Time to offer more than a meal
No longer can outlets offer a ‘buy one, get one free’ deal and watch the punters pour in; times have changed and today customers are demanding serious value add-ons from their dining-out experience
The Middle East has become synonymous with offering a huge range of dining options for hungry consumers — but until recently, it was really all about the meal.
Now, that is all changing thanks to a growing number of ‘value-added’ F&B concepts that are making an appearance.
Ranging from glittering cabaret performances like Cirque de Soleil to themed restaurants offering live music, consumers are frequently being offered more than just the meal.
The recent Dubai Summer Surprises shopping festival saw Dubai Festival Centre bring one of the world’s most famous venues to the UAE — The Spiegel Tent.
The resulting show, House of Illusions, offered an evening of magic, surprises, comedy and live music for the whole family, served up along with a three-course meal.
According to Henry Dyer, managing director of show caterers Dish Catering and Events, the combination of the meal and show provided “a point of difference”.
“It added value and made it an entire evening,” he explained.
But taking on such a project is not for the faint-hearted, said Dyer.
“The show was devised and directed by a guy called Derek Scott, who’s worked around the world in the entertainment industry. Derek had a plan in his mind of where in the performance he wanted food breaks to be.
“We spent two weeks just getting the timings right — cues, waiters walking in and out, Madonna-style head-sets, getting the food in and out at the right time. The amount of preparation that went into it was huge,” he said.
Another notable value-added F&B concept to hit the region in recent months was Dinner in the Sky, whereby up to 22 diners can enjoy a meal at a table suspended from a crane at a height of around 50 metres, with the chef, waiter and entertainer in the centre of the structure.
German firm Mindset Media came across the concept, invented by Belgian David Ghysels, back in 2005, and introduced the innovative experience to the Middle East last year.
The group’s Middle East chief executive Mazen Maskati explained: “Mindset Media Bahrain was created and in 2008 we teamed up with our Dubai partner Sean Keith at Event Horizon to bring this wonderful concept to the local market.
“Spring 2009 has been very successful for us, with our operation in Dubai,” he added.
“At the moment, we operate at The Walk, JBR. But from October 2009, we will start the world’s first permanent restaurant of its kind and will be located at the Habtoor Grand Resort and Spa on the beachfront. It’s a fabulous location that allows our guests to have a full view of the city and another spectacular view of the beachfront.”
Another inventive new concept to hit the region is L’atelier des Chefs — a cooking school where customers can be taught to cook a meal, then eat it.
The group’s chief executive and founder Nicholas Bergerault said the concept was “tailor-made for those who wanted to acquire culinary skills, impress their fellow diners and to be their own chef in the kitchen”.
“More than a cooking school, L’atelier des Chefs highlights cuisine as a lifestyle, where the concept relies on three core values: learning, sharing and eating,” he added.
According to Bergerault, the region is ripe for such adventurous F&B concepts.
“People here may be spoilt for choice, but they are very inclined to experience new things and have therefore responded well to L’atelier des Chefs,” he said.
At Coral Deira — Dubai, guests can enjoy their meal with a dash of culture and learning at Rasoi: a Mughlai restaurant that is also a museum.
“Our mini-museum offers a glimpse of the glorious Mughlai era, as well as serving authentic Mughlai cuisine,” said the property’s F&B manager Manjunath Rajan.
“The beautiful eatery is divided into 11 alcoves and each tells its own story from the Mughal period.”
The multi-experience dining arena has numerous benefits for the operator or caterer, as Dish’s Dyer pointed out.
“A show such as House of Illusions has one major bonus for a company such as ours — regular business,” he pointed out.
“We usually do one-off events, such as gala dinners or cocktail parties. It would have been a very quiet few months for us over the summer months; so this project was a great opportunity,” he noted.
L’atelier des Chefs’ Bergerault added that the secret to making a success of a value-added F&B concept was to judge the market correctly.
“Business benefits come with offering the right audience the right ingredient at the right time,” he said.
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing when you’re mixing food and entertainment; according to Mindset’s Maskati, operators “will always face challenges when they do these sorts of events”.
Dish’s Dyer added that the House of Illusion catering was “unbelievably different” to anything the firm has done before — and consequently required a great deal of training and dedication.
“It was two shows a night for ten weeks, so we did about 84 shows in total, serving around 300 per night. We were also managing the reservation and box-office system. So it was a big job,” he said.
“But all the prep was done off-site in an air-conditioned catering tent, so I’d say the biggest challenge was the logistics of getting the mise en place done in our kitchen, transferring it to the site, heating it up, keeping it warm, plating up on time and getting it all served fast.”
Coral’s Rajan also noted that it was “an enormous challenge to create something unique” that was still workable.
“Daily upkeep and maintenance of a restaurant like ours is not easy,” he said. “We have to work really hard to keep it in good shape.
“In addition, the staff have to be well-trained and able to explain the concept of the place to diners who wish to know more.”
It sounds like a lot of work: can this ‘multi-experience dining’ trend take off in the Middle East, or is it simply a temporary value-add measure that will fade away once the economy perks up?
According to Mindset’s Maskati, it’s “a natural thing for consumers to look for more value” in their choices.
Coral’s Rajan added: “People today do not go out as frequently as they used too. Subsequently, they want to go somewhere they can enjoy and discover something more than just a meal — particularly during the downturn.”
L’atelier des Chefs’ Bergerault said it was up to the operators themselves to ensure their innovative added-value ideas stood the test of time.
“The key to success nowadays is consistency; although people love to try new things, what they really want is something of unwavering quality,” he asserted.
It seems that as long as operators are realistic about the viability of combining entertainment and F&B concepts, this is a trend the region will see more of.