Soul food: How the UAE's F&B community came together to help those in need

Read our July cover story on some of the industry heroes feeding others
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Patrick and Kenza Jarjour of Inked supplied 400 meals a day to the UAE Food Bank
Patrick and Kenza Jarjour of Inked supplied 400 meals a day to the UAE Food Bank

The last few months have been the hospitality industry’s darkest hour. An unprecedented shutdown left restaurants and bars closed for an extended period of time, leaving many to close permanently, and the vast majority of those that survived were forced to make staff redundant or put them on unpaid leave for months.

Despite this, we have seen what makes the F&B industry special come to the fore. It is a calling that means putting others first, and we have witnessed that more than ever over the past few months.

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When they could have been putting themselves first, worrying about how they would survive the lockdown, and planning on how they could reopen better than ever and ready to make up for lost income, instead many turned their attention to feeding the less fortunate.

“It was a no brainer for us to make full use of what we have,” says Inked co-founder Kenza Jarjour

The creative F&B events platform in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue has always been one of the industry’s trailblazers, and it proved no different during this crisis. Within two weeks of the shutdown taking place, Inked had pivoted to supplying 100 meals a day.

“It started overnight,” explains fellow co-founder Patrick Jarjour. “Alserkal Avenue said they were ready to waive three-months of rent. We said: okay if we don’t need to pay three-months of rent, what do we do? I was sitting with Kenza and she said: Let’s start cooking, let’s start sending food to people in need.”

Although just Kenza, Patrick, and executive chef Hadrien Villedieu were able to contribute at first because of quarantine and social distancing regulations, one by one the rest of the team started to return and Inked’s output rose to 300 meals a day, then 400 meals a day, all of which were being picked up by the UAE Food Bank and delivered to frontline workers and labour camps.

As often happens with good deeds, one leads to another. While Inked were working away in Dubai, they were inspiring more positivity in Abu Dhabi.
“I feel they basically set the path and we were able follow in their footsteps,” says Fae Café founder and head chef Khaled Al Saadi.

Hearing that some private hospitals wouldn’t be receiving government support, Al Saadi and his Fae Café partner decided to foot the bill for sending meals to the workers, but once again, witnessing an act of generosity led to more people wishing to join in.

The Fae Café team decided to offer its customers the chance to buy meals for AED25, and were soon inundated with demand.

“When they saw an opportunity to give back, they took it,” says Al Saadi about his Fae Café customers. “We thought of doing it once a week and it would be an expense from our pocket, but when we opened the door to the public… It wasn’t really a shock because we knew that people from this community would be generous.

“We set a goal that by the end of Ramadan we would give out at least 3,000 meals and we’d gather contributions and add them to this number. But we were lucky enough to receive more contributions than we ever expected and we had the support of The Khalifa Foundation. They gave us additional funding that by the end of Ramadan we were able to send out more than 9,000 meals.”

Even with contributors paying a nominal fee for these meals to help support the restaurants taking part, the wide scale donations wouldn’t have been possible without the help of suppliers. The likes of Chef Middle East played a key role in helping Inked get the food they need, and also supported the Helping Hands movement from Alabbar Enterprises which provided more than 10,500 meals.

Tyrone Reid, Alabbar Enterprises CEO, says that without them it couldn’t have been possible.

“The response and generosity shown by our suppliers have been extraordinary. We had suppliers give chicken, rice, water and other simple ingredients, and with our talented teams, we could bring these simple items together to produce hearty fresh meals.

“The suppliers involved wanted to use their strengths, just like us, to help those who had unexpectedly found themselves in need at this time.”

Those in need also extends to the F&B staff left without work during the crisis, and Reid believes the charitable work done through Alabbar’s restaurants helped give the staff a sense of purpose.

He says: “The spirit of the team was one of the highlights during this entire experience. Getting them involved in this humanitarian movement was rewarding, not only to the ones we were helping but for themselves. We started Helping Hands in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak. Our restaurants and the malls were closed and for our team having to come in to prepare meals brought to life a sense of achievement and pride. During this time, I was receiving multiple requests from the team and guests on how they could help or support Helping Hands. The response has been humbling.”

At Fae Café, Al Saadi’s team volunteered to come in and help prepare the meals for donating, with no promise of any financial gain from it. “They felt like it was more of a family situation where we were all looking after each other,” Al Saadi explains. “At the same time, as a chef, and I’m sure every chef will tell you, the place where you really feel at home is in the kitchen. In this case, all the chefs really loved going to work every day because they knew we were doing it for a good cause.”

Fortunately, with the money donated, Al Saadi was able to reward his team with some payment for their invaluable contribution to the initiative.
It was looking after their own team members that inspired BB Social to put in place a donation scheme that would see 2,000 meals delivered in just one day.

Co-founder Spero Panagakis says the realised quickly that looking after their own staff mut be the priority.

He says: “We came to realise that the most affected in the process was the human, as our pockets were being affected with almost no pay for a period of who knows. So immediately, whilst their income was scrutinised, we wanted to ensure they were being fed properly. Each week we organised essential hampers for our team members that would allow a very small budget stretch over the entire week, therefore not adding any further stress to the situation and educating our teams to respect every grain of food we have.”

However, not all hospitality staff were so lucky during this time. With everything closed, very few had the opportunity that the staff at Inked, BB Social, and Fae Café had to keep working or being provided for.

“Many people across the industry have had to go through some very tough times in recent months, and it’s going to be some time before we get back to where we were in the hospitality business, pre Covid,” explains Mike Glen, managing director MMI – UAE & Oman. “Countless hotels, bars and restaurants have been deeply impacted and this has meant that many people in all parts of the hospitality industry around the world have been directly affected.”

Because of this, MMI helped set up an initiative to provide bartenders with supermarket vouchers to ensure they wouldn’t go without the essentials. Something that was widely appreciated, says Glen.

“While times are still really tough across the hospitality industry for many, the feedback we’ve received so far has been really touching and so we, along with our partners, Pernod Ricard Gulf, Möet Hennessy and Tito’s, are truly delighted we’ve been able to offer a contributing piece of extra support. The vouchers have been used for vital day-to-day necessities such as food and hygiene products, easing the burden a little for individuals and their families. It has been wonderful to see that a small gesture can have such a great impact on so many people.”

Through such a dark time, the overwhelming response of the industry has been one of solidarity and a willingness to help. At Inked, some of Dubai’s top chefs have been lining up to help the team, says Patrick Jarjour.

“One phone call. This date, are you available? Yes. Done” The likes of Izu Ani, Hattem Mattar, and Colin Clague have all donated their time and expertise to give a fresh take on Inked’s donated meals, ensuring frontline workers are among the best fed in the city.

“It’s one of the top three best events we’ve done at Inked. Othe rveents are amazing and we love doing them, but it’s these meaningful events that have something behind them that are the best.”

Al Saadi also contributed to Inked, saying it kept things “fun and fresh”, and he has been impressed overall by the UAE’s reaction to the criris.

“It just shows that when times get tough, people stop being selfish and thinking about ways to keep themselves happy. It shows that they are willing to provide that same level of happiness to their community and when they see the opportunity to give back, they take it.”

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