RESTAURANTS: Maki-ing it in Kuwait
Mohamad Zeitoun, founder of Japanese-fusion concept Maki, talks earthquakes, iPads and expansion in an exclusive interview with Caterer Middle East
In 2002, Mohamad Zeitoun’s passion for good food drove him to launch the Maki brand – a Japanese fusion cuisine fine dining restaurant placed in a casual location – which unbeknown to him at the time, would take the Middle East by storm.
Since the launch of its first outlet in Kuwait, Maki has added a further three outlets to its Kuwait portfolio as well as expanding into Lebanon, and more recently Bahrain.
But the journey has been far from easy, Zeitoun, tells Caterer Middle East, particularly in Kuwait, one of the region’s lowest crop-producing countries and one that – according to a report by Blominvest – has seen food production fall by US$1.3 million in the last decade.
This naturally has seen Kuwait become a country heavily reliant on imports. But saying that, the F&B market has flourished.
“Many international food experts are unaware of the magnitude and the extent of advancement that the Kuwait F&B market has attained in recent years. Back in the 90s a couple of casual, yet fancy American chain restaurants opening in Kuwait made headline news.
Fast-forward to the year 2012, and you have got yourself a colossal array of local and international restaurants that range from American, to Persian, to Lebanese, to Chinese and Japanese restaurants, and so on and so forth,” says Zeitoun.
Competition quickly grew fierce, with restaurants becoming more sophisticated in their offerings to cater to the rapidly adapting palates of the Kuwaiti residents.
“You could expect to pay an average cheque that ranges from KD6.000 (US $21) to KD10.000 (US $35) at most casual and upper casual restaurants,” says Zeitoun, with $35 being the most customers would pay at outlets like this.
OVERVIEW: Five ‘need to know’ facts about Mohamad Zeitoun
Previous job: Prior to 2002 I worked in the advertising industry.
Best career move: Leaving my 9-5 corporate job to start Maki.
Most feared scenario: To be restricted on ingredients, or even have to close down because of force majeure.
Worst meal: There were a few of them, so I cannot name one...
One thing your team doesn’t know about you: That I am a kid at heart. It does not take a lot to make me smile, or make me happy.
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Tailoring to Trends
Maki responded to the market demand by launching a Japanese fusion restaurant, featuring a host of items from foie gras, house-grown extra virgin olive oil, wild thyme, wagyu beef, and truffles.
Zeitoun says menu development was particularly challenging, at a time when Kuwaiti customers were more accustomed to traditional flavours and dishes.
“It had to present very tasty items that were very different to what guests were accustomed to. We incorporated highly refined international ingredients to the already high-quality traditional Japanese ingredients,” he says.
However, the decision served the team well, with the Kuwaiti branches hitting over 800 covers on an average night.
But with Japanese being its predominant offering, bigger problems were around the corner for the successful brand.
In March 2011 a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. In addition to claiming over 15,000 lives it destroyed a substantial amount of the country’s agricultural and fishery areas. This was followed by a nuclear crisis resulting in the subsequent detection of radioactive contamination of food produced in the area near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.
The US heightened its surveillance measures of food coming out of Japan resulting in a drought of most Japanese produce.
“Maki and all F&B establishments saw a major hike in ingredient prices. This trend is on the rise, and causes a lot of constraints on marketing efforts and makes for a massive challenge when it comes to planning product offering,” says Zeitoun.
In addition, worldwide economic constraints have altered eating habits – something Maki has had to adapt towards.
Sharing is Caring
“Due to the introduction of the sharing style by cuisines such as Spanish, Japanese, and Mediterranean, sharing has become a very acceptable and desirable trend,” says Zeitoun.
“Fine dining in the true sense of the meaning is virtually non-existent as far as setting is concerned. Most establishments stay away from set menus fine dining style, and stick to á-la-carte style in a stylish, contemporary setting.”
Another trend that has been picked up on is the customer’s knowledge and demand for social media and modern IT technology integration within the F&B arena. In response – a few years ago in fact – Maki pioneered the use of iPad menus winning wide acclaim from guests, bloggers and critics.
Following its success it was further adapted so customers now don’t need to rely on a waiter taking their order; instead they place the order on the iPad themselves.
“With the recent introduction of the direct-order feature, guests are loving the fact that they can control every aspect of their order,” explains Zeitoun.
Zeitoun suggests Maki plans to keep in touch with these technological advancements and continues to adapt its offering accordingly.
“Maki’s IT specialists have always got something up their sleeves,” he jokes.
More exciting however are Maki’s expansion plans. The brand’s regional success has Zeitoun convinced the rest of the world is ready for it.
“Within the next two years the Maki brand will be taken out of the region into Europe and America,” he assures.