Born in Russia, Evgeny Kuzin was raised by a family of skilled entrepreneurs across all industries, an environment that developed his keen eye for detail and business acumen from a young age. In 2008, Kuzin relocated to Dubai and ventured into the luxury dining and entertainment industry with the inauguration of Bulldozer Group
Having proved his success with franchising prestigious brands including Cipriani & Scalini and tailoring them to suit the markets in which they operate, Kuzin is now focused on developing homegrown concepts, such as GAIA and Shanghai Me, which were designed to enhance the culinary landscape on a global scale, with the aim of exporting them from the Middle East to the world.
Kuzin has spearheaded the international expansion of his brands with strategically located pop-ups in renowned locations across the globe, including Punta Del Este, Monaco, Moscow, Saudi Arabia, Mykonos and Miami. By ensuring his brands had a presence at key events across the global circuit, Kuzin has built trustworthy and credible venues, and gained an A-list following.
Tell us a bit more about Bulldozer Group – your most unique guest experiences and how the venues came to be.
Bulldozer Group began in 2011, when we made our first foray into the nightlife and entertainment industry in Dubai. We started by importing internationally recognised brands, such as Cipriani, to raise the profile of the dining and entertainment landscape in the UAE. We wanted our friends and family to realise how up and coming the region was, to know that they could come to Dubai and enjoy the same luxury experience and service as they could expect in key markets around the world, such as Europe, the UK and the US.
The restaurant, nightlife and entertainment industries are very fast-paced, and it’s important to remain agile and ensure you are ahead of trends. I’m proud of everything we have learned and achieved, and feel that our brands have played a significant role in the development of the UAE into a globally recognised tourist destination. An aggressive approach to artist bookings in our nightlife venues, BASE and 1 OAK, led to a surge in entertainment in the region, with weekly performances by international names, and other venues increasing their own offering in order to compete.
By creating strategically located pop-ups on the global events circuit, we’ve gained exposure with an elite, celebrity crowd. We have an annual residency at the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi and Monaco, and hosted the official after-party to the FIFA World Cup in Moscow in 2018, which was attended by Naomi Campbell, Mick Jagger, Alessandra Ambrosio to make a few. We have also hosted pop-up events at Art Basel Miami, Courchevel, as well as a summer in Mykonos. International exposure allows us to reach a wide audience and showcase our brands and abilities on a global scale.
Now, as the UAE market has matured, we are focused on developing unique and authentic concepts with the aim of exporting them from Dubai to the world. The UAE is an amazing place to build a brand, the cosmopolitan blend of nationalities and expats from all corners of the world forces us to consider our audience and tailor our offering to suit them. We try to incorporate flavours, tastes and attributes that resonate with a wide range of cultures, so that each guest feels catered for and looked after.
What core brand values do you believe are an indispensable part of your group?
Relationships are one of the most important parts of our business, both with our clients, our suppliers and our team. It’s through building honest relationships that people feel comfortable enough to share their true feedback, and this is so important to our brands and concepts. Listening is one of our greatest values, we hear what our clients want and need, and we adjust accordingly.
In terms of our team, we value integrity, people who are impeccable with their word and are trustworthy, both at work and outside. We really try to take care of our employees, train them, and give them the opportunity to learn and upskill across our different venues.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected business, and how did you manage to turn things around as restrictions were being eased?
This year has been a challenge for the whole industry: a phase that none of us were expecting or had the chance to plan for. The temporary closure of our brands and venues affected us greatly, but it was important to put the health and safety of our employees and guests above all else. We’re grateful for the gradually reduced restrictions that allowed us to return to work and our livelihoods in a safe and controlled way.
As our restaurants reopened, it was so clear that our guests had missed dining at restaurants, enjoying a meal out and socialising after not being able to for so long. It was really heart-warming to see friends and family come together, sharing food and laughter. It made me realise the joy that our concepts bring to people, myself included.
What sort of new measures have you implemented, and which ones do you think are here to stay even after the pandemic has passed?
Our restaurants are fully compliant with the regulations put in place, and although our health and safety procedures were strict pre-pandemic, we’re placing extra importance on this now so that guests have a safe and enjoyable experience. Although clients must be seated at an extended distance, we have kept all of our tables in place so that they aren’t put off by any visual representations of the pandemic, and to create an inviting ambiance.
This year has really shown me how important our habits are to our productivity. If you have the right team around you, the capacity for work can actually rise when outside of the office. We used to spend a lot of time holding face-to-face meetings and travelling to different countries to meet our partners and associates in person. Now, with the use of video calling and online meetings, we can easily schedule a conversation and move forward with our business plans at a much faster rate. This is definitely something we will continue to do moving forward.
How have you managed to iron out any issues with suppliers in the wake of COVID-19?
We’re grateful to work with so many incredible suppliers that have supported us throughout the crisis and are continuing to do so. The temporary closures had a direct impact on our financials, and we have worked hard to reduce risk for all of the people and companies we work with. We understand that our business affects theirs and so our priority is to maintain our venues and recover as soon as possible, so that our suppliers can, too.
