Guest blog by James Hacon, Managing Director of Elliotts, the sector leading marketing, insights and PR agency, who went to Dubai to speak at the Global Restaurant Investment Forum. A summary of this blog first appeared in Propel Newsletter.
Flying visit Dubai, UAE
I’m writing this from the very comfortable surrounds of the Dubai International Airport, surrounded by many of the international brands we’d all recognise, awaiting my return flight to Heathrow. This flying visit was prompted by an invitation to speak at the Global Restaurant Investment Forum. In its second year, the event brings together investors, restaurant brand owners and operators, with a spluttering of industry suppliers, over three days.
Arriving to the Conrad Dubai on the first day, the considerable British contingent met other delegates from across the world, including the Middle East, Asia Pacific, Europe, USA and South America. With what we thought was going to be a gentle introduction to Dubai’s food scene, the group embarked on a concept tour visiting some of the Dubai’s newest and most talked about outlets. These included D&A, Tortuga, Pierchic, Beach Canteen festival outlets, Perry & Blackwelders Original Smokehouse and recent British transplant Coya. For most I spoke to the highlight of the day was Coya, with many of the other concepts seeming to not quite hit the mark on the food front; although the views of Pierchic were simply breath-taking.
With a day of concept touring under our belt’s the next two days were a blend of interviews, panel discussions, key notes and short presentations.
Here are my highlights
- FT Restaurant critic and author, Nick Lander, of L’Escargot fame, talk about the lessons to be learnt from the world’s top 20 restaurateurs. One of his most interesting points was his opinion around UK diners being less willing to be challenged in preference for comfort – with little to no risk or adventure in their dining choices.
- Culinary Edge Founder, Aaron Noveshen tackled the top trends from the USA in a record speed, with just 20 minutes on the clock. He talked how hot spot dining was providing a suitable replacement for the unsustainable demand for drive through outlets by operators –with the staggering statistic that 20% of meals are taken in the car stateside! Other trends of particular interest included dining on demand, with food delivery in under 5 minutes on the west coast and eatertainment with a blend of high quality dining and entertainment, including bowling and cinema.
- Going Local in Dubai focused on the growing opportunity for F&B operators in the UAE with even bigger malls and more developments coming live soon. While the real estate consultants seemed confident of ongoing success and growth, operators were a little more cautious talking about displaced business from older to newer mall developments, a lack of interest in ‘home grown’ brands in preference for international franchises and rent percentages often topping 40%. That said, a key takeaway from the conference for many of us from the UK was the staggering EBTIDA levels being achieved here.
- Celebrity Chef’s Todd English and Greg Malouf were in high spirits when interviewed, particularly Malouf being extremely candid in his comments around moving to Dubai from Australia, the challenges he faced and his personal views around a lack of quality options of where to dine in the city.
- Chilango co-founders Eric Partaker & Dan Houghton shared the success from their recent Burrito Bond crowdfunding; talking about how they chose to take a debt raising option rather than equity.
- In a session entitled ‘What not to do in restaurant design’ panellists shared the importance of incorporating emotional connection points within new developments, how there is no such measure as ‘return-on-ego’ and that while important, food was the last thing that guests experience on the journey and it’s excellence cannot replace great décor and design.
- Soho Hospitality MD, Rohit Sachdev shared the success of his two new concepts in Bangkok; Above Eleven, a roof top bar & restaurant turning over more than the hotel it sits on top of, & CHARCOAL an Indian restaurant succeeding with a curry in sight. He talked of how inspired his operations team by taking them on trips overseas as part of the development to source ingredients and how he has so far achieved to payback on his CAPEX within 18 months.
- Kim Rahbek of Sticks & Sushi talked briefly of their success and growth in the London market after building the brand in Copenhagen, sharing their approach which is based around 4 pillars; brand, food, restaurant design & guest service – tied together by a commitment to quality.
- Above all else, two things stood out to me. The first is the global respect for London as one of the international powerhouses of the restaurant industry. The second is the opportunity that exists for UK brands that want to franchise into the Middle East & beyond, with many partners actively seeking these opportunities; although a considerable amount of caution was shared by speakers around the importance of selecting the right partner and keeping a firm handle on the relationship.
An inspiring and very informative conference. I’ll definitely be going next year – joining an even bigger British delegation, I hope.