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Tue 20 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Breaking the fast

F&B professionals from both front - and back-of-house offer expert advice on how to make a great impression this Ramadan.

Breaking the fast
Breaking the fast
Iftar treats at Ritz-Carlton Bahrain.
Breaking the fast
Mezze plated up at Ritz-Carlton Bahrain.
Breaking the fast
Riyadh Marriott is transformed under the Bab El Hara theme.

F&B professionals from both front- and back-of-house offer expert advice on how to make a great impression this Ramadan.

During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, food and beverage takes on a great significance for the fasting Muslim population.

The daily pre-sunrise suhour and post-sunset, fast-breaking iftar meals occur throughout the month, with many choosing to go out to eat on these festive occasions - and consequently, for F&B outlets around the Middle East, Ramadan is one of the most demanding and competitive months of their commercial year.

For these operators, balancing top quality with affordable prices and good value - while simultaneously standing out from the masses - is no mean feat.

To make this month a commercial success for an outlet, front- and back-of-house teams must work closely together to achieve the very best for their operation in terms of food, service and most importantly the overall guest experience.

The F&B director perspective

For the duration of Ramadan, certain laws must be observed by operators in the Middle East, which means the region's diverse international hotel brands must ensure both staff and outlets are prepped and ready to handle the necessary changes and convey them to guests.

Four Points by Sheraton Downtown and Sheikh Zayed Road complex F&B manager Gregor Kiefer explains that some outlets will remain closed until evening, while those that remain open - with diners discreetly concealed from public areas - will not serve alcohol before sunset.

Alfred Abi Moussa, F&B director at Crowne Plaza Dubai, adds: "It's important to give orientation and refresher training to staff, to remind them of the operational changes during Ramadan."

Similarly, The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain Hotel and Spa conducts cultural training for all staff members, to "better understand this special time of the year and focus on guests' needs", explains executive assistant manager of food and beverage Marcus Loevenforst.

Such laws mean that F&B revenue will necessarily take a bit of a knock during the Ramadan season, as Riyadh Marriott Hotel director of F&B Raed Handal notes.

"Eating, drinking, smoking or any similar activities are not allowed in public places, and in Saudi Arabia all the F&B outlets remain closed during the daytime; so revenue has always been covered by iftars and suhours," he says.

"People in Saudi Arabia believe in spending and in charity during this holy month, and our previous Ramadan figures have been very pleasing - but this year Ramadan coincides with the schools' summer vacations, so a lot of people will be going home. Consequently, we are forecasting a slower and steadier month compared to previous years."

In Dubai, Four Points' Kiefer predicts "approximately 20% less revenue than normal" during Ramadan, due to the closure of some outlets.

"However after last year, when obviously we still felt the effects of the global financial crisis, I expect to see more companies treating their staff with a Ramadan outing this year," he asserts.

Crowne Plaza's Moussa also points out that "revenue this August will be further affected by region's the traditionally quiet summer period", which will coincide with an earlier Ramadan this year.

This may mean that Ramadan revenues on the F&B front dip even more than usual, according to Ritz-Carlton's Loevenforst. But he adds: "By addressing wholesalers and FIT's well in advance, and addressing the various special requirements, we are still very confident that our Ramadan celebrations will be extremely successful."

It is not all about cutting back at outlets: one area where operators can really go to town is the décor.

"We are working closely with local celebrity designers to create a very special Ramadan atmosphere in our permanent tent, Al Khayma," Loevenforst reveals. "And we will present this fantastic, specially designed Ramadan tent in partnership with a very strong promotional co-partner."

Riyadh Marriott Hotel places similar emphasis on setting, and has hit on a popular Ramadan theme, explains director of F&B Raed Handal.

"Four years ago, we introduced the theme of Bab El Hara [a popular Arabic television series screened during Ramadan] and the people of Riyadh like it so much we have continued it each year since," he says.
"We will make a few changes to the theme this year, but the whole restaurant area will be transformed into a Bab El Hara style set, with all the relevant antique decorations and lighting. There will even be specially made uniforms for the F&B staff!"

Of course, with an ever increasing pool of competitors vying for the same business, it is even more important this year to stand out.

Setting and décor is one way to do so, particularly for those with a reputation in this field - as Ritz-Carlton's Loevenforst notes.

"It has now become the norm that our guests look to us for something special and different each year at Ramadan," he says. "This year we will surprise them once again, with the best tent in the city."

Meanwhile Crowne Plaza's Moussa emphasise the property's belief in "our people, our quality and our great value for money" in putting them ahead of others in the iftar and suhour stakes.

Marriott's Handal adds that customer feedback has shown that hotel's visitors are on the look out for "food quality, presentation and service", which he feels are vital areas to focus on while simultaneously ensuring the property delivers "a theme which gives Arabian people a sense of home and others a chance to enjoy a new experience".

The chef perspective

Meanwhile, for those heading up the kitchens, there is a different set of challenges to overcome during Ramadan.

Crowne Plaza Dubai executive chef Emmanuel Pauliat explains that, in the fast-paced kitchen environment, manpower can be a challenge, "since many chefs are fasting, therefore their hours are reduced".

"However ensuring real team spirit will motivate them and keep things going," he advises.

Four Points by Sheraton Downtown and Sheikh Zayed Road complex executive chef Karl Blunden agrees that reduced hours can be an issue in kitchens, but says: "Ultimately, chefs are all aware of the importance of the holy month and work together, and support the fasting chefs wherever possible."

However changed working hours can also affect supplier reliability, notes Blunden.

"You have to keep on top of things to make sure your ordered products come through when required," he notes.

With Ramadan coming during the region's peak heat period, operators will also have the weather to contend with, points out Hilton Dubai Jumeirah executive head chef Steven Benson Flower.

"This year the heat will take precedence as the biggest challenge of any Ramadan in the past five years," he warns.

"Outdoor activities such as barbeques and live shawarma cooking will be challenging for the team, but we are working on ways and means of alleviating this drain and creating practises and systems which will minimise the effect of the high temperatures," Benson Flower explains.

On top of these challenges comes a certain amount of pressure for the chefs, who know that guests have extremely high expectations of their iftar meals - an online poll at HME.com showed a majority of 38% felt a luxurious spread was the most important part of the celebration - and will leave disappointed if things are less than perfect.

But Benson Flower says that a little pressure can work in a chef's favour.

"Our team understands that Ramadan is very important for our guests, and happily go the extra mile," he asserts. "Everyone really does pull together for this special month; it's a  group effort."

This is the refrain that F&B teams must remember during the coming month.

Certainly it will be hard work, but this is an opportunity to show diners what your outlets have to offer - and once made, a good impression will last long after Ramadan has ended.

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