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Wed 17 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

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Bringing F&B to life

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.

Bringing F&B to life
Thorsten Strauss, Corporate development, Duni AB.
Bringing F&B to life
Al Khiran Restaurant & Terrace at Al Bustan Palace InterContinental Muscat in Oman.
Bringing F&B to life
Nils Fromm, Director of F&B, Grand Millennium Dubai.
Bringing F&B to life
Grand Millennium Dubai, where F&B director Nils Fromm says it is good staff that bring an outlet to life.
Bringing F&B to life
Celebrity chef Gary Rhodes.
Bringing F&B to life
John Cordeaux, Executive chef, Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.
Bringing F&B to life
John Pelling, GM, Raffles Dubai.
Bringing F&B to life
W Doha’s Antoine Pravin.

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.

Why theatre?

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".

Key points from the experts

The Middle East has an opportunity to lead innovations in the F&B ‘entertainment' field.

Hotels should look to employ entertainment directors.

Hotels are looking to source custom-made equipment to kit out their outlets in order to stand out from the crowd.

Diners don't just go to restaurants to eat - they go for emotional stimulation too.

It's important to get the ‘basics' right before working on theatrics.

Operators and owners should not be afraid to invest in specialist industry design consultants.

Authenticity is integral to theatrical experiences for guests.

Restaurants must offer theatre that is compatible with the existing dining experience in that outlet.

To execute theatre concepts, good staff must be employed.

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.

F&B trends for 2010

Restaurant guests will demand a greater transparency and responsibility of product and pricing from food and beverage professionals.

A resurgence in organic food is expected as concern over unhealthy processed foods grows.

Casual fine dining - sophisticated diners demand an unpretentious environment in hotels.

Aesthetic designs of restaurants will become as important as the quality of the food and service.

New highs in customer dining expectations on two dimensions: authenticity and congruence.

Each F&B outlet must be holistic and offer truthful experiences - very important in today's world of trickery and uncertainty.

F&B businesses will be under pressure to reduce their carbon footprint and look for green solutions.

More celebrity restaurants will pop up across the region.

Live cooking concepts and show cooking will become more popular.

Outlets will be demanding high-tech energy saving equipment.

Increased demand for a personalised service and private and niche dining experiences.

Eating less, nibbling more plus food-sharing concepts.

Home-made food and artisan-grown produce.

The emergence of more bar concepts with the skilled barman becoming the ‘celebrity chef'.

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.

Top tools

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.

The value of Gulfood

Most F&B professionals with whom
Hotelier Middle East

spoke said they were keen to attend Gulfood for a multitude of reasons.

David Bedinghaus, executive chef at Mövenpick's four new Dubai properties, said he was on a trend-spotting mission plus he liked to "observe the social behavior of those who attend  - what do they do, how do they do things, why do they do these things - as observation is knowledge", while his colleague, director of food and beverage, Craig Cook, said he looked forward to interacting with vendors, partners and industry professionals at a show that "serves as a great catalyst for new ideas".

Al Bustan Rotana Dubai F&B director Franck Royer and Fairmont Bab Al Bahr F&B director Bastian Breuer both said they wanted to source new products at this year's Gulfood.

Hilton Dubai Creek director of restaurants Luca Gagliardi summed up reasons to attend Gulfood nicely: "It's a great way of networking with a host of new suppliers, and brushing up on industry knowledge," he said.

Desert Palm executive chef Lionel Boyce added: "Pretty much every chef in Dubai will be at Gulfood looking for better ingredients to work with to give their venue the edge".

Lastly, W Doha director of B&F Antoine Pravin said he was looking for something "completely new" at Gulfood, "like a buffet-size lollipop-making machine where you choose your favourite flavour and not the same old deep-fryer or chocolate fountain".

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.

F&B Box Office Hits

Al Bustan Palace InterContinental, Muscat

: features a tea lady who not only serves tea, but performs acrobatic stunts in Chinese Restaurant China Mood.

Beach Rotana, Abu Dhabi: interactive cooking shows and the use of Teppanyaki and rotisserie grills, pizza and Tandoori overs, plus an authentic Chinese Oven that has been used in Asia for more than 2400 years.

Verre by Gordon Ramsay: the restaurant is currently being remodelled to create "a new dimension of interactive dining".

Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, Oman: a combination of live entertainment, restaurant hostesses from the guest country, skilled showmanship chefs such as a noodle maker from Xian and original and tasteful decorations and table setups are employed at the hotel's Chinese outlet.

Raffles Dubai: a live band plays jazz in Fire & Ice to fit the New York steakhouse style atmosphere.

The Mina Seyahi complex, Dubai: has ambitious plans that include introducing a ‘Bubblicious' brunch in February involving three restaurants - Blu Orange, Hunters and Spice - with free-flow ‘bubbly'; a theatrical afternoon tea in the hotel lobby involving acrobats from China; and Spanish-themed evenings with a flamenco concert.

Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi: plans to offer cooking classes this summer located in its custom chocolate atelier - The Chocolate Gallery.

Arabian Business digital magazine: read the latest edition online