Restaurateur Interview: Joey Ghazal
You could say it was his father who led Joey Ghazal to a career in F&B.
The man, who in years to come would turn Dubai’s dining scene on its head, was 17 and studying political science and film at university in Montreal when he was told in no uncertain terms that he had to go out and get a job.
Ghazal recalls: “The only thing I could do that worked with my university schedule was being a waiter. I started off right at the bottom and worked my way up to a manager. I really went through the entire hierarchy of a restaurant and I had a great teacher who taught me everything about the business.”
Bitten by the F&B bug, Ghazal moved to London for two years from 2000 to 2002 where he worked for the Soho House Group. He says: “That was an amazing school as well. That was before Soho House became the huge international company that it is. Back then it was just the one on Old Compton Street. I was doing front-of-house and events for them, then I moved back to Montreal in 2003. I became the head of concept development and marketing for that group I started working for as a waiter back when I was 17.”
When Ghazal turned 30 he decided that it was time for him to strike out on his own and moved to Beirut, where his father had retired, eventually opening five restaurants.
Ghazal says: “I developed a bar concept called The Angry Monkey which we ended up franchising here with Stereo Arcade and then I developed two restaurants on the Zeitounay Bay waterfront. They all did very well for the time that they were around.”
Though he is Lebanese by origin, it was the first time that he’d lived in Lebanon. Ghazal explains: “There’s a lot of ups and downs, surprises, instability so you need to be a survivor to make it there. I did well but I reached a point, with the Syrian war and things like that in 2013 where I had to make a hard decision of whether I was the kind of person who wanted to live there long-term and the truth is that I didn’t. So I came back to Dubai. Dubai is really and has always been home. I grew up here, I lived here all the way up to 1996.”
Still, it wasn’t smooth sailing: “When I came I didn’t really have a plan. All the money that I had made in Lebanon, I spent in the first year that I was here, setting up Fighter Brands, my concept development company. I think I underestimated how expensive things were here.”
Despite the financial strain, Ghazal had a plan and put himself in the perfect position to do his homework: “The Fighter Brands business took a while to take off. So I started working with a small concept development firm. They were developing concepts for the likes of Emaar, Meraas, and big developers and it was also another great experience. I had the opportunity to get the lay of the land. It was really important to look around and see where the gaps were, see what was missing and where I could be of value.”
It was while looking at the space for one of his other concepts, Stereo Arcade, that the space for The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill was presented to him. He says: “I could see why people thought it would be an unattractive location but I really saw the potential. I loved the idea of creating something hidden and I imagined that the people who found out about it would tell their friends.
“I like taking these industrial spaces and creating luxurious dreamscapes inside. I love the idea that you could take a space that looks like a fishmonger’s warehouse but add the terrazzo tiles and the leather banquettes and the marble tables and the brass, and the shell chandeliers to give the space an air of extravagance.”
When it came to deciding on the concept, Ghazal explains: “I had an idea of what was missing. The idea of licensed casual dining in Dubai was largely untapped. Being by the sea, naturally I wanted to create an oyster bar.”
As the name suggests, oysters have become the restaurant’s calling card: “We have 12 varieties of oysters. We’re probably the premier purchaser and seller of oysters in the UAE and we’re a big promotor of local Dibba Bay oysters. It’s actually amazing. We live by the sea and that side of the UAE has some of the cleanest water in the world. It’s ridiculous that we don’t have more. That we’re not farming our own lobster or fish or any of that. Honestly hats off to him (East Coast Shellfish managing director Ramie Murray). He’s doing a great job.”
Talking about how he achieves the look and feel of his concepts, Ghazal says: “I don’t use designers. I have a small team that I work with that does that plans and the drawings but I do all the designs myself and there’s a reason for it. When you look round in Dubai, a lot of the F&B looks like it’s been done by a designer. It looks a bit ready-made, out of the box and lacks personality. I like the challenge and I like to make the decisions. I also think that there’s a value to having some imperfection. When something is too perfect or finished, it seems fake.”
Ghazal underlines the importance of establishing a Dubai identity, and not just being derivative. He says: “I try to create honest experiences and I think that honesty comes from using materials that can be found here. Red brick is not a typical UAE material. So when you open up a restaurant with red brick, it feels like Disney World but if you use concrete and you use exposed piping, maybe that’s what we’re about.”
