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Wed 10 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Atmospheric pressure

This month Caterer met up with a handful of F&B industry professionals at Al Murooj Rotana Dubai’s Zaika restaurant to discuss ambience and discovered that the region’s outlets are under increasing pressure to meet expectations in the face of growing time and budget constraints.

This month
Caterermet up with a handful of F&B industry professionals at Al Murooj Rotana Dubai’s Zaika restaurant to discuss ambience and discovered that the region’s outlets are under increasing pressure to meet expectations in the face of growing time and budget constraints.

What different kinds of ambience have you implemented at your various outlets?

Helen Beardsley:In Dubai, we've worked on Aprés in Mall of the Emirates, both of the Left Banks, one in the Madinat one in Souk Al Bahar, on Carnevale and La Parrilla at Jumeirah Beach Hotel and then some more casual dining concepts such as Sana Bonta in DIFC and the four residents' community bars down at Shoreline on Palm Jumeirah.

Thorsten Sbrzesny:At One to One we've tried to create a kind of living room feel - so you come in and the feeling is very casual, as if you were at home. We didn't want the atmosphere to be too complicated. So for example you can have breakfast and read the newspaper and just feel very relaxed.

Peter Redding:I think we've got a unique concept at One to One, in the fact that the hotel is based in clusters. So we have an F&B cluster, with our international restaurant on the ground floor, then directly above is the steak house and then our Asian restaurant is on top. So these three main outlets out of the six that we're ultimately going to have are all in the same block.

Dominique Jossi:I think all our outlets offer a different atmosphere - in the main building we have our coffee shop and the Lebanese restaurant, then we have the three restaurants close together: Zaika, an Indian restaurant, the Waterside seafood restaurant just next door and Latino House, all of which are totally separate from the hotel.

I would pick out Zaika as having a particularly unique ambience; it feels very traditional and authentic, but with a contemporary edge.

Elmar Pichorner:Zuma is just one restaurant, but I like to think of it as having three different ambiences. As a concept, Zuma is what we call an ‘izakaya', which is a very informal Japanese eatery. We've added a lot of contemporary flair to it; the ground floor is the restaurant, with the sushi counter and grill and the flame and smoke and the chefs, while upstairs we have a good-sized bar.

There's obviously the lounge element as well, which is attached to the bar. And to pick up on the living room feel that Thorsten mentioned, we have upholstered lounge furniture, very warm tones of walnut, brass and a timber ceiling, so it has a very cosy feel.

Michael Allegra:At the Park Hyatt we have three restaurants - one is the Thai kitchen featuring four cooking stations, which is relaxed and informal. Then we have Traiteur, our modern European outlet, which is our dramatic signature restaurant with a large open kitchen, a meat locker, a sizeable wine cellar and a 15 metre-high ceiling, so it's quite an amazing setting. Then Café Arabesque is our Arabic restaurant, focusing on the Levant region. We also have a terrace bar overlooking the marina.

Hakim Karoui:We have a Lebanese restaurant, an Italian restaurant, Jimmy Dix, which is our nightclub, the main lobby restaurant and an Irish pub.

Of course as the hotel has been open for over seven years we have had to make some changes to our outlets during that time to keep them up-to-date with Dubai - with the exception of our Irish pub, where the rustic concept has remained the same because that's key to its atmosphere.

What are the important elements to focus on when devising an outlet's ambience?

Allegra:You have to be certain about the concept of the restaurant before you can do anything else. If you're going for a traditional Thai restaurant, for example, you really have to fit that region to fit the concept to fit the brand. You can't have flashy European art or something decorative from Africa or anywhere that does not fit with the food you're going to be serving - you need a coherent tone.

Beardsley:I think you probably have to start one step before that and look at what the customer wants, particularly in Dubai. There are literally hundreds of outlets here and massive competition - you've got to be clear about the type of customer you want to attract and make sure you're going to create an outlet and an atmosphere that is appealing to them.

The thing you must do first and foremost is to get down to the very essence of what the outlet is to be, rather than trying to be all things to all men.

It's very tempting to try to run all sorts of things - live entertainment, family brunches and so on. It's great to try to extract sales from every opportunity, but you've still got to remain clear about the tone of the restaurant and who should be eating there.

Pichorner:I believe one of the most important factors in creating ambience is that you focus on ensuring every sense is triggered: the touch, visual, sound and of course taste experiences should be genuine and of quality.

What are the challenges of creating a specific outlet ambience in this region?

