A week in the life of Tom Arnel

Caterer Middle East editor Simon Ritchie spent a week with Bull&Roo co-founder Tom Arnel. Find out what it entails
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Tom Arnel.
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Tom Arnel.

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said: “A week is a long time in politics.” But how long is a week in Dubai’s F&B industry? For Tom Arnel it encompasses keeping a handle on six concepts, a coffee roastery, a bakery, and planning further expansion, and being a father to three children.

To get an idea for exactly what this entails, and for a look at what’s coming next, I sign on to be the just turned 34-year old Australian’s shadow.

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TAKE A CHANCE ON ME

We start, aptly enough, where it all began. In Tom & Serg. The Al Quoz warehouse that became a rallying point for Dubai’s coffee scene.
“I remember standing here and this ticket machine was printing out tickets and they were all going on the floor. I was looking out the window and I couldn’t even see the cars there were so many people standing there. I remember just going ‘F***, how am I going to get all this food out’. It was crazy.”

Arnel’s showing me around the kitchen of the unlikely success story and reminiscing about its second week in existence. The concept is an ode to his Melbourne background: a casual dining spot with wholesome, reasonably priced food and great coffee. Looking at it with hindsight it’s not a surprise it was an almost overnight success, but in context it was the risk of all risks.

While it’s now a trendy area of town, back in 2013 Al Quoz was more down-and-out than up-and-coming. Investors balked when Arnel and his then-partner Sergio Lopez showed them the location, but with no background of owning restaurants, other landlords wouldn’t give them the time of day.

They pounded the pavements, chapped on every door, looked all over the city, but a nondescript, industrial warehouse surrounded by empty lots was the best they could do – and they believed in it


But, when it was signed, and they were halfway through construction, Arnel asked the contractor what he thought of it.

“I’ll never forget this. It was one of the most scary things anyone ever said to me. He said ‘well to be honest mate, it’s not my cup of tea and I wouldn’t be putting a restaurant here if it was my money’. I was freaking out – this was a guy I respected as well.”

As we know now however, Arnel’s intuition was correct. “It was the perfect storm of Dubai being ready for it. We knew that if we created somewhere that people felt casual and comfortable and part of the community it would work – that was one of the coolest things I found, we created a community hub.

On its website it says it took Arnel and Lopez two years, four months and 17 days to create Tom & Serg. But once inside the space, Arnel says it took just 20 minutes with a piece of chalk to have it sketched out completely – with the design that still exists to this day. Despite all the trial and tribulations, when it came to it, everything just fell into place.

Arnel says: “We did everything the opposite of how we should have done it. We served coffee at 63°C only. We closed at four. We didn’t serve decaff. Our staff didn’t have uniform or nametags – that meant they could be themselves and let their personalities flourish in an environment where we wanted them to be on the same level as the customer.”

The empty lots that surrounded it were perfect for customers to park. The industrial look was gritty, on-trend, and instagrammable. Al Quoz’s central location, just off Sheikh Zayed Road, made it easy to get to. It truly was the perfect storm.
The crowds that prevented from seeing outside in just the second week didn’t abate. Turning over 1,000 plus covers each day on the weekend, it was ripe for a second location

HERE IT GOES AGAIN

But instead Arnel and Lopez opened The Sum of Us in the Trade Centre area of Dubai. Creating a completely new brand.

“That was our strategy from day one,” says Arnel. “I didn’t want to overcapitalise on the Tom & Serg success. I wanted to make sure that we had different options for people. That it didn’t feel like they were just going to the same thing every day.”

The Sum of Us also contains Encounter Coffee roastery and Rise&Dawn bakery, allowing Bull&Roo to service all of its concepts with its own produce. But when Common Grounds in Mall of the Emirates came along, closely followed by licensed venue Brunswick, it meant the company had ballooned to no fewer than six separate brands.

With each of the brands having its own identity and its own menu, Arnel doesn’t make it easy for himself. While Lopez took care of the business side of things, from the beginning he was responsible for the food and everything else customer facing, and it remains a key priority.

Arnel admits that when he started, he was set in his ways. “I used to be a little bit selfish I think. The very first menu at Tom & Serg that blew up was the food that I wanted to serve, which is why I refused to make changes and that polarised people. The good thing was that definitely got us noticed – people were like, ‘who is this guy in Al Quoz telling me how to eat?’”