The entrepreneur would like to see more of his peers take the plunge: “Having grown up here and having been here for so long, it’s important for there to be a generation that is creating home-grown concepts, who lend their voices to the design landscape and to affect the DNA of the city.”
Ghazal is cognisant that a lot needs to change before Dubai can be considered attractive to local entrepreneurs: “My desire has been to tip the industry in that direction. I would love to see landlords create smaller spaces so that we could have more boutique restaurants. I would love to see more people that are in the industry create their own concepts but because there’s such an expensive barrier to entry, it’s difficult for these people. In Lebanon, you can create a restaurant for US $50,000 or 100,000. Here, you need a minimum of $1.5million. Unfortunately, it really cuts out creativity because then it’s driven by developers, consultants or brands.”
Though his venture was successful, there was a time when he didn’t know if he was going to be able to pull it off. He says: “I actually took a huge risk. I put the deposit down on the space. I had financed a big part of the initial stages of this project before even the first investor came on board. At a certain point in life you just need to go all in and out all of your cards on the table. You’ve just got to believe in yourself.”
The regional F&B industry, and Dubai in particular, has a reputation for being volatile but according Ghazal, burgeoning restauranteurs need to arm themselves with knowledge: “First I would say, spend some time in a restaurant, work in a restaurant. There’s a huge value to working in all levels because everyone’s job in a restaurant is very important. The second thing would say is talk to a lot of people, ask a lot of questions listen, don’t think you know everything and be very prudent.”
When asked why he’s been successful he says: “I don’t think that it’s one thing. I think it’s a lot of things. It was a perfect storm of different pieces coming together. It was the right concept in the right location at the right time and it snowballed from there. You have to make sure that the concept is strong, the brand is strong, the food has to be good, the service has to be on point but at the same time, there needs to be an emotional connection. We’re selling a lifestyle essentially.”
His success with The Maine has opened other doors: “I was approached by The First Group to essentially create Barbary Deli + Cocktail Club for them. Similar to here, when they showed me the location, I saw what I could do with the space. It was a perfectly sized room with its own entrance.”
Again, the venue was in a less than desirable location: “I like the stigma that’s related to Barsha Heights. It has this gaudy appeal but I liked that and I immediately saw something I could play on. I immediately saw the potential of creating something with a lot of character.”
“When I’m creating a concept I try to look at it from every angle. It has to be immersive. To you have to control the experience from the minute they get out of the car to the minute they leave. I like the feeling of disarming people. It breaks the ice. It creates conversation, people live on social media so it creates that instagrammable opportunity. You’re constantly informing their emotions and taking them on a joyride through the concept.”
When asked if he would like to do more of these types of projects, the answer is affirmative: “Barbary is doing incredibly well and the First Group is very happy. I would love to do more of that.”
And there is definitely more to come from The Maine. Ghazal says: “The Maine JBR was just the beginning of the story and there’s so much more that I think we could say. It’s a very strong brand with a very strong word of mouth. I can’t tell you the amount of people who come from DIFC or Downtown and say ‘Why don’t you open a Maine closer to us?’ So we will be opening a Maine on that side of town in an iconic building (likely The Opus by Zaha Hadid) which we are very excited about. It’ll be a continuation of the narrative that we’ve started to create here.”
Ghazal’s goal is to continue growing The Maine and perhaps even export the brand outside of the UAE. Without committing which city he has his eye on, Ghazal says: “I believe that The Maine is strong enough as a brand.” After a more direct line of questioning about London as a potential venue, Ghazal offers: “That’s a good example. That would be amazing. We as a group are actively looking at all opportunities. We are not following traditional franchise models. We believe in it enough to get into joint ventures with strategic partners so we’re not just charged silly royalties. We believe that there should be a Maine in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and so on.”
Back in Dubai, Ghazal says: “There are still a lot of gaps. The issue in Dubai is that it’s driven very much by developers and celebrity imports and franchises. There’s a lot of noise that distracts people from thinking about what is really missing. I believe that what is really missing is more premium-casual dining experiences, value-driven offerings, where people don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to a get a steak frites and a glass of wine.”
Ghazal concludes: “All I’m trying to do is give people a feeling. I want to transport them, I want to immerse them and on a bigger scale, I want to tip the industry in some small way try to alter the DNA of the city away from behemoth spaces. I want to bring something boutique with more personality. That’s my feeling.” And people seem to be feeling it.