JRG Dubai's Emma Banks tell us how the operator is looking to the future

An exclusive interview with recently appointed managing director Emma Banks
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Emma banks, Restaurant, Dubai Holding, Noodle House

Challenging times are giving way to fresh ambition and hope at JRG Dubai, with newly appointed managing director Emma Banks at the forefront of wide scale restructuring at the home-grown restaurant development company.

Backed by parent company Dubai Holding, key positions have been filled, with a new executive chef and operations manager among the appointments of the past few months. A “drive brand”, The Noodle House, has been brought into the fold, and JRG Dubai’s portfolio is sleeker and more streamlined than ever.

It’s all part of Banks’ commercial strategy to continue to grow the business, but while avoiding as much risk as possible. With recent high-profile group closures like 360° and The Agency wine bar, it’s clear that JRG Dubai is operating in a difficult market, but Banks is optimistic about the future.

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“Over the coming years you will see growth, but the five year plan is conservative, it’s prudent, it’s sensible,” Banks tells us. “As you know, the F&B market in the UAE is very competitive, very challenging, so the commercial growth will be done based on making good economic business decisions, rather than just vanity projects, or growth for growth’s sake.”

To enact her plan, Banks has brought together what she calls a “dream team” with a glut of promotions and new hires into key roles in recent months. Ben Tobitt has been promoted to executive group chef following seven years with the company, while Richard Cowling has returned to JRG to become operations manager. Niki Walsh also returns to the group to head up its marketing and digital transformation strategy, and Steven Holloway and Stefan Borchardt have begun key roles at The Noodle House.

Cowling agrees with Banks about the quality of the team, saying: “I think the leadership team that we have must be one of the strongest in Dubai. Especially with operational experience and particularly local operational experience.”

For Tobitt, the promotion to executive group chef is the result of the better part of a decade of hard work since joining The Ivy as sous chef and Banks says they have “been grooming Ben for this role for the last 18 months.”

“It’s really exciting,” Tobitt says. “I’ve been here nearly eight years, I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs. It’s really good to see the group finally going in the right direction. I kind of hung on in there because I knew there was a strong possibility that we could turn the corner.”

The restoration of the group’s reputation started with the successful opening of Flow, with Banks saying that “JRG showed its innovation a year ago when we launched Flow.

“We did that concept in 12 weeks with a very clear brief and it has been successful to the point where we are looking for more locations for Flow as well.”

Next up are two entirely new concepts set to be confirmed in the coming weeks and opened before 2019, while two locations in Dubai have also been found for The Noodle House, although they aren’t expected to open until Q3 2019 and Q1 2020, according to Banks.

Borchardt and Tobitt are in the midst of releasing a new menu for The Noodle House also, while talks are also underway with possible franchise partners. Banks tells us that The Noodle House is a “drive brand” for JRG Dubai and a lot of resources are going into ensuring its success including rebranding and new fit out.

Does this mark a change in strategy for JRG, who had 40 restaurants when Tobitt first joined the group, but are now operating at around the 15 mark? Banks doesn’t think so.

“No, not necessarily. JRG was always an entity of a five-star hotel group and most of the strategy was around the hotels. Now as our own independent entity we can focus on ourselves as a restaurant group. No, I just think in Dubai we see lots of businesses opening and closing and that’s just market rectification. We just wanted to make sure if we invest our money behind a restaurant, or concept, or a location, while everything is a risk we just want to be 95% sure that we’re going to make our required returns to our shareholders and stakeholders. We’ve never been this mushroom growth business but now the temptation could be to race ahead as we’re supported by our holding company. But no, everything will a very considered business decision.”

With the failure rate in the restaurant market globally ranging from 25% to 60% in the first year alone depending on which study you read, being 95% sure that a concept will be a success seems impractical, but Banks is putting her faith in her team.

She says: “I’ve been here five years now and I understand the market very well. I’ve seen some of the changes, seen some of the micro-culinary districts popping up, the new beachside developments, the new extensions of Downtown. So we’ve seen success, we’ve seen failure. Everyone in my team has experience of the UAE and the GCC so I think part of that is doing our research, doing our gap analysis, doing our trend analysis, making sure we really research out competitors and ask is there a gap there? Is this something customers are looking for?”