Pichorner:The real challenge all across the world is how to put your idea, your vision, into practice. You need to make sure you find the right people for the job and it is also a challenge to find the precise materials you want; for example it is very difficult to find good timber.

Sbrzesny:Sometimes you do have to compromise - especially when you've only got a small budget. I do think it helps when a designer can sit down with the chef right from the start and ask what you want - if the restaurant team does not work very closely with the designer, they can end up with a concept that is totally different from what they originally wanted.

Then again, that can happen anyway. For example, wood from Brazil or Indonesia or wherever may take a long time to get. With mounting costs and pressure from the owner, you might have to look at the local market and go for a cheaper, quicker alternative just to get the restaurant open sooner - and the end result will be totally different.

Pichorner:There is certainly a lot of pressure coming from different directions when you're creating an outlet. To stay true to your path and your original vision, that is the real challenge.

Beardsley:Often it's far better to accept the lead time and go for the quality that you want rather than trying to cut corners, ending up with something that isn't right and having to reject it.

Karoui:Another challenge when trying to create atmosphere in a place are the new laws in Dubai that affect our live entertainment.

Before, we had freelancers who would come on a visit visa for two or three months - we just had to apply for a license and we could hire them and the prices were fairly reasonable.

Now, with the new law in Dubai, you are only allowed to employ people under your sponsorship, which has made things very difficult. Previously we could have four different performers a month at our Friday brunch; now I'm stuck with only one performer for six months.

:And at the end of the day it's the guests who suffer.

Karoui:One answer to this problem would be for F&B managers from different properties to find out if they could exchange their entertainers, which is something I used to do when I worked in a different country.

You have the same costs, because you're still hiring just one person, but it means you can at least offer your guests a variety of entertainment.

What's the best way to refresh a long-standing outlet's tired old ambience?

Sbrzesny:I firmly believe the most important thing to work on is the staff attitude, because these are the people dealing directly with customers and they can sink or lift the whole tone of a place.

You can jazz a place up with an attractive colour scheme and a soft refurbishment, but the rest comes from the staff.

Pichorner:I think if you have limited funds available and are looking to change the ambience, it's best to spend your budget on lighting and sound. That can make a phenomenal difference.

Beardsley:Lighting is key to any interior; you can dramatically change the mood in a place just by changing the lighting level.

We always go for three different levels, for the morning, lunch time and evening, and those settings significantly alter the tone.

Over the past few years, the region has seen a rising trend for themed outlets; do you consider this a positive or a negative factor?

Allegra:I think the key is to have brand integrity. You have to stay true to what you acutally want to supply to the guest and the experience you want them to have.

If you decide to create a particular restaurant just because someone else has one, for example adding certain entertainment because they have it, or a certain style of décor, I think that's where you lose track of your branding.

In this industry you have to be an innovator; you shouldn't be a follower.

Beardsley:I agree - you've got to continually innovate here, but not just for the sake of it. Most of the time it's just about doing everything really, really well. Ambience is one aspect of that, along with the product, the service, the food and so on.

Pichorner:The message needs to be very simple - you don't want to overcomplicate things, just do what you do well.

Beardsley:At the end of the day, people want to go out for an evening and come away feeling like they've had a true experience - and that happens when everything has come together and delivered the concept perfectly.

Ambient trends

"One trend that I've noticed is regarding the concept of Ramadan tents. With the summer's being so warm though, there is a modern twist on the traditional marquee, which is the indoor tent. It's an effort to create the same ambience but in a more comfortable environment." - Hakim Karoui, director of food and beverage, Mövenpick Hotel Bur Dubai.

"A trend that is very clear to me is that 15 years ago there wasn't one live cooking station - now everybody has them. If things continue like this, pretty soon the guests will eat in the kitchen, which I think is a fantastic concept." - Thorsten Sbrzesny, corporate chef, One to One Hotels.

"Another great trend is that people increasingly recognise the importance of hiring specialist interior designers to do their F&B outlets. In the past people would have one designer to design a whole hotel, or complex, or whatever and it just didn't work. Designers that are good at public areas may not be good at restaurants. It's difficult to be both." - Elmar Pichorner, operations director, Zuma.

"The current trend regarding design is very much about light, glass and stone - keeping things clean and natural. That's a trend worldwide, not just in the UAE. In my opinion, the food also reflects this move to simplify things: a nice grilled steak or really good quality produce is often favoured above overly-complicated dishes." - Dominique Jossi, F&B manager, Al Murooj Rotana Dubai.

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