The right ingredients
Top beverage professionals met up at the InterContinental Hotel Dubai Festival City this month, to share some honest advice on exactly what it will take to bring the Middle East bar industry up to international standards
What is the biggest challenge facing the Middle East bar and beverage industry right now?
Nick Hancock: One thing we’ve talked about before is the lack of any official bar guild in the region — and that’s still applicable. The main issue in this market is that there are more bars now and there are also less people.
On top of the effects of the downturn, it’s the summer, so people go away, and there are fewer tourists because of the weather. It’s a difficult time of year; I think quarter four is the focus for most operators.
Ghaith Zeidan: A lot of companies are looking at Q4; it should represent the best time of year for everybody.
But just going back to the issue of a bar guild, that’s definitely something we want to arrange. Myself and representatives from Monin and MMI are in touch with Derick Lee, the president of the International Bartenders Association, and we’re definitely looking at bringing the IBA here. It would bring more credibility to training, to events, and really move the industry to a different level.
Etienne Haro: I don’t think it’s too bad here — a lot of suppliers have really tried to fill that training gap, bringing specialists over and hosting events for beverage staff. Having said that, it is still too contractual and too infrequent.
What we really need to do is challenge staff to be more creative, more outgoing, because that’s what makes a bar great. That’s why competitions are so good — because they take bartenders out of the work place and let them try something new.
Giorgio Vallesi: For MMI, we see competitions as one of the most important things to do for the industry. It gives bartenders the chance to socialise, to network, to learn and share ideas.
Also I think one of the main issues we’re facing comes down to the importance bars attach to training: business was always booming here, you just opened the doors and people came in. But the reality today is totally different — customers are looking for value, and that includes great service as well as a great product.
But I think a lot of people thought the way to solve this sudden slowing of business was to offer discounts, which isn’t right or sustainable.
Sid King: Challenge-wise, forecasting is a bit of a disaster at the moment. We are facing issues in meeting the budget and are now focusing on forecast, and the only way to do this is to offer the best possible service and the best possible products. Plus we’re not sitting around idly in quiet times; we are focusing on training, making sure staff are knowledgeable and confident, so the customers we do have are getting the best possible service.
Hancock: There are two types of forecast: a bad forecast and a lucky forecast, especially in this environment. So you can’t aim too low, but you’ve got to be realistic and have confidence in the numbers you’re giving and the reasons you’re giving them.
Haro: Forecasting is key to your cost management, and that’s the biggest problem. Whether your forecast is right or wrong is not really important — what is important is that a lot of things are coming out from your forecast, so if you’re way off, and you get orders wrong, for example, that’s not good.
In the current climate, outlets have to fight for business; how are your operations driving footfall?
Quick: There are all sorts of ways to encourage footfall. People see Zuma and think it’s expensive, so deals such as taster menus or lunch time and early evening specials are a great way to get them in and show them what we’re really about.
Shaun Roesstorff: When the market became tougher, there were a lot of venues giving discounts or giving something for free — instead of doing all that, you can step up a notch with your quality, and make sure you’re really living up to, or going one better than, your price bracket.
Haro: Value is the key, certainly. It’s misleading to think that because you reduce the price of an item by two dirhams, you’re putting yourself at a competitive advantage.
Zeidan: Today, people are most likely to go somewhere they trust to give good value — and I don’t think they mind paying that bit extra if they are confident of getting that.
Quick: There do seem to be less people going out, as well. When I came to Dubai a year ago, Zuma was packed every night; now it’s still doing well in the restaurant, but the bar can be a bit quiet, because we’re used to crowds. So footfall is definitely down — but it’s spending habits too.
Hancock: I bet your food sales are not too different to last year, but alcohol is very different, right? It’s the same in our outlets. Food sales are actually up on last year, alcohol sales are down.
Vallesi: Absolutely; 2009 was the best year for MMI retail, but the on-trade went down because people are being more cautious, entertaining more at home when they would have gone out before.
Everyone’s downgrading, so people who were drinking champagne last year are now having sparkling wine; those who drank wine are having spirits; those who drank spirits are going to beer, and so on.
So the volume is still there, but the revenue has dropped because the purchase of premium goods has fallen.
Quick: We’re definitely seeing that, particularly with regards to high-end cognacs and premium whiskies. People are more cautious with their money.
Hancock: And also we’ve seen a big drop in the amount of credit card usage, with people just leaving their card behind the bar for the evening, which was typical a few years back in this market.
What trends are you noticing in the beverage field at the moment?
Haro: I’d say it’s a major return to classics. I look at what’s around and there are a lot of the traditional names — Mojitos, Cosmopolitans, all of that. A few years ago we had some really bold things; nowadays there’s a move back to the recognisable.
Zeidan: I think the trend today is to offer classics with a slight twist; but we come back to the same point — the consumer.
People are not feeling ‘brave’ enough at the moment to go out and spend money on something they might not like. But give them a slight twist on an old favourite, and they will go for that.
