With the F&B market becoming increasingly cut throat as customers expect more bang for their buck, creating theatre in your restaurants could help ensure you stay ahead of the game.
As F&B professionals get pumped up for the event of the month - Gulfood 2010 (February 21-24) - where sourcing new products and services, meeting suppliers and hunting down new trends is the mission, they have one overall objective - making money for their outlet/s. This means staying ahead of the game by ensuring their F&B concepts are innovative and tempting to both hotel guests and general consumers alike.
In order to stay competitive, F&B directors are being forced to be increasingly creative. No longer is it enough to serve good food and provide good service - interactive concepts and experiential dining are expected.
It's what has become known as restaurant theatre and according to many F&B professionals, outlets across this region have become adept at putting on a show due to challenging market conditions.
According to Grand Millennium Dubai director of F&B Nils Fromm, the region is actually fairly advanced in this respect: "The Middle East, and especially Dubai, is in many ways more advanced in creating new concepts as the competition is fierce. The investors also look for new and exciting ways of creating a theatre in order to push revenues and ROI."
But even though the Middle East F&B industry is "one of the fastest growing in the world", it has a "long way to go" before it catches up with the likes of London and New York, which according to Hilton Dubai Creek director of restaurants Luca Gagliardi, have mastered the art of interactive dining and creating theatre.
Beat Enderli, executive chef at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, Oman, concurred but drew attention to Asian examples of theatre such as hawker stalls in Singapore, food courts in Thailand and food streets in Beijing. "In comparison, interactive cooking and dining is still not that common in the Middle East," he added.
But Craig Cook, director of F&B at four upcoming Mövenpick properties in Dubai, said he believed the Middle East had "a great opportunity to innovate" and to "become a ‘blueprint' for others".
So, Hotelier set to work finding out the best way to liven up your outlets.
Cook's colleague Peter Drescher, VP culinary Middle East at Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, said theatre was important because these days, "diners don't go to restaurants simply to eat - they want to be stimulated in some way and come away remembering the experience".
Cook added: "I think first and foremost it is not about regurgitating what has been done before. Entertainment in this day and age must be fresh and lively and should breathe new life into outlets.
"Interesting demonstrations, performers, technology or media walls from inside the kitchen and most importantly, music, are all key in providing the overall experience and showmanship."
Guests are also eager to see and be part of the action according to Fairmont Bab Al Bahr executive chef John Cordeaux.
"Guests want to engage and be engaged more than ever," he said. "It is important to offer theatre-style dining as guests have a better understanding of the work behind preparation and cooking processes."
He said it was important to "break down barriers and create open spaces so that the energy and activity from the kitchen can merge with the guests in the dining room".
Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi F&B director Dirk Bansemer agreed and said diners should be allowed to create parts of their meals themselves, while Al Bustan Palace's director of F&B Rocco Bova said he would like to see a chef's table inside the kitchen as well as singing waiters.
Get in the experts
Creating theatre in restaurants is all well and good, but is it fair to dump the responsibility of generating drama on the F&B team?
"Food and beverage professionals have always tried to capture entertainment facets related to their businesses, but let's be honest, a food and beverage director is not an entertainment director," said Mövenpick's Cook.
He noted that global hospitality entertainment leaders employed entertainment directors to drive this component of their business.
Mövenpick's Drescher stressed that hotel operators and owners should not be afraid to seek and invest in the services and knowledge of specialist consultants.
"We must offer more than just food and that is why we bring in the creative talents of food and beverage consultants, interior design consultants, graphic artists, kitchen consultants and even celebrity chefs, all of whom should be involved in the creation of restaurants," he said.
Back to basics
Hilton's Gagliardi reminded F&B directors to keep it real and ensure outlets offered concepts that were compatible with the "existing positioning of the restaurant".
"For example, Verre by Gordon Ramsay would never look into performance-style concepts; it would never work with the understated mood of the restaurant where our focus is on innovative food and personalised service," he explained.
David Bedinghaus, executive chef at Mövenpick's four new Dubai properties warned that in the race to find new concepts to bring in the bucks, it was easy to overlook the obvious.
