If we were to populate a list of words that have risen from barely utilised to overused since the coronavirus pandemic first struck, pivot would have to be near the top.
Formerly only used when trying to get an unwieldy couch up a winding staircase, à la Friends, it has joined the likes of unprecedented, furlough, and new normal at the forefront of the public consciousness.
The reason for that is simple. With businesses in all industries forced to change their entire business model in a bid to survive, how they could enact this ‘pivot’ has been everyone’s number one priority.
The F&B industry has been no different, being one of the hardest hit following the complete restaurant shutdown in March. At peak season, eateries were left with sky high rent bills, large salaries, and no customers to help pay them.
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Within days, many restaurant realised the only way they could survive without their customers coming to them was to bring their food to the customers. Dubai’s delivery scene erupted -- even fine dining establishments that had never considered it as an option before suddenly fighting one another for orders.
But without the quick change in direction to delivery, the pandemic could have taken more scalps than it has already.
“Catering was life saving for us,” admits Bhupender Nath, founder of Passion F&B which operates the Tresind brand in Dubai.
It wasn’t an easy switch to make, says Nath, as none of his outlets’ venues had menus optimised for delivery, but having been able to keep all of his staff employed thanks to the funds raised, it was the right choice.
Nicolas Budzynski, global operations director at LPM Restaurant and Bar, says that the high end French venue turned to delivery in a bid to minimise the damage caused by coronavirus, while also ensuring its customers didn’t forget about them.
“The way we approached delivery was how much it can help to reduce the loss,” he explains. “We haven’t done delivery to make a profit. The number one reason we started to go ahead with it was to keep all our employees on board during the pandemic times. Until today no employees have been let go because of the drop in revenue.
“The second reason was to develop and be relevant and take the opportunity to reach out to the community. It’s done better than we expected to be honest. People have noticed that we have done delivery and appreciated the effort and therefore one of the first restaurants that people wanted to go to after the lockdown was LPM.”
As highlighted by Nath, the problem with delivery is that many restaurants hadn’t designed their dishes around it. While your dishes may be high quality when served in-house, a 20-minute scooter ride through Dubai traffic may change that by the time they arrive at your customer’s front door.
While the likes of LPM chose only dishes that would travel well, or adjusted recipes to account for the new parameters, others asked their customers to become their own chefs.
Although it might seem opposed to the point of ordering delivery – to have the food arrive prepared by professionals and ready to eat – meal kits have been proving popular and providing F&B outlets with another new source of income.
Some, like Roberto’s At Home experience, ask for the customers to apply just the finishing touches to pre-prepared meals, while others, such as Nick & Scott’s, turn it into a full cooking experience.
Roberto’s general manager Francesco Fiore tells us he wanted to replicate the experience of dining inside the Italian restaurant as closely as he could.
“The luxury marble effect box, reminiscent of Roberto’s tables, prepared and delivered by the Roberto’s team sets the scene for a truly special meal. In their box, our customers will find the same focaccia bread, oil, and balsamic vinegar that are served in the restaurant. To really bolster the experience, customers are also provided with a Roberto’s playlist specially curated by the resident DJ.
“The pre-cooked vacuum meals are easily prepared and there will be a Roberto’s chef on hand via a QR code video talking the customer through the final touches- this will take no more than ten minutes. This stage is incredibly straightforward and enjoyable, as it gives our customers the chance to have fun and engage with the cooking process.”
The kits have proven popular with customers of Eataly also, says Azadea president of food and beverage Mert Askin.
“Our first foray into meal kits has proved quite successful with significant market response. We saw a considerable growth month on month, which is motivating us to create new ranges of meal kits. These will be available in the coming months.”
Despite restaurants reopening and getting closer to normal operating conditions, Askin says that “will not diminish the demand for home cooking and meal kits” and Eataly isn’t the only one expecting them to continue to be a profitable venture.
Fiore believes that while Roberto’s is already very busy, the home eating trend is set to continue. “Lockdown reignited the region’s love of cooking and we believe that this trend is here to stay.”
It’s not just restaurants that have had to adapt in the F&B sector. Pinch Gourmet went from being one of the UAE’s most prominent caterers focusing on luxury private events to having almost no business activity overnight.
“The company was faced with a fork in the road type of decision,” says chef and managing director Elias Kandalaft. “Either shut down the operations temporarily and wait out the pandemic or find a way to continue operating in order to take care of the team and ensure our customers are receiving food in a safe manner and in the comfort of their own homes. We decided to continue operating.”
Within 10 days Pinch had gone from being solely a caterer to now offering fresh daily meals, DIY meal kits, homemade food pantry products, butchery, and bakery products.
It hasn’t been easy, Kandalaft admits, with many logistical challenges arising from suddenly having to deliver individual meals to people all over Dubai rather than catering for large events with everyone in the same room.
But having successfully navigated through the pandemic, Kandalaft sees an opportunity to flourish with both delivery and catering.
“We plan to continue going down this path as we are slowly reaping the fruits of our labor. We have built trust within the community and will continue to adapt to all the food market trends. Once it is safe to do so we do plan to revert back to catering and have both businesses running simultaneously. Cooking and hosting is what we do best, we love it almost as much as we love to eat!”
While the pandemic has already seen a number of restaurants disappear from the F&B landscape permanently, others have taken the chance to look at their offerings and see how they can be adapted to fit the current climate.
When Lowe closed its doors in April many thought that would be the last we would see of the award-winning independent venue that was never afraid to experiment. But, at the end of July it revealed its return.
Now operating at weekends only for brunch and with bimonthly supper club events, co-founder Kate Christou says it’s a chance for the team to play to their strengths.
“There is no denying the fact that the restaurant industry has been hit pretty badly, and being a small independent restaurant only open for a year we were faced with some tough decisions.
“We feel that dining habits have changed; before the pandemic eating out was something that people did without really thinking. Now people are more conscious and are looking for an experience that is worth donning a mask and leaving the house for, which is why we decided to start the supper club.”
Another of Dubai’s hidden gems, Balkan bistro 21grams, put out a similar notice shortly after the pandemic struck that it would be closing its doors for the foreseeable future. It had tried to switch to home delivery in a bid to stay relevant when the restaurant was forced to close, but found it didn’t serve the community the way it wanted to.
“We expected 2020 to be our best so far, and while it started off incredibly well, we were, very shortly, forced to shut down and regroup,” says co-founder Stasha Toncev. “Having said that, we will obviously try hard to get back on track and not only that, but push our creative and operational efforts beyond what we once considered a success.”
Now it is back up and running, Toncev says it has changed its concept “quite a bit”.
“The new menu considered the new way of thinking about the food we have access to, the feedback we received from our customers (and accountants), our eating habits and F&B trends across the globe, particularly during the current pandemic. In the current atmosphere, we will appreciate eating out more than we used to but we also want to sort of enjoy as many flavours as possible and then disappear into our own worlds to keep healthy and safe.”
Is now the time for all restaurateurs to look at their concepts and see if they are still serving the community the way they need to?