Bulldozer Group founder Evgeny Kuzin on its future plans

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When I last sat in GAIA, barely a month after opening, head chef Izu Ani was railing against a food reviewer who had given it some less than glowing feedback. Now, not even half a year later, Bulldozer Group managing partner Evgeny Kuzin is telling me about his plans to take the brand to Monaco, Moscow, Miami, and London. Maybe the power of the reviewer isn’t all-encompassing…

But Kuzin believes the power of Dubai is. “If a restaurant is a success here today in Dubai, there’s a very big chance to take it everywhere abroad,” he tells me.

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The reason for that, Kuzin believes, lies in Dubai’s cosmopolitan nature. If you can appeal to the broad range of people who live here, then you should be able to appeal to them in their home countries, right?

And so far GAIA has been a success. “Better than any expectation,” he says. “Now we’re taking it everywhere. Middle of summer opening in Monaco. February [2020], Miami. September [2020], London. And Moscow straight after.”

Although he had said prior to the interview that there would be some big reveals, I didn’t expect this. After all, it’s a homegrown, original concept, with no global reputation and barely six months trading under its belt. Is it really the right time to be planning a worldwide expansion?

Kuzin believes so. “We are 100% confident that we deliver a very good, unique product that is not available most of the places in the globe. That’s why we are taking it everywhere. We want to share it with people. We have a lot of people really excited about it coming to those cities and we want to be part of it.” Indeed, Bulldozer wants to be part of it so much that it has turned down all offers of franchising, with Kuzin saying it plans to develop all of the international GAIAs itself.

Kuzin is more used to taking concepts from abroad and bringing them to Dubai — Scalini and Cipriani have been particular successes — and he says that “some of our international franchises are doing much higher numbers here than where they originally come from”.

Cipriani is doing well enough that Kuzin has sanctioned a second location in the city. Cipriani Dolci will be a café style version of the DIFC favourite, focusing more on sweets and lighter dishes when it opens in Dubai Mall’s Fashion Avenue.

“Cipriani is a luxury brand,” Kuzin explains. “I think it’s the most luxurious brand in the restaurant industry — established more than 100 years. It’s going to be a great thing in the mall. It’s a slightly different, non-licensed, café version. It’s not going to be pastas, Milanese steak, whole fish… just on the light side. I would say it’s planned for October/November. I believe it will be very well received, especially because we’re opening in a busy, high traffic area.”

While the restaurant trade may seem complicated, Kuzin sees it in simple terms. “The right concept in the right location will always work.”

He’ll be hoping that applies for China Tang. The long awaited Chinese restaurant that Kuzin is transplanting from London to DIFC. It’s been on the radar for a couple of years but he confirms it will be opening in September. The original location at The Dorchester Hotel fits the profile of a Bulldozer international export. Classy and elegant with a reputation that precedes it. It will need all of that status to persuade diners to choose it over any of the other dozen or so premium concepts in DIFC.  And Chinese is a new cuisine to the Bulldozer portfolio – one of the reasons why they have chosen to go with an established brand in China Tang. 

Of course, it doesn’t always go to plan. Novikov is a huge success in Moscow and in other locations around the world, but proved to be a failure in Dubai for Bulldozer, closing in 2018 with Kuzin citing high menu prices and an excessively large restaurant space as reasons for its demise.

But the Russian hospitality magnate still believes in the brand from his homeland. So much so that it will be the flagship concept as Bulldozer stakes its claim in Saudi Arabia with grand ambitions.

“We’re planning in five years to be the biggest hospitality group in Riyadh,” he says. “Novikov is happening in September. Scalini happening in September. Many more to be announced soon. We’re starting a very big operation there.”

It’s part of what Kuzin calls “very active” growth for Bulldozer in the region.

Are you moving every concept from Dubai to Riyadh, I ask, half-joking? “And more,” is the concise reply. An operational office is being set up in the capital to help co-ordinate and manage the openings.

But Dubai remains the centre of operations for the time being, and Kuzin accepts that they are operating in a vastly different marketplace than they were when Bulldozer was founded back in 2011.

“Anything you put in would work because there were more people than venues,” he says of those first years in Dubai. “Today there are much more offers to the people so of course they are choosing what they prefer. You need to be really strong in the market right now and you need to know what the concept is.

“If seven years ago you were allowed to make mistakes, today there is no mistake allowed. If you get it right - no mistakes - you are a winner. If you make mistakes, customers have a lot of choice.”

Despite this ever-increasing challenge, Kuzin is still optimistic about Dubai’s future and says that the “numbers are showing it’s one of the strongest” markets in the world.

Telling me that Dubai is becoming a much more mature market, Kuzin says he sees a lot more interest in the city from around the world. “People who were never coming here before are starting to come here and like it. It’s a great city – it has amazing shopping, an amazing F&B mix, the food quality is great, everyone is saying the service is great. And we have so many international events happening in Dubai which was never the case before.”

Unlike other operators that Caterer Middle East has spoken with over the past 12 months, Kuzin doesn’t think Bulldozer needs to change tack as the market becomes more mature. While Andre Gerschel of Baker & Spice was extolling the virtues of concepts being “agile” and “small” at the Caterer Middle East conference in March, with rent being a major issue, Kuzin doesn’t feel the same way.

“We are a premium operator so we are looking for premium locations,” he says, before telling me that at the moment he isn’t concerned about rent prices.

He says: “Everywhere we are going [people are] saying rent is expensive, but we still keep paying a percentage of turnover because we are hitting a higher turnover than the minimum rent guarantee.”

The turnover rent model is something that Gerschel and his other panellists rallied against at the conference, and Kuzin says that getting rid of it would “definitely be better for us particularly.”

Kuzin admits that some mistakes have been made — “sometimes location has not been picked right, sometimes the market has not been right” — but he says Bulldozer has learned from every experience and “what we’ve been doing for the past five years is doing extremely great. We’ll keep growing and we’re not planning on changing our brands.”

So what is the secret — something a bit more tangible than ‘right concept, right location — to Bulldozer’s success? “Consistency,” says Kuzin. “Good quality of food, good quality of service. Recognition of the customers, good CRM (customer recognition management) services, that’s what we are doing.

“We are only concentrating on what we are doing, we are completely in our venues and trying to provide to the people, the customer, the best service. I believe that’s what brings them back to us and why we’ve been successful.”

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