HOT AND FRESH OUT THE KITCHEN

But how things have changed. I sit in a meeting with Arnel and Emirates Bio Farm’s Yazen Al Kodmani. Al Kodmani has brought a brochure filled with hundreds of fruits and vegetables that they can grow at the UAE’s largest organic farm. Arnel is like a kid in a sweet shop – but a healthy, organic sweet shop – as he flicks through, turning to his right hand man Matt Connell to share ideas for potential specials on the menu.

“I’m trying to give people ingredients I think are the best,” Arnel tells me. “And it just turns out that most of those ingredients come from Emirates Bio Farm. The beauty of it is we’re able to use vegetables or fruits that they can’t sell to the supermarket because they are slightly deformed, so I’m taking them for a value proposition. It means I can take organic produce, sell it to my customers at a good price point and put it in salads or smoothies or juice where it doesn’t matter what it looks like – as long as it tastes fantastic.

“Our customers have a high standard, they travel around the world, they know what they want in food, so we put a real importance on whatever we’re serving to them being the right stuff.”

Arnel’s passion for produce is obvious and understandable. Below the meetings, the financials, and the figures, Arnel is a chef. Always has been, always will be.

TOM’S DINER

“This is where I’m comfortable,” he says, as we’re back in the kitchen making a classic smashed avocado, which Arnel jokes is credited to a whole new generation of Australians overspending. “I was a chef before I was any sort of business man or entrepreneur, so this is what I know how to do better than anything.”

Arnel was meant to go to university to study economics. Instead he battered down the door of Shannon Bennett’s Vue de monde – then the 77th ranked restaurant in the world – and became its first apprentice chef. His parents were “less than impressed” but for Arnel it “felt like playing for a Premier League football club”.

However, it wasn’t quite as glamorous as the footballer lifestyle, he admits. It required “total dedication to the job. I was the only Aussie guy in the kitchen, the rest were like French and Brit guys and they gave me s*** for years, they just tore on me. Working 90 hour weeks, skinny as a rake, suffering physical and mental abuse – enough to make me just want to break out in tears, which I often did.”

Arnel still bears the scars of his time in Vue de monde, and says a number of talented chefs who could cook better than anyone but couldn’t handle the mental stress dropped out. “There’s major mental health problems in kitchens, a lot of chefs become drug addicts, become alcoholics. It’s pretty tough.”

I ask Arnel if he feels the situation has gotten better since his time in fine-dining. “Heaps. It’s way more tolerating of mistakes and understanding people. If it happened now it would be all over Twitter and Instagram. It’s not motivating.”

But despite the suffering he went through, Arnel credits his time at Vue de monde with giving him the mental strength to do what he does now. It might be more than a decade later but Arnel is still pulling 90+ hour work weeks.

But now the reason he does it is he because he sits at the top of a growing restaurant empire, solo.

I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW

Arnel teamed up with Lopez only after another potential partner backed out at the last minute, but despite being “polar opposites”, Arnel “thought it was a great match.”

After four successful years, however, Arnel says the duo’s “relationship broke down”.

“I was very driven to bring this company in a certain direction and I always had a vision of where I wanted to take it – and that’s never changed. I’ve been hell-bent for however long just to get there,” he explains.

“There were certain issues in the part of the business not managed by myself and with the support of my other partners we had to step in and take control of the entire management of the business. I was fortunate enough at the time to have three other partners who were so supportive of the vision, and enabled a smooth transition as we ventured into a new management structure.”

That was it as far as ‘Tom the chef’ was concerned.

“Everything changed”, he says. “From one minute I was running the business from what the customer saw then realising oh s***, now I’ve got to go in and restructure our head office team and figure out how to continue the growth and success of what we’d already achieved but by myself.

“I had to put on an extra hat. It meant a lot of hours.”

Arnel was also trying to raise three young children as this was happening, and praises his wife for helping him juggle fatherhood and running a business. Again, Arnel mentions the “resilience” learned in his chef days as being key to getting him through.

While Arnel was now the lone figurehead and sole managing director in charge of day-to-day decisions, the support of his partners was vital in him keeping going.

He says: “When you find partners who are eager to explore business opportunities with you and think through strategy and growth, there’s nothing better. On the offset of Serge leaving and these guys coming in to help strategically, it’s amazing to have such support and guidance from guys that are all strong business leaders themselves.”

FLYING WITHOUT WINGS

Growth hasn’t slowed since Arnel took the reins, with two Common Grounds openings earlier this year – one in JLT and one in DIFC – plus a repositioning of Brunswick to change it from sports bar to being more food focused, a deliberate choice made due to the ever increasing number of licensed venues in the city.