"I ask the question; if you were to have an absolutely perfect dining experience without theatre, would you be satisfied? How many establishments can say they genuinely deliver all the basics correctly? The industry can sometimes get so wrapped up in differentiation that one might say the new USP would be delivering the basics correctly."
Raffles Dubai general manager John Pelling, who boasts an F&B background, said he was not convinced that adding more interactive options to restaurants was what the market needed. "I think the region has over-killed the special chef appearance act, live cooking stations and cooking classes," he said.
"It is not rocket science: based on the feedback received from the various focus groups conducted at Raffles Dubai prior to the realignment of Fire & Ice, doing the basics to perfection and offering consistency is more important," said Pelling, referring to the hotel's signature restaurant's relaunch as a steakhouse at the end of last year.
In terms of whether or not the equipment, tools and services required to help create theatrical concepts were widely available, many agreed they were, although outlets at the top-end said they sought customised rather than mass-market offerings.
Some also noted that cooking equipment was often designed for back of house and was therefore "ugly" when used front of house, while others said many suppliers lacked stock and that waiting times of up to three months were common.
Grand Millennium's Fromm stressed that although the hardware was important, the software - the staff - should not be overlooked.
Radisson Blu Hotel Dubai Media City operations manager Marco Aveta agreed: "What is really needed is more professional staff to run these
multi-million projects the way they were intended. Many times we see outlets opening with very high standards that are soon left to drop by unqualified personnel and cost cutting in the wrong areas."
Al Murooj Rotana F&B director Dominique Jossi said it was for this reason that he focused on the interaction of his team with the guests.
"Providing a personalised service is the most economical and effective way to keep the customer's interest," he added.
Madinat Jumeirah Resort executive assistant F&B manager Marianne Zaiser Fitzgerald said the property looked to the talent of its employees to create theatre.
"Some of our waiters are good at painting - all of our backdrops at the brunches are created by team members - and some are great singers," she said.
"This creates a personalised service and is received well internally."
What the suppliers said
According to Thorsten Strauss, who heads up corporate development for European table-setting firm, Duni, theatre is "the key to success" in the F&B arena given that the consumer of the 21st century demands an experience.
"Dining has long lost its functional focus on eating and transformed to the expectation of entertainment, distraction and experience, which leave the guest with a lasting memory," he said.
The challenge is to "touch the customer on an emotional level" and stimulate their senses.
Products such as table covers and napkins that look and feel good helped set the scene, he continued.
Strauss advised restaurants to avoid "overbearing gestures or actions like a noisy presentation or wild open kitchen", and instead, "use many smaller details that constantly reinforce the total experience".
Tableware specialist Villeroy & Boch AG said "emotional porcelain shapes" added a third dimension to the dining experience.
"Creating special patterns and plates brings interior design to the table," said Georges Schaaf of the firm's hotel and restaurant division.
"Examples are at The Monarch Dubai or at Spectrum on One at the Fairmont, Dubai."
Gasso Middle East CEO Payam Kashani held a similar view, explaining that the company's range of Special Order products could be tailormade for outlets in various shapes and sizes to attract guests' attention.
"For example, in Al Ain at the Union Palace Restaurant we provided a Seafood Boat Buffet in the shape and design of the traditional Middle Eastern ‘dhow boat'. It is the main attraction of the restaurant and all guests who visit take a picture of it as memorabilia," said Payam.
German combi-steamer specialist Convotherm said it had installed theatre kitchen concepts at several hotels across the region including The Chedi Muscat, Rotana Hotel Yas Island and Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
The company offers workshops to show chefs how to use the equipment optimally in their day-to-day business, "thus they are more confident to present their work openly to the guests", explained marketing manager Claudia Bußmann.
"Dinner is becoming an event and the guests wish to see the chef preparing their meals," she added."
So while the jury is still out on exactly how far hotels should go in bringing their F&B outlets to life, as long as consultants, designers, operators and suppliers continue to work together to devise innovative ideas, there are many options for a theatrical dining experience. There's no excuse for dull dining anymore.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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