grown concepts and Emirati cuisine,” she says. “As the city evolves, so does its creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.”
As stronger independent brands develop, these standalone outlets are drawing custom away from the traditionally hotel-based dining scene. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that hotels are interested in partnering with such concepts.
Markus Thesleff is co-founder of Whissle Group – the developer behind successful F&B brands such as OKKU Japanese restaurant at The H Hotel Dubai, as well as other independent outlets including Riva Beach Club on Palm Jumeirah and Claw BBQ, Crabshack and Grill located at Souq al Bahar.
“Home-grown food and drink concepts are completely taking over the customary hotel-based dining scene,” he says. “There are more and more restaurateurs in the region that know the market, and are coming up with concepts the market wants and needs – without having to rely on being in a hotel or having a big international name behind them.”
Similarly, UAE restaurant Fümé recently opened a second branch at Manzil Downtown Dubai. Ammar Al Alwan, managing director of the brand’s owning company Jas Hospitality, believes that “creating independent home-grown concepts allows us to push boundaries and bring creative ideas to life, without the limitations set forth by franchises or international chains.”
This new breed of local operator is in a strong position; so will more hotels recognise that, going forward?
Thesleff is unsure: “Hotels are relying too heavily on hoping to drive footfall with big international restaurant names. They’re scared to take the risk on a local brand that has no track record of success,” he insists. “I’d encourage more hoteliers to open their eyes to what an asset a unique, home-grown restaurant can be to them, since these operators have a local following.”
Al Alwan agrees that hotels “tend to avoid risk and stick to what they know”. “With that said, operators are increasingly recognising the value that professional local F&B operators and home-grown brands can bring to their hotels,” he adds.
This is a trend During believes should be emphatically encouraged. “Hoteliers should handle their own all-day-dining and room service operations, and let their restaurants be operated by restaurateurs,” he asserts.
“But this is something that needs to be decided by the hotel owner at the master planning and design stage, as independent restaurants have different requirements to those operating through a central kitchen.”
Thesleff says these “different requirements” can cover operating ethos and company culture, as well as logistics.
“Hotel chains have their strict global guidelines to adhere to, and asking a restaurateur from a home-grown brand to meet these guidelines can prove tricky, because they don’t necessarily have the experience to understand certain strict brand rules – and this can impact on concept delivery,” he adds.
Neither does Thesleff rose-tint the benefits of such a partnership for the independent operator.
“It’s purely down to securing an alcohol license,” he says, while Al Alwan notes that for a home-grown brand, securing a hotel location provides the “added value of maximising exposure to tourists and hotel guests”.
For independent F&B concepts that do partner with a hotel, there’s significant potential for expansion across other properties. However some hotels have cut out the middleman and decided to develop a group-wide F&B chain for themselves.
BEST OF BOTH
Hotel groups around the world have recognised the value of developing an in-house brand – a concept customers can recognise and patronise across multiple properties
In the Middle East, home-grown hotel outfits from Jumeirah Group and Rotana Hotels have both employed this strategy.
But an international brand that took the step many years ago is Shangri-La, which has rolled out its Shang Palace Chinese restaurant concept at properties around the globe – including Dubai.
Conor Hadlington, director of F&B at Shangri-La Hotel Dubai, comments: “There are many benefits of having a home-grown restaurant chain within the group, such as being able to deliver standardised service, consistency in brand image and awareness, loyalty of customers, and having wider marketing budgets.”
But Hadlington sounds a note of caution: “Unfortunately the cross-property business model does not fit with every individual hotel’s business model, which can make success quite difficult.
“This type of concept requires huge investment. There’s always a risk of failure and a worry that the restaurant might not catch on,” he warns. “When a concept is replicated throughout a group, customers expect a certain level of consistency throughout.”
The alternative, suggests Hadlington, is to bring in a third party to operate a restaurant space. The issue is then whether to go for an international name or home-grown brand?
A decade ago, this question wouldn’t even warrant discussion. But, thanks to an increasingly impressive array of locally born concepts, it’s one that’s coming to the table for more and more of the region’s hotels.