Over the course of the week we visit each and every outlet, and one phrase pops up every time we do: the final 5%. While the 95% is the stuff people don’t see – “the long hours, the stress, the excitement of coming up with new ideas, graphic design, marketing” – the final 5% is “where it really counts” says Arnel.

That part is the customer experience. Arnel believes that the Dubai customer is demanding and intelligent, and he won’t countenance anything that will fall below their exacting expectations. He spends around six hours a week in the kitchen checking quality across the concepts and teaching his chefs specials – less than he’d want but enough to keep his creative juices flowing and the quality up.

He believes that people choose Bull&Roo venues over others “because they want something that’s more gourmet or chef driven, they expect a high standard.” Encounter Coffee and Rise&Dawn bakery are another key part of ensuring the final 5% is also under Bull&Roo’s control.
I ask Arnel if he’s a perfectionist, to which he laughs and says: “I guess I have pretty high standards for myself and for the team.”

THE A TEAM

Sitting in on a Bull&Roo team meeting and witnessing his interactions with the team who he relies on to maintain that final 5% when he’s not around, what’s immediate is the importance of Matt Connell. Not just a fellow Aussie, Connell attended the same school as Arnel and runs the day-to-day operations of Bull&Roo. He is essentially Arnel’s right hand man.

“He’s in charge of making sure that all the teams are executing what they need to execute,” says Arnel. “He’ll do 100 things in a day and still find time to comfort a staff member if they’re feeling down or need some support. That’s what we’re super proud of, making sure our staff are doing the right thing all the time. They’re a great team.”

He adds: “The reason that we are here today, and some of the success with Tom & Serg in the beginning was because of our staff. It wasn’t just me or Serg, it was because we had the right team of people who all believed in it.”

An Australian accent is not a prerequisite to join Bull&Roo but it certainly helps. Arnel actively recruits from his homeland and says there’s about 20 or so in the company. With most of its eateries based around Melbourne café culture, it helps to have employees who understand the concept and can easily explain it to customers.

LIVING FOR THE CITY

And Arnel believes there are similarities between his hometown and Dubai. He says: “Melbourne is a melting point of different cultures with locals that know what they want. They’ve got a great culture in Melbourne and the same here. The Emirati people have really embraced what we do. They’re definitely quite futuristic in their thinking and quite progressive and alternative – and they love food which is the best thing.”

The independent food community in Dubai has grown up around Bull&Roo, with Tom & Serg certainly playing a role in its fruition, but Arnel won’t take all the credit.

“We definitely started a wave of alternative new businesses that are homegrown. I’m under no illusions, I know that that happened. Can we credit ourselves for being a part of it? Yes, we were a part of it, but Dubai inspired that. We did it because of the growth that’s happening around us.

“I love Dubai so much and I love it because of the opportunity. It’s so exciting to be around so many other likeminded individuals trying to do something amazing. In the near future Dubai will be on the map massively.”

And Arnel has a plan to make that happen. A plan to showcase what Dubai has to offer: EatDXB. A collaboration with the enigmatic writer Food Sheikh and a host of top chefs from the city including Greg Malouf, Liz Stevenson, Reif Othman, and Mohammad Orfali.

The sell-out event was an attempt to bring the best of Dubai together and create the ultimate meal representing the city’s talent. It was a huge success, with Arnel saying he spent weeks on the phone calling all the best chefs in a bid to pull it together.

But why take that on when you already have a schedule that, as I have seen, is filled to the brim? “I suppose I decided because of the fact I love Dubai and I love the industry in terms of what it gives back. It gives me so much satisfaction to see all the success that people are having around but what I don’t like to see is still this massive influx of international talent which I don’t think needs to come here. The talent pool is so massive here and it’s getting so much bigger that from my observations I still don’t see it being as appreciated as it could be.”

We’re in the car heading to a potential Bull&Roo concept location which will have the ability to take next year’s EatDXB event to another level. Arnel is a bundle of energy about it, I’m tired and glad I’m just a lowly journalist with much less to worry about on a daily basis.

Tom & Serg, Common Grounds, The Sum of Us, Brunswick, Encounter Coffee, Rise&Dawn bakery, 250 employees, creating new menus, meeting suppliers, scouting new locations, running events, and sealing deals.

After all this it was only a week. Harold Wilson was lucky he only had one country to run, not a whole restaurant empire.

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