Sandy El Hayek, food & beverage manager at Nakheel Malls, reveals what goes into developing some of the biggest multi-venue F&B concepts in the region.
You have developed two of F&B’s biggest concepts in Dubai; please tell us more about how the idea came about.
Firstly, Depachika at Nakheel Mall is a novel concept that was inspired by the Japanese basement-level food halls. I personally flew to Japan to research this concept in depth. Right from the outset, we were keen to differentiate with Depachika, by showcasing locally developed concepts in one food hall destination – mainly from brands backed by Dubai-based artisans, entrepreneurs, break-through talent and trendsetters.
Our vendors are diverse, offering everything from dine-in, take-away, gourmet groceries and foodie gifts, right through to a wine cellar, cheese room, cooking school and pop-ups.
Secondly, for Food District, we wanted to transform and utlilise an existing space at The Pointe with a relatively low operating cost, in comparison to a full-fledged restaurant. Building on the success of Depachika Food Hall, we developed a two-storey, licensed dining hub celebrating 13 homegrown concepts all under one roof – the first of its kind in Dubai.
The first floor showcases ten dine-in brands from trend-setting Dubai-based chefs, restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs, alongside two licensed bars. Meanwhile, the ground level houses an artisan coffee and café concept, with pastries and a gelato stall. This prime indoor and terrace location boasts front-row views of the world’s largest fountains, together with Atlantis vistas.
For both concepts, as a landlord, we have supported entrepreneurial restaurateurs and small F&B businesses with a business model that offers NO fixed overheads like rent, only charging a percentage of turnover. This strategy became even more crucial over the pandemic. Furthermore, we take responsibility for the bulk of the capital expenditure, so the vendor only needs to bring speciality equipment and staff on site. Therefore, the vendor has no major start-up and investment costs other than operating costs (for instance they pay utilities based on consumption), with the venture proving less risky.
How has Nakheel redefined dining through the multi-venue hubs?
The term ‘food hall’ has been a familiar concept globally for a while – and we wanted to bring it to Dubai. The business model looks after all stakeholders, from the landlord, to the vendor and the end consumer, by promoting the quality-price ratio from all ends. We have benchmarked ours with some of the most renowned names worldwide such as Harrods, Galeries Lafayette and Southridge for Depachika – or Chelsea Market for Food District.
A food hall is not just another floor in a mall with door-to-door independent shops, it is a destination where everyone rolls up their sleeves and contributes, from the landlord to the nightshift stewards. It is a community within a community where passionate entrepreneurs and retailers genuinely look after each and every customer.
Both concepts are also about giving customers choice, in a casual environment and at a wide choice of price points. Our dining hubs allow guests to maintain safe spacing, whilst still meeting up casually with friends and family. It is a concept we did not know we were missing until we had it; a trend and behaviour ahead of its time.
Everyone will have a favourite vendor – but they will also discover something new. Through the variety and diversity of vendors we can cater to all dietary requirements – thus families and friends can all dine together, with each person choosing to eat something different.
While Depachika was before Covid-19, Food District opened in times of pandemic; what sort of changing dynamics have the venues had to adapt to in the wake of Covid-19?
Thankfully, Depachika’s design is naturally spaced out, so follows all the guidelines. Food District’s expansive indoor and terrace dining areas have been designed with plenty of safe spacing in line with Dubai Municipality’s Covid-19 health and safety regulations. QR code menus, disposable cutlery options and sanitisers on the tables are the norm now.
With 2020 such a struggle for so many, and, in line with Food District’s homegrown theme, we wanted to give back to the local community by offering value-for-money over the last festive season. So, we decided on a policy of no minimum spend without any set menus including New Year’s Eve with views of both the Palm fireworks and the world’s largest fountains. That way diners were able to mix and match dishes from all our vendors – spending as much, or as little as they liked.
How would you describe the essence of both Food District and Depachika; are they fine dining or casual – and what about delivery?