Your F&B experience goes way back, what sort of intricacies have you found to be of utmost importance in this market?
From every venture and project, we have gained more insight into what works in this region, the things our clientele like and the parts that they don’t. Our experience has become really valuable to us, we have learned so many important things, and interestingly, it’s usually our mistakes that teach us the most.
In the F&B industry, there needs to be the perfect balance between location, ambiance and cuisine. Venues need to speak to their audience, make them feel welcome, important and well cared for. In Dubai, we have found that residents are looking for premium casual concepts, somewhere they can enjoy exquisite cuisine, really tasty food with good quality ingredients, at a reasonable price.
Traditional fine dining concepts can put be off-putting and unrelatable for a lot of people, so we wanted to create dynamic, luxurious restaurants that diners actually enjoy, and that make them feel at home.
We aim to make every client feel like the royalty and celebrities that dine at our restaurants, there’s no “special treatment” because every guest should have the same, excellent and unparalleled experience. We pay attention to the finer details and weave this philosophy throughout every part of the concepts, from the kitchen to the floor staff, the branding through to the messaging, and so on.
Our employees play a significant role in the success of every venue. When you have a happy team that works well together and supports one another, you really can achieve anything. It’s obvious when there’s negative energy or a sombre mood within a restaurant or lounge, and this has a direct impact on the experience of every guest, so it’s important that our workforce feels valued and listened to. They are the spokespeople for our restaurants and the point of contact between every client and the brand, so we really work hard to promote a healthy and happy workplace.
GAIA has hosted members of the UAE royal family on multiple occasions. Tell us more about what this “seal of approval” means for a venue?
We’re so humbled and grateful for the support of the UAE Royal family. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, and His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum are regular guests at Gaia and Shanghai Me and we’re thankful for the endorsement and approval they have shown us. When the National Sterilisation Programme came to an end, the Royal family dined with us and posted on social media to boost the restaurant industry and make residents feel safe and encouraged to visit.
The UAE and its inspirational leaders have given us a unique platform to grow, expand and showcase our skills, and I feel very lucky to call it home.
Have you jumped aboard the digitisation wagon? Do you think it’s one of the answers to the “new normal” in F&B?
With our restaurants, we want to provide an escape from the pandemic and the stress it causes. We have opted against the digital menus that many other venues have implemented and give our guests the choice of holding the printed menu or having one of our expert waitstaff read it out to them. The menus are sanitised before and after every new client, and our employees wear full PPE, with gloves and masks for safety. As we own and operate premium restaurants, we want to ensure we’re offering a luxury experience, from the presentation of the menu and throughout the customer journey.
From a broader, industry perspective, there has been incredible growth in the digital and delivery space. Many restaurants have moved online and are available through aggregators and app-platforms in the region and across the world. This is something that we’re currently in the research and development phase of, and as with all of our projects, we like to take the time to plan properly before moving into production. Our vision is to create a platform that delivers high quality cuisine and matches the experience guests can enjoy within our venues.
How will promotional messaging change in the future, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic?
Following the pandemic, and with our reopenings, our communication focused on introducing the new health and safety procedures and ensuring that guests felt safe and comfortable when dining with us. After being told that we must stay at home in order to be safe, I think we all felt anxious when re-entering society and going out. It’s important for us to reinforce the message that safety comes first at our venues and encourage residents to gradually resume to their pre-pandemic routines.
We have tried to maintain a sensitive approach during this time and will remain to do so for the foreseeable future. Although our industry is based around human interaction, sharing meals, and meeting and greeting one another, we want to ensure that we’re not promoting anything unhealthy or unaligned with the advice of the government or health authorities.
You have steered clear, mostly, of pushing out discounts and offers: what are your views on such tactics?
One of our greatest priorities is to maintain a clear line of communication, one that benefits the brand and creates a trustworthy and approachable reputation. With prestigious venues, we tend not to participate in any activations that may reduce their credibility, but we do listen to our clientele and make sure we are adjusting our offerings based on their needs.
At Shanghai Me, for example, we launched a business lunch throughout the week to benefit and suit our DIFC-based location. Chinese and Asian cuisine can be associated with a heavier meal, so we created a special, lighter menu that can be enjoyed for lunch with friends, colleagues or business partners, without it resulting in guests being too full to concentrate afterwards.
What’s coming up for Bulldozer Group?
Moving forward, we will dedicate ourselves to maintaining our premium dining and entertainment concepts, and recovering from the economic and health crisis.
In the future, we aim to expand globally, with plans for GAIA London, as well as the first international export of Shanghai Me. One of our goals is to facilitate the growth of Saudi Arabia and raise their tourism profile through becoming the biggest F&B operator in the Kingdom. We have 10 renowned brands planned across the country and are so excited to see how the region will change over the next five to 10 years. In Dubai, we have a few exciting projects in the pipeline, including a beach club, café concept and a food-focused technology start-up.