Roesstorff: People trust what they know. They know Mojitos, they know Caipirinhas, they know what to expect.
And that’s what they’re looking for: something they are comfortable with and know they will enjoy.
Quick: It’s a bit disheartening for bartenders though, because most of us hate doing Mojitos! When you’ve spent time developing an inventive cocktail list, you want to encourage people to try it. At Zuma, we will try to engage a customer by chatting about what they like, and giving them something a bit different and new to try; then, if they don’t like it, fair enough, they can have a round of Mojitos instead.
Zeidan: But this is the difference with an independent outlet. You have the freedom to empower your bartenders to offer different drinks to your customers, and if they don’t like it — fine, they can throw it away. No hotel in town will do that.
At many places, if you don’t order from the menu, you don’t get. They won’t ask if you like it sour or sweet, or what kind of thing you’re looking for: they’re there to sell by rote. This is also why people order things they know, because they don’t want to be disappointed by it.
Haro: Well I like to think hotels are a bit more creative than you’re portraying them! There are some amazing hotel bars.
Zeidan: OK, some are good, but I’m talking about 80-90% of hotel bars out there. I’ve been here since before there was a cocktail industry, back when a Bloody Mary was unheard of, so it’s great to see it even up to where it is today. But there’s still more to be done.
And regarding trends, this really isn’t a trends market; we copy. We copy Europe, the US, Asia, whatever works there we think will work here, so we copy. We’re not a trend-setting market.
Why isn’t this a market that can lead?
Zeidan: It’s about not having the producers here, so you don’t have that invention here; so we have to rely on new ideas from outside.
Quick: Why can’t the bartenders here have new ideas though? I think if people are encouraged to be creative, then they absolutely can be, no matter where they are.
And OK, maybe in independent outlets it is easier to empower the staff to be creative in that way, but it’s not a hard-and-fast rule by any means.
Zeidan: But I think we always come back to the same point here, which is people.
Hancock: And that brings us back to the first question, on what the main challenges are; for me, it’s staff. You find some decent empowered staff, particularly in independent outlets, but still…
King: My staff are empowered — to a certain point. To throw away a cocktail, no; to promote their outlet’s speciality cocktails, yes. But there is a limit, if you’re on a small wage and the budget is tight, as they are nowadays.
What you need are people with charisma and character, which is what my bartenders have, and I think if they’re friendly and focused and get people buying, then good for them.
Quick: That is one of the main problems, though: salaries. Many outlets will hire for volume rather than skill; cheap labour rather than people with real knowledge and experience. But then I know some really good bartenders in London, and they’re on great salaries — so they would never come here.
Vallesi: To have that confidence, to recommend things and get your customers to try something different, I think you’ve got to build up your skills up behind the bar — i.e. by cleaning glasses and working the tills, rather than going straight in and having a list telling you what to put in a Cosmopolitan.
If you don’t have the basic training, you won’t be able to excel as a bartender; if you don’t learn to walk, you can’t run.
Quick: It’s also about having a bit of passion in what you’re doing, following a career path you want to. A lot of the top guys in Europe are career bartenders — look at Salvatore Calabrese, he’s a legend.
These people do it because they love what they’re doing, and that’s what we want here: people that come to be bartenders and are passionate about learning and furthering their bar career. And then if you have a few new recruits, then that’s fine: the experienced hands can train. There’s a balance to be struck.
So can anything be done about this staffing situation?
Hancock: I think there’s a lot we can do — it’s just getting the boys in HR and finance to agree! But I look at what Zuma have done; they’ve broken that mould in Dubai where you’ve got 100 Filipinos and Indians behind the bar who aren’t particularly interested in making a career in the beverage industry and who haven’t been trained properly.
Instead, they’ve got a handful of professionals from established beverage markets, such as South Africa, and the UK, and these experienced career bartenders are there to train and help the recruits from the Philippines, or India, or any other major feeder market, who don’t have the experience. And these professionals will show them the enthusiasm and passion that can go with a bar career.
Roesstorff: It does all come back to the staffing. There are too many people coming in without the necessary required knowledge, and who then get moved up before they have really mastered the basic skills. So that initial training does need to be addressed — perhaps by offering training in the basics for anyone who works in the outlet, from the bartenders to the glass washers.
Quick: When we do our training, everybody goes — the bartenders, the bar backs, waiters, receptionists, everyone. So then everyone can up-sell and understand the product.
King: This is one of the challenges of my role; I’m in charge of beverage training for 180 front-line staff for our restaurants and bars.
We do promote from within, we never take bar staff from outside the hotel, and it is a high-demand job because tips are good. And those who are keen and come to all the trainings are the ones who are considered.
Zeidan: Do you find most people are there out of passion for the business, or is it because they want more money?
King: It’s a bit of both, definitely — and the third reason is because their manager sent them!
But you can quickly tell who is passionate and who is not, so we just have to try and get the message across as best we can.
Zeidan: Ultimately, if you don’t have passion for what you’re doing, you won’t excel.