While new concepts are certainly on the horizon, taking care of some of the older brands is also a priority for JRG. Tobitt admits some of them aren’t looking their best and need to be upgraded to compete in today’s market.

He says: “Yes there’s changes to be made. We went through a tough period and there wasn’t masses of finance around to do refurbishments and change the cutlery, glassware, table tops, stuff like that, so we are able to finally go and give that sparkle to some of the outlets. We are under no illusions, some of the places need some TLC and now we have a bit more financial backing and we are in a position to do that, so that’s a big project that’s ongoing at the moment. It’s really pleasing to take these places to the next level where they deserve to be.”

There could be a return to for The Agency, one of the group’s most popular brands which closed its only location at Souk Madinat back in June. Banks tells us that plans for “The Agency 2.0” are well underway and Pai Thai is also next on the refurbishment list.

“It’s about making sure all our current brands stay relevant,” Banks explains, “because the market is so competitive so it’s making sure they stay fresh. Most of our brands a year ago wouldn’t have a vegan dish on them, now all our brands, even Perry & Blackwelder’s which is our American smokehouse, has a vegan burger there because that’s what customers want.”

One thing JRG is taking a new approach to is its marketing, commercial, and digital transformation. Niki Walsh has returned to the group, she was previously GM of The Ivy, to lead the way on that. Banks says that “digital transformation is one of our biggest challenges” and the changes that Walsh intends to make across the sector are large.

Walsh says: “Everyone is competing for people’s time and attention and we need to get better at how we do that.

“From a social perspective we’ve brought everything in-house. I personally don’t feel like you can get the essence of a brand remotely, I think you have to do that from the floor and you need to involve the guys on the shop floor.

“If you go to a party and get dressed up and stand in the corner, you don’t make any friends. In hospitality we’re meant to be hospitable. In social we’re meant to be social. So go out and find people to talk to and make sure those conversations are meaningful. So by having that in-house resource to hand to respond really quickly to things makes you a lot more relevant in this day and age.”

Walsh says the financial investment in technology has already been “massive” but with the backing of Dubai Holding, JRG is back in a position to press forward across all fields. While Banks admits that “the market remains very challenging”, she is clear in her goals and what it will take to achieve them.

She says: “Operators talk about oversupply of F&B. I think if you stay focused on what you do and if your offer is relevant, you’re in the right location, and you’re giving customers what they want, you’ll survive this. In the main it’s either operators who are offering at the right price what customers want or, unfortunately, location is key.

“I think digital transformation is one of our biggest challenges – making sure that we are investing in technology but investing in the right technology. One of the things we find as a business is a lot of our technology is there but it doesn’t necessarily speak to each other, so we’re making sure all our frontline technology all speaks to one piece of technology back of house. So I think the digital roadmap is a very challenging and exciting area for us as a business to make sure our big data is relevant.

“We see this as just another challenge.”

With a five-year plan just underway, Banks is unsurprisingly not willing to give much away about JRG’s future plans, but she leaves by saying that “if we stick to the five-year plan this business will be threefold what it is now, and considerably more profitable”.



Sustained success

JRG Dubai was among the first F&B operators in the UAE to announce the complete ban of plastic straws across its venues – and Banks says it’s just the beginning.

“Chef Ben is working with local suppliers, local fisheries, local produce. We are looking at vertical farming incentives. It’s something that a lot of F&B operators are taking very seriously in Dubai. All these things five years ago didn’t really feature on the radar and now they are more and more, so from a culinary perspective Ben is leading that and he works with our supply chain on all those issues. If you look at our CSR and sustainability, one of the biggest pieces we’ve done so far is earlier this year we had a complete ban on plastic straws, swizzle sticks, stirrers, tooth picks, in our business. We did that in January/February and then in March we had a complete amnesty on plastic in The Noodle House which caused quite a stir.

“We’re working towards the Emirates vision of being a fully sustainable economy by 2021, so the next thing we are looking at is packaging. It’s not easy. It’s not just about sourcing, it’s about having the right commercial prices, but we see this as a journey and we are committed to reducing single-use plastics within our front facing business. Now we’re looking at taking out packaging in The Noodle House. In our new concepts we are looking at removing single-use plastic water so we’ll be having more sustainable water for our customers. It’s something we are taking very seriously and think very strongly about.”

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