Getting ready for the Caterer Food & Business Conference

Our experts discuss the big topics at the advisory panel
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The panel was hosted by Bhupender Nath at his Carnival by Tresind venue.
ITP Media Group
The panel was hosted by Bhupender Nath at his Carnival by Tresind venue.

With the Caterer Middle East Food & Business Conference barely three weeks away, an expert panel of chefs, restaurateurs, and F&B experts descended upon Carnival by Tresind to give their opinion on the industry, and help us shape the make-up of the conference itself.

From last year’s advisory panel, only Reif Othman returned, with a new band of fresh faces keen to provide us with their insight.

Guided by Caterer Middle East editor Simon Ritchie, the group gave their thoughts on everything from rent prices and food delivery, to celebrity chefs and bloggers.

Rent control

With it taking up such a large portion of any business’s overheads, rent is always a hot topic and it was no different for this year’s panel. Dubai has seen a high turnover of restaurants in recent years, with some operators unable to keep demand high enough to pay ever-increasing rental prices.

For Samer Hamadeh, founder of Aegis Hospitality which operates the likes of Akiba Dori at D3, the industry itself has to take some of the blame for that due to its “whatever it takes attitude”.

He said: “A lot of people that weren’t really savvy agreed to ridiculous rents. So we — not us personally, but the industry — drove rents to a point where it was deemed acceptable to pay US$100 a square foot for a city with four million people.”

Getting landlords to bring rents down has been a tough ask however, as Natasha Sideris, the restaurateur behind the successful Tashas café chain suggested. Speaking from personal experience in South Africa where she managed to get landlords to drop unsustainable rents, she said it’s not as easy here because “there’s another thousand people ready and willing to open restaurants that have the backers”.

However, Sascha Triemer, vice president, food & beverage, Atlantis, The Palm, said his personal opinion was that rents are going down, as you could see it “not only in restaurants but also in the private sector”.

Metres away from where the advisory panel gathered lay proof of the difficult times that many restaurateurs in Dubai face, in the just permanently closed the night before The Artisan concept.

Bhupender Nath, founder of Passion F&B and our host for the day, told the group that “the reason is rent”. He explained further that as revenues are decreasing in many concepts, rent is heading up to “25%, 30%” of their total income. “Landlords are not able to understand that there are hundreds of outlets opening and every building has a retail outlet and every building has an eatery joint” with which restaurants are finding it increasingly hard to compete.

Fingers were consistently pointed to the sheer number of venues making it impossible to compete in a shrinking marketplace. Roberto Segura, founder of 3 Hospitality which operates Craft Café in D3, opined that with only 5,000 people working in the D3 area and 22 restaurants in operation, it was simply unsustainable for all of them.

Labouring the point

One of the points raised at last year’s advisory panel was the high cost of labour, but one of our panellists has gone out of the way to not only pay a high wage but to only make his staff work a five-day week — something highly uncommon in the UAE’s hospitality scene.

Bull&Roo managing director Tom Arnel said it is “the best thing I ever did”. He believes that it is a massive help in terms of staff retention as it keeps his staff happy, meaning he doesn’t need to regularly go through the large expense of training new staff. He said: “I would rather pay a high salary than have someone leave really quickly.”

That is something that the team at Atlantis are trying to achieve, with Triemer introducing more favourable working conditions for his staff over the past year including paying overtime and giving them a better work-life balance, and although he said they are “not there yet” he aims to “definitely do it this year”.

Hamadeh believes the important thing to look for in any potential employee is a real passion for the trade, and if they don’t show that passion, the hospitality industry is not suitable for them. He said: “Some people get into it because they’ll do any job. I get a lot of those CVs. Well it’s not for you then.”

The quality of staff leaving training schools was of a concern for Segura who said he had chefs fresh out of internship programs expecting high salaries, even though “what you learn in school is not the real happenings of the kitchen”.

Growing pain

Segura’s primary concern however, as the owner of several homegrown concepts, was the lack of attention given to local chefs, with the industry’s money men “prioritising big names from abroad”.

He said: “Why do you want to bring in a Michelin-starred chef? He’s not going to be here.”

Hamadeh believed that it wasn’t the public’s choice to bring in foreign talent, saying: “Only deluded investors want to bring Michelin-starred chefs to the UAE. Nobody cares for Michelin-starred chefs in small cities. Nobody.”

There was agreement from Sideris also who said that “a lot of investors would rather go somewhere and get a big name that’s not even involved in the business, comes here for a week and then leaves”.

There was a dissenting opinion from Triemer however. The Atlantis F&B supremo works with several big names and said that while “some celebrity chefs work and some don’t” his Gordon Ramsay Bread Street Kitchen concept “gets the right people in” and is “bringing enough to justify” itself.

It’s an issue of great concern to Reif Othman also. The former Play and The Experience chef is looking to reposition himself in the market but needs to find a backer. He said: “A lot of investors dare to put 30 million on a Michelin-starred chef but we ask for two million and it’s ‘I’m sorry, there’s no money’.”

For Arnel, being turned down at the start of his career perhaps ended up being a blessing in disguise as he and former business partner Sergio Lopez opened Tom&Serg in the industrial area of Al Quoz as no one would give them a chance elsewhere — with Hamadeh quipping that he thought they had chosen there “to be hipster”. But with rents at a quarter of the price as more fashionable areas of Dubai, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Time to deliver

The conversation turned to delivery — or lack of it — as restaurateurs look to adapt to changing market desires. For some, like Hamadeh, it’s a necessity because his competitors are doing it, but when it compromises quality, as he believes it does with pizza, he won’t.

“I have a fundamental problem with delivery,” he admitted, “but it doesn’t matter because it’s going to happen whether I like it or not. What’s the point in spending a million bucks on a fit out and then doing delivery?”

At his Craft Café outlet, Segura had to introduce a minimum spend due to someone ordering a single coffee for home delivery, while Arnel believes restaurants willing to deliver coffee in takeway containers knowing full well it will barely survive the journey highlights the issue with the concept as a whole — many people will do anything as long as it earns them a few dirhams.

Nath doesn’t do delivery at all from his Tresind branches, believing the experience of going out to one of his restaurants is what his customers are paying for. For Sideris it’s the same, with no Tashas doing delivery.

Influencing

“Who deems a blogger to be an expert?” Asked Sideris to general mutters of agreement around the table.

“I think a blogger should be someone who actually knows what they’re talking about and not someone that puts up a picture of lamb and says ‘a delicious vegetarian dish,’” joked Segura.

It’s safe to say there’s a fair level of disdain for the blogger and influencer community in Dubai from the experts round our table, although Segura is quick to say “there are 10-15 that tell the truth and they are real foodies. And then you honestly appreciate that feedback.”

Rather than pander to the influencers with large followings, Arnel said that for him it’s better for a normal person to come in and “say wow that looks awesome, take a photo of it and share it to their 300 friends. That is true word of mouth”.

On to the conference

The panellists could have kept talking for hours but we had to call it quits somewhere. With plenty of food for thought, we now turn to putting together expert debates and speakers for the Caterer Middle East Food & Business Conference in March. Make sure you come along to Grosvenor House to hear from a wide range of panellists on all the topics above and much more.

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