Brand and deliver

Expansion is on the menu for Landmark Group's restaurant arm, says COO of hospitality Ira Malik
Brand and deliver
Billionaire ‘Micky’ Jagtiani is head of the conglomerate Landmark Group
By Staff writer
Thu 21 Jul 2011 05:22 PM

The Middle East loves its brands. Franchise-driven revenues are estimated to be worth $30bn across the region according to research by International Expo-Consults (IEC), and any outlet with a big name attached to it is bound to attract the crowds.

So why is Landmark Hospitality — which has already had great success introducing well-loved F&B brands such as Carluccio’s, Mango Tree and The Meat Co to the GCC — pioneering its fourth own-brand restaurant in less than a year?

Ira Malik, COO of Landmark Hospitality, denies that this signals a shift in Landmark’s strategy: “It has always been our plan to launch own-brands and it is a coincidence that they have happened so closely together,” she says.

“We have a healthy brand mix; franchise brands grow faster, while with the own-brands you have to work harder to build a following and establish the name.”

Founded in Bahrain in 1973, Landmark Group has grown into one of the largest retail and hospitality conglomerates in the Middle East.

Operating 900 outlets, its value-driven retail and entertainment concepts are spread across the GCC, India, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen and Pakistan.

As COO of the Landmark Hospitality division, Malik looks after the food, leisure and spa verticals, which includes all of the restaurant brands operated beneath the Foodmark subsidiary label.

Balance Café is Foodmark’s newest own-brand venture, based in the Oasis Centre shopping mall in Dubai. This joins Zafran, Bite Café and Wild Ginger in the food division of Landmark Hospitality’s nascent portfolio of own-brands.

“Our own-brands are all very young but we are growing them gradually,” explains Malik. “Zafran will complete its first year in July; we currently only have one outlet in Mirdif City Centre, but we’re looking to open several more in the future, including one in Abu Dhabi, another one in Dubai and potentially one in Qatar.”

The second Zafran outlet is planned to open in Kuwait this June and Malik says the concept will be tweaked to suit the market through the addition of a lounge section and a menu featuring a selection of finger food and canapés.

Landmark’s own-brand concepts emerge in response to customer feedback, says Malik: “We look at the gaps in the market and identify where there is a need to be met,” she says.

“For example we identified a lack of a good smart-casual Indian offering in the Middle East, and yet a market full of Asians and Western ex-pats who all love Indian food. So we took the Michelin-star Indian chef Atul Kocher onboard as consultant chef and came up with Zafran.”

Zafran’s feedback has been very positive since its launch in 2010 and has already begun developing its offering, says Malik. “We have had phenomenal success with Zafran,” she claims.

“Almost 85 percent of our custom is from the local Arabs and we’ve learnt that there is a real demand for good Indian breakfasts in that market, which is why we launched our Indian brunch this May.”

There has not been the same success with Foodmark’s other own-brand ventures yet. A brief internet search for Wild Ginger reveals that it has received some mixed reviews, and Malik admits that the offering is in need of tweaking: “I think the Wild Ginger concept is great but we still need a little time to figure out what our strategy is as we grow with it.”

Malik has no such worries for the brand new Balance café though: conceived as the F&B element of a holistic “wellness centre”, it offers healthy versions of international dishes prepared according to Ayurvedic principles, an ancient Indian healing system which means adapting each dish’s level of flavour in accordance with an individual’s personal requirements.

Landmark also plans to retail bespoke weekly meal packages and to launch a healthy eating cookery school within the restaurant.

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Located next door to the gym Fitness First, another brand run by Landmark Hospitality, Balance Café is already proving to be a popular breakfast haunt for gym bunnies, says Malik.

“We created Balance because we heard people asking for healthy food. More than 50 percent of people at Fitness First said that this was a concept that appealed to them.”

Despite the new own-brand string to its bow, Landmark Group’s traditional speciality is franchising: “Our franchise business will continue to grow,” says Malik.

“We are in the close negotiation stage of acquiring a couple more franchises and in the next month or so hope to announce two more franchises in our business portfolio.”

The most profitable food brands owned by Landmark are Carluccio’s and Mango Tree, according to Malik, because “they are our oldest brands.” When searching for potential franchise partners Malik looks for a good cultural fit between the companies and an offering at the right quality and price point: “We are looking to stay in the smart casual and casual dining space,” says Malik.

“So we avoid the QSR (quick service restaurant) space and the fine dining niche. We’re aiming for a general average spend of AED70 to 120 ($20 to $32) to try to stay within that broad price point appeal.”

Beyond having a well-established brand name, an alcohol licence has the biggest impact on profitability, according to Malik.

“Our licensed venues such as some of the Mango Tree, Chi Zen and The Meat Co. outlets definitely have higher sales,” she says. “Our licensed Carluccio’s on The Pearl in Qatar has only been open for six months for example, but it is doing phenomenally well for us and has amazing numbers of covers.” Malik won’t reveal figures but says they have “exceeded targets.”

Location is the next most important factor in profitability expands Malik. “Our aspiration is to find what we call ‘triple A’ locations. So we focus on malls with high footfalls for the most part. We are always interested in licensed premises in a good location as they are very few and far between.”

Mirdif City Centre, based roughly half an hour from the centre of downtown Dubai, has proven to be something of albatross location for many of its outlets, including Landmark’s Mango Tree bistro, which fares very differently to the centrally located Mango Tree which can be found in Souk Al Bahar.

“When Mirdif mall was planned the world was booming,” explains Malik. “But it opened around the time of the financial crisis, so it is taking some time to build momentum and will probably need another year to two years.

But even when Dubai Mall first opened and we had Mango Tree and The Meat Co. there, the first year was still challenging. Things have already improved; we have been fortunate in the advantage of sitting in the middle-end of the market rather than the top-end so we have been able to hold our ground.”

Although Malik says that Landmark Hospitality is unlikely to enter Saudi Arabia any time soon because “we still need to understand that market better,” the rest of the GCC area is Landmark Group’s oyster: “We are currently operating in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait but we are planning to grow all of these markets and keep expanding. The next 12 months is going to see a big push for us within the GCC.”

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