Food for thought at the Caterer Middle East F&B conference

Industry leaders came together to discuss all the big issues
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The eighth annual Caterer Middle East Food & Business Conference took place at Grosvenor House on March 5, with a plethora of voices from across the sector clamouring to be heard, from chefs to operators, and bloggers to analysts.

Four panels across the day saw almost 20 experts take to the stage to share their wisdom, experience, and advice to the 200 strong audience.

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Following a welcome speech from Caterer Middle East editor Simon Ritchie, the first panel on ‘What’s Cooking in 2019’ took to the stage.

What’s Cooking in 2019

In the first panel of the day, the participants were each given two minutes to discuss what they thought would be the big trends of the coming year before it was opened up for further discussion.

Gates Hospitality founder Naim Maadad talked about the industry going through a “perfect storm” that would see a lot of changes in the coming year, and he was quick to decry the “duopoly” of the beverage sector in the UAE and call for change.

Beverage suppliers were also a key topic for Felix Hartmann, EAM of Grand Plaza Movenpick, Media City, who said he wanted operators to change the way they do business with them. He also spoke about giving “someone the trust to manage your restaurants”, which was particularly relatable with Maadad operating the latest Nick & Scott venture, Verve Bar and Brasserie, in Hartmann’s hotel.

Sascha Triemer, the vice president of F&B at Atlantis, The Palm talked about the need to create a “diversified F&B portfolio” and the importance of making “immersive dining experiences” for customers. Triemer also believes that the so-called generation Z will continue the trend for healthy and vegan foods and so concepts that cater to them will be a priority.

It was a similar story with Sacha Daniel the group operations director at Solutions-Leisure Group who told the crowd about receiving a vegan request at its steak restaurant STK. But for the whole of 2019 he believed casual dining will be the big thing. He pointed to the group’s Lock Stock & Barrel concept’s JBR branch which he said is pulling in “55,000 to 60,000 people a month”.

Roberto Segura, founder of 3 Hospitality, which has the likes of Waka restaurant and Craft Café believed that as an independent operator in a market where the spend is “not what it used to be six years ago” he would branch out into consultancy. Instead of looking to open any more concepts in the coming year he would instead focus his expertise on up-and-coming countries that need guidance.

When it came to a final question on how optimistic the five were about the future, views were differing. Maadad said that “optimistic is a big word at the minute. It’s about making sure that we consolidate what we have.” But with his hotel only open for five days at the time of the conference, Hartmann described himself as “very optimistic”.

Rent vs Revenue

Perhaps the liveliest debate of the day was up next, as the ever pertinent topic of rent came to the stage.

Outspoken founder of Aegis Hospitality Samer Hamadeh got the ball rolling by imploring the audience to ensure they “get a good lawyer” if they want to survive in the F&B industry and said that “if you want a quick investment, this is not the business for you”. He also called upon restaurant operators and owners to have to go through written, physical, and psychological tests before being allowed to operate.

With most people not happy about the level of rent that they pay, Nataliya Plotkina, financial analyst at JRG Dubai, asked the audience how many of them had asked for a reduction in the past year. She said that “in our business we have spent probably nine months asking for a reduction”, suggesting that nothing would change in the market unless everyone else started to do the same.

Tom Arnel, founder of Bull&Roo, explained how his empire got underway in the now trendy area of Al Quoz not because he wanted to be hipster but “because no one else would give us a lease”.  With a number of new restaurants in the offing for Bull&Roo, it looks like it worked out.

The problems don’t just lie with the landlords though, said Andre Gerschel, regional director of operations at Baker & Spice. He called upon operators to “create a product that’s sustainable over time, not necessarily something that’s an ego project that you want to open.”

Spero Panagakis, co-founder of BB Social Dining agreed that “going into any restaurant there has to be 100% confidence in what you’re attempting to do” and the importance of finding a gap in the market. He called upon landlords to not simply choose the biggest brand name that’s coming to town and instead plan their F&B retail space better.

While Hamadeh felt there was a lack of communication between the people at the top of hotels such as GMs and the operators running the restaurants which led to problems when it came to discussing rent, Gerschel said he was “letting hotel companies off too easily” and that “they have their own F&B outlets and know what the rates are and what the markets are”.

 Keynote speech

Following the Rent VS Revenue panel, Omar Saideh of Orange Hospitality took to the stage to speak about the latest developments in the company’s portfolio. As well as the launch of its second Dubai concept Alici, which opened the same week as the conference, Saideh announced that Alici was already going international with an opening in Mykonos. Now, when Dubai restaurants are often struggling during the warm summer months, Alici will be able to send its staff to work at its Greek branch in high season, he said.

Saideh also spoke about Orange Hospitality’s dream of making the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list with either Il Borro Tuscan Bistro or Alici, and fielded questions from the audience about whether Dubai was ready for the Michelin guide yet.

 Sustainability

After a break for networking and coffee, it was time for the sustainability panel. An important buzzword in the industry, Ben Tobitt, group executive chef at JRG Dubai, highlighted the different methods and practices that are employed across the group.

From removal of plastic straws to trying to use sustainable fishing practices at its seafood restaurant Pierchic, JRG had taken it as a key issue under previous managing director Emma Banks and Tobitt plans to continue that going forward.

Nick Alvis and Scott Price, Dubai’s top chef duo behind the likes of Folly and upcoming Verve Bar & Brasserie spoke about “doing whatever they can to make sure they are doing the right thing”.

However, Price was quick to point out that while changing from plastic straws may be a good first step, there is so much plastic wasted in the back-of-house and little has been done to change that.

Alvis said that they do try and reuse plastic as much as possible in a bid to make a difference.

Water filtration systems were mentioned by all three as something new to the sustainability battle that they were beginning to implement.

The trio took questions from the impassioned crowd for whom many it was clearly a serious issue, with overfishing one of the main points of contention. In response, Tobitt laid out how important it is to check your supplier follows the best possible practices.

Digital world

In the final panel of the day, food writers Courtney Brandt and Samantha Wood and operator Bhupender Nath faced off, with JRG Dubai’s marketing and communications manager Niki Walsh also on the panel hosted by The First Group’s Duncan Fraser-Smith.

Both Brandt and Wood started the panel by declaring they don’t like to be called “food bloggers” instead preferring “food writer”.

While there may have been a suspicion that Nath as an operator (Tresind, Carnival by Tresind) would not appreciate food writers, he instead praised the experience that many of them have and said what they do is important to helping operators assess their own restaurants and correct themselves when necessary.

In a world where many influencers are given free meals in return for positive reviews, Brandt said that while she is often invited and doesn’t pay for meals, she will give constructive feedback to the owner. Although Brandt rarely puts up negative reviews, preferring to say nothing or just focus on positives.

Wood, through her Foodiva website which has made a name for its impartial reviews, does not accept free meals and will always pay when putting a review on her website through either her own name or a guest writer who she sends if she feels she may be recognised.

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