Home away from home: Comptoir 102 interview

Founders of lifestyle destination Comptoir 102, Emma Sawko and Alexandra De Montaudouin, talk about their chic café and shop
By Neil King
Tue 11 Feb 2014 04:47 PM

Visiting Comptoir 102 is like stepping into a haven. Surrounded by elegant design, good food, and a relaxed atmosphere, it’s the kind of place you could happily while away the hours.

Which is exactly what founders Alexandra De Montaudouin and Emma Sawko wanted.

“We want people to come here not just to buy a table or a necklace, but to spend some time relaxing,” says De Montaudouin. “We want them to be comfortable and to feel like they have somewhere they can come to enjoy their time.”

Their café-come-design shop is certainly that.

Located in the northerly end of Jumeirah, the concept combines healthy eating and exquisite artistry, based around the founders’ love for wholesome food and quality interior design, fashion, and jewellery.

Looking at the venue they have created, it’s no surprise the duo share a passion for design. What is surprising, however, is that neither had worked in the retail or restaurant industries before.

De Montaudouin says: “I used to work in France with Sotheby’s, and in event management. I’ve never been in this industry before.

“My background is that I have loved interior design for a long time, and did some freelance work when I was first in Dubai from 2004 to 2007.”

Sawko’s previous career path had been along similar lines. Having been born in New York and brought up in Geneva, she moved to Paris where she worked in advertising, and then for an architect, decorating the new homes.

“I stayed there for ten years,” she says. “I stopped working there when we moved to New York seven years ago for my husband’s work. I went into decoration for kids as a freelancer, and then came to Dubai where I met Alex. That’s where it all started.”

When Sawko and De Montaudouin, back in Dubai for the second time, first met, it was clear they had both been thinking along similar lines regarding their careers.

According to De Montaudouin, they had “exactly the same idea – maybe not the same ideas about how to operate, but the same concept at its heart”.

Their dream of creating a lifestyle destination where people could buy decorations and furnishings, sit, eat, and meet with friends was based on their experiences in other parts of the world.

De Montaudouin says: “We have had experiences of places like that in Paris and New York, and we loved them a lot, so it was inspiring for us to see these places doing extremely well and bringing new ways to shop, eat, and enjoy themselves.

“We wanted to bring that kind of cool lifestyle place here.”

Sawko adds: “Our motivation was to find an idea that was not already in Dubai, and this was the obvious thing that stood out.”

Setting out their plans, the partners were unanimous on certain things.

“We hate malls,” says De Montaudouin. “We didn’t want to be another shop in between big brands. For us, being outside the malls was really important. It would give us liberty to do what we wanted to do.”

Sawko continues: “We wanted to have everything here that surrounds us – everything that makes up our daily life. Of course, not being in a mall allows us to do that, but it is a challenge because we have to draw people to us, to a new destination and a new way of shopping.

“Everything around us is the way we live – the way we eat, the way we shop. Dubai didn’t have that before, which works in our favour.

Conceptualising and putting into practice, however, are two very different things.

Remembering the technicalities of setting up their business, De Montaudouin confesses it was a “big headache,” but adds: “If you believe in your project, though, you don’t mind waking up each morning to do it.

“The way of doing things here is very different to what we are used to. Officials like to put you in a small box to understand what you are doing, and if you don’t fit into a box, it’s hard for them to understand.”

Sawko continues: “When it comes to explaining a new concept, it’s something they struggle with. Also, we knew nothing about how to do things here. We had to find out everything ourselves. It took a long time to find the location, and the business couldn’t start without it. We had to learn these kinds of things as we went along, so it wasn’t always easy.”

One area in which the duo were comfortable, however, was sourcing the shop’s items.

“We already knew them really well,” says De Montaudouin, explaining that all the pieces for sale are from sources they have long been familiar with.

Sawko adds: “We’ve not done this before – opening an interior design shop – but we’ve been surrounded by these items, so we knew what we wanted to sell. That was actually the easy part for us, finding the right designers, brands, and so on.”

Among the designers sold at Comptoir 102 are jewelers 5 Octobre Paris, Gynette NY, Ileana Makri, and Marie-Laure Chamorel, fashion designers Jerome Dreyfuss, Tsumori Chisato, and Delphine Delafon, alongside a wide range of interior items such as sofas, chairs, tableware, and much more.

De Montaudouin continues: “It definitely helps that we knew them, but all of them gave us very positive responses because the project we showed them was very strong.

“They all felt totally comfortable that it would work, and it helped to be in Dubai because it’s not always easy to break into this market.

“These people are artisans. They’re not big names with big factories, so us importing them to Dubai is a big help for them.”

More difficult was setting up the café. Plans to make it a wholesome, healthy, organic destination may have eventually come to fruition, but the journey to establish it as a nutritional hub was not without its hurdles.

“Food is a daily challenge,” says De Montaudouin. “We can’t always find what we want – it’s just not there most of the time. Many of the ingredients you would find in Paris just aren’t in Dubai. It’s a challenge, but it’s amazing to see how many people are ready for this kind of eating, and following it.”

Sawko adds: “This trend is coming everywhere. People want to eat healthy and be healthy. The food we have here is the kind of food we grew up with. It’s the way we always ate, what we want for our children, and what we really believe in.

“We aim to be fully organic, which we can’t always achieve because of what grows here, and we use well balanced, healthy recipes. We work with health experts to make sure we’re getting it right.”

The café’s menu includes raw, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free options, tapping into an underserved market in Dubai, and attracting an ever-growing customer base.

With the concept’s popularity continuing to increase, there appears to be plenty of scope for growth, but while De Montaudouin and Sawko admit there are “a few projects for the future”, they assert that the current Comptoir 102 outlet is their sole focus for the time being.

“We would love to expand,” says De Montaudouin, “but we’ve only been one year with the shop and six months with the restaurant. We are working on doing more, but have to make sure this works well first.

“We both thought it would be such an amazing thing to start, and didn’t have any fear about it. And so far it’s been great. When we see the results of what we’ve created, we are very proud of what we’ve achieved.

“The enthusiasm of the people who come here has been incredible. They enjoy coming here and like the feeling the place gives, which means a lot to us.”

Sawko adds: “There’s so much positive energy that’s coming into Comptoir, and we receive that energy as well, so it’s great for us. People come to us about events, catering, and so on, and there has been so much encouragement.

“We feel the positive energy, and we try to spread it as well. Hopefully it will continue to grow in this way.”

If the first year is anything to go by, growth of both the energy and the concept seems inevitable, meaning even more people in Dubai might just find their home away from home.

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