Both are casual concepts – however Depachika’s design reflects an elegant, sophisticated food hall – whilst Food District is more of a rustic hub. Depachika is also more than a dining hub, with 60 per cent of its offering as retail showcasing everything from specialty groceries and butchery to artisanal chocolate, tea and gifting items. In order to meet demand, in particular during the lockdown, we introduced a quick delivery solution on Deliveroo’s grocery section, where customers can buy last minute items like baguettes, pastries and pasta from a mix of vendors in one basket within 30 minutes.
We also developed and recently launched Depachika’s e-commerce customised with a selection of favourites from each vendor where users can schedule delivery, whether a cheese board for a dinner party, or a hamper for a special occasion. Other than that, each dine-in brand at both Depachika and Food District provides its own delivery from its full menu through its respective delivery channels.
What was the vendors’ response; are you seeing demand now from more restaurants and cafés?
In addition to the business model benefits I mentioned earlier, another unique selling point is that the vendors benefit from their neighbours. When a good mix comes together, vendors have instant and quicker footfall, instead of having to create an individual destination from scratch. We also dedicate time and resources into marketing the destination and the vendors. Our vendors are therefore very happy with both the model and the sales response.
At Depachika we have plans this year to add more retail vendors to the existing 43 – and are constantly approached by F&B businesses who want to secure a spot in the food hall. To keep the food hall evolving and interesting, new dine-in brands may replace old ones. On an international level, the more a food hall matures, the better it gets with time. Given The Pointe’s outdoor location, Food District is very much a seasonal concept – so we will potentially replace some of the current vendors after the summer in preparation for Dubai’s peak winter season.
What was the biggest challenge when it came to opening both venues?
During the first design and development phase, it is always challenging to maintain a uniformed look and feel, while still expressing all the vendor brand identities. This stage was also extremely crucial to ensure the vendor requirements fit into the original design, whilst equally supporting operational function and visual appeal.
In addition, each brand is unique and has its own operational standards – so right from the start, it was crucial to set the right tone that represented the entire destination as one, whilst letting each vendor shine on its own. Opening with 130 staff on site, all from different teams, expertise and routines that need to be moulded to common operational standards is also a challenge in itself.
Describe the type of diner that you’re targeting/catering to.
Both venues are very much community initiatives – and we’re primarily targeting the Palm and foodie residents of Dubai. These are educated diners who know what they want and will prioritise quality, yet they will also have an open mind to try something new. On a secondary scale, we do also reach out to the tourist segment, which will grow further once travel becomes easier this year.
In line with Food District’s homegrown community theme, a true farmers’ market was a priority for us from day one. So, we have partnered with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change & Environment to make this happen on a weekly basis with the Emirati Farmers Souq. This Saturday market is dedicated to selling vegetables and fruits – and therefore differentiates from the art and craft markets found elsewhere. This initiative also has the goal of educating and encouraging young nationals to enter the agriculture sector to secure the long-term sustainability of the region if faced with a pandemic again.
Why have you chosen The Pointe and Nakheel Mall?
For the Palm Jumeirah location, which is a Dubai landmark with constant growth and massive potential. It has a population of 78,000 people including the trunk, frond villas and hotels. Nakheel Mall and The Pointe are both relatively new destinations primarily catering for Palm residents who rarely leave the island on the weekend. With that population on our doorstep, it was very simple to predict that both of these new dining and community hubs would find their place.
Nakheel Mall is a medium-sized community mall with Depachika as the anchor tenant providing a strong F&B offering. The mall is walking distance from the Shoreline and Golden Mile apartments making it accessible for everyday grocery items, gifting, dinner, or a quick bite on the run.
For The Pointe, we’re targeting the same client base looking for an outdoor dining experience during the good weather season. Due to the pandemic and a rise in staycationers, it has become the ultimate dining hub on weekends and holidays. Food District is the perfect transition from a day at the beach, where customers just want to walk in with shorts and flip flops, and eat delicious food from their preferred vendor, whilst having a drink.
Everyone wants to know – what’s coming up from the creator of these concepts? Can we expect more food hall-style developments?
Absolutely. I personally think each community should have its own Depachika with its own soul brands. Next up in our pipeline is a second Depachika opening at Al Khail Mall in Q1 2022, larger than the existing one. Luckily, we already have a line-up with some of our existing brands and some new exciting concepts.