Dynamic dining in Bahrain

The reasons behind Bahrain's blossoming F&B brand market
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K Hotel Bahrain shows off Klouds Restaurant
K Hotel Bahrain shows off Klouds Restaurant

As international F&B brands head to Bahrain, so does Lee Jamieson to investigate the appeal of the Gulf state

Bahrain’s insatiable appetite for growth is developing this tiny, historic island into one of the Gulf’s most dynamic food and beverage hubs.

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Although not yet widely recognised as a culinary destination, Bahrain’s gastronomic scene is quickly expanding in all sectors. Last year, Euromonitor International estimated that the value of Bahrain’s foodservice market was US $267.7 million — up from $200.7 million in 2005.

Nearly all segments of the market have experienced growth in the past five years, with full-service restaurants growing by more than 45% and fast food by more than 50%.

Bahrain also remains strong for independent outlets, which accounted for $197.4 million in 2010, compared to the $70.3 million generated by the chained consumer foodservice segment.

“Bahrain’s gastronomic scene is unique in the GCC,” explains Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea and Spa general manager, Bert Plas.

“It offers a fantastic range of different cuisines in well-designed outlets. Many of these restaurants are old houses converted into very nice restaurants and lounges — and it’s near impossible to find a table at the weekends. These outlets developed over several years to fulfil the diverse needs of Bahrain’s diners.”

However, independent operators should not be complacent. Bahrain’s thirst for growth has transformed this small country into a thriving business hub with transparent and internationally competitive fiscal policies — and it is therefore attracting significant amounts of foreign investment.

Bahrain’s F&B industry has found itself at the heart of the country’s economic expansion and international food and beverage brands are popping up across the country.

A brief look at Euromonitor International’s modelled consumer foodservice statistics for Bahrain paints a clear picture. Whilst independent consumer foodservice saw a healthy 22.9% increase between 2005 and 2010, it is the staggering 75% increase in the chained consumer foodservice segment that is raising eyebrows.

Clearly, many operators have identified the market opportunities for new F&B brands in Bahrain and have acted decisively.

“There is a good chance that an F&B brand can succeed in Bahrain, as long as the brand is well-known and offers a quality product and great service,” explains Ròya International hospitality consultant, Turab Saleem.

“Already a number of established brands have moved into Bahrain, including The Meat and Wine Co and Ken Lo’s Memories of China. These are all now producing great financial results.

“Bahrainis have good taste. Thanks to their travelling, they appreciate quality, recognise regional and international brands and they are willing to pay for it. Therefore, it makes it easier for a good quality, well-known food and beverage brand to establish itself in Bahrain and produce solid results.”

Untapped potential
Although the market is expanding fast, opportunities still remain for savvy operators. Bahrain’s cosmopolitan population continues to seek out new dining experiences and a real sense of community is building up around the local F&B scene.

“In the past year, there has been an invasion of new creative chefs in Bahrain,” explains Gulf Hotel Bahrain director of food and beverage, Etienne Joguin. “In the past few months alone at the Gulf Hotel, we have snapped up three new amazing chefs from three different continents, all aiming to bring new cuisine concepts to Bahrain.

“Asian flavours are particularly popular here and the merging of Western and Eastern cuisines has inspired some of the most popular new outlets on the island.”

As the consumer’s palate diversifies, new opportunities are emerging for operators. And whilst the QSR sector is currently crowded, there is still room for high-end brands.

“There are no Michelin-starred chef restaurants here in Bahrain,” says Sofitel’s Plas, “and I think it’s possible to develop such a concept here”.

Ultimately, success in Bahrain hinges on the old maxim, “quality will out”, and it is this focus on quality that is driving the emergence of Bahrain as a culinary destination.

“I think Bahrain has already fully emerged as a culinary destination,” says K Hotel Bahrain F&B manager, Wissam Srour. “For a small country, Bahrain has a good mix of clientele and a lot to offer when it comes to culinary choices, so operators looking to enter the market need to decide who their clientele will be.

“It’s a very competitive market, so the key challenge is to understand the market needs — and I think quality matters most here. Diners are looking for both quality and value for money.”

Market size
Development has been hindered by the size of the Bahraini market — many restaurants report slow weekdays and extremely high demand at the weekend. Therefore, the market’s volume must increase before Bahrain’s F&B offering can diversify.

Although Bahrain has an above average percentage of discerning, brand-hungry consumers driving the market to expand into new cuisines and F&B concepts, the market volume calls the financial viability of such projects into question.

“To raise Bahrain’s visibility on the culinary map, we need to explore more concepts like South American, African and Spanish cuisines to name but a few,” says Gulf Hotel Bahrain’s Joguin. “I think such concepts are already in the mind of entrepreneurs here, but we would need to see Bahrain’s clientele volume increase before these entrepreneurial risks can be taken.”

Political instability
Another factor currently hampering the growth of Bahrain’s F&B industry is the political unrest that flared up in February this year .

The key issue is not the unrest itself, but rather the knock-on slowdown in tourism that is likely to last throughout 2011 and into 2012. The political situation prompted Euromonitor International to forecast a CAGR of -1% in tourist arrivals between 2010-2015 after a long period of growth.

Euromonitor also expects the tense situation in Saudi Arabia to impact tourism in Bahrain — this is Bahrain’s largest source market for tourism, accounting for 66% of all tourist arrivals last year.

“Presently, the Bahrain market is struggling due to its internal affairs,” says Ròya International’s Saleem. “It’s not the right time for new brands to enter the market, but once stability returns there will be good opportunities for quality brands once again.”

But it will take more than civil unrest to dent the spirits of Bahrain’s chefs and F&B managers. The lull in business is forcing operators to think more creatively. Whilst this may just be a survival tactic, it will benefit the market when stability returns.

“Certainly, the political events in February have impacted upon Bahrain’s gastronomic horizons and we’ve seen significant declines,” concludes Joguin.

“But the majority of outlets have used this low-business period as an opportunity to focus on new projects and revamp old ones! We have certainly seen the market rebound in the past month, offering higher standards, new ideas, new menus and refurbishments.

“The F&B entrepreneurs of Bahrain have put a lot of effort in during the recent crisis to ensure Bahrain rebounds with vigour.”

Bahrain’s Top F&B Hubs
Adliya: Bahrain’s quirkiest and most bohemian restaurants can be found in this district of Manama. Many venues have been converted from old townhouses.

Seef: A cosmopolitan area with a high concentration of branded restaurants offering every conceivable cuisine including American, Japanese, Lebanese, Indian, Chinese, French … and even the odd chocolatier can be found!

The Diplomatic Area: Located in the Central Business District of Manama, this area is home to many of the capital’s high-end hotels and F&B outlets.

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