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Sun 1 Jul 2007 12:00 AM

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Conquering casual

Overturning the usual movement of international brands entering the region, Dubai-based Hotbrands International intends to expand outwards in the market with its new concepts.

Overturning the usual movement of international brands entering the region, Dubai-based Hotbrands International intends to expand outwards in the market with its new concepts.

Quick service and casual dining restaurant operator Hotbrands International has embarked on its determined journey, involving reaching 100 outlets by the end of this year, 175 by the end of 2008, and 400 in three years.

Rivals could simply scoff at the plans, yet the company's huge share of food and beverage concepts at malls in the Middle East, and its significant investment in the people behind its 15-year growth, have maximised its potential.

I think the market is toughening a bit so we need to toughen with it.

Now forecasting a rapid expansion into worldwide markets including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, China and Eastern Europe, the company now operates more than 40 outlets across eight concepts in the Middle East, India and South Africa.

Would you like franchise with that?

"We will have 20 new sites in Saudi Arabia by the end of the year where we plan to recruit nationals, and although we are not yet in Europe, we have been approached and it's on the agenda," reveals Ian Hyndman, chief operating officer corporate businesses, Hotbrands International.

Operating across the globe, the company offers joint ventures, local partnerships, or owns and operates the brand 100%.

Backed by strong affiliations, expansion has been rampant in Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, India and South Africa since the company's low-key debut with sandwich concept, Fillings, at Dubai's BurJuman Centre.

First kick-starting its ventures outside the UAE with the opening of Shamiana Tandoori & Indian cuisine and Magic Wok at Muscat City Centre in Oman in 2001, it was then granted its first Indian franchises for Shamiana and Santino's at Inorbit Mall Mumbai in 2004.

Shamiana, its flagship brand, is now present in Dubai, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Qatar, and Muscat, and made its South African debut in Cape Town last year.

Backed by its commitment to ethnic cuisines, the company is now firmly focused on the potential offered by the casual dining sector, with its Italian concept Pane Caldo located at Uptown Mirdif in Dubai and Indian Jawaharat Al Shatti in Muscat, as well as robatayaki cuisine-style restaurant Haru.

Steered by its proximity to authenticity, however, also prompts key challenges, such as tweaking dishes to local tastes.

"Due to the influx of expatriates in the region, there are no specific groups dominating our customer base, so we must be getting it reasonably right. However, if somebody came and told us to look at burgers, then we'd be extremely reluctant; we'll stick to what we do well," he says.

Informal dealings

Growing the brand, like any casual dining company, is about looking at different markets, as Hyndman comments: "We are focusing on India, and we'll be in Bahrain by next summer. We focus on emerging markets, and our growth has happened almost organically," Hyndman comments.

Present in Dubai's Green Community and set to open at Executive Towers, Business Bay, the Japanese concept Haru features ‘little eats' such as scallop, chicken with asparagus and beef with spring onion cooked over an open flame, while Da Shi Di, its Chinese concept, also promotes dishes served in contemporary, small-eat formats.

"Considerations include passing traffic and who the other tenants are. I think the market is toughening a bit so we need to toughen with it and to partner with quality developers, but always in the right location," warns Hyndman.

"Looking at the Indian market though, it will be predominantly franchised. We have five corporate sites there that will act as training schools and as a base," he reveals.
However, it was the explosion in popularity of shopping malls in the region that truly propelled the company's success and particularly the development of its plethora of quick service brands Santino's, Wok, Sala Thai, and Sugoi! which have all granted repeat business.

Being able to integrate employees when they’re coming from abroad is a challenge, that’s why so much emphasis has been put on building the infrastructure of the company.

Staff fulfilment

As opportunities arise to enter leisure complexes across the Middle East, Hyndman says the greatest barrier for companies like Hotbrands International is sourcing enough staff that are trained and skilled to the right levels.

Staff shortages, he says, have also been fuelled by the growth of other countries' economies, for example the rise in wages in previously lucrative source markets such as India and the Philippines.

"Being able to integrate employees when they're coming from abroad is a challenge, that's why so much emphasis has been put on building the infrastructure of the company," he says.

Hyndman says the firm is committed to providing tools to integrate employees in new countries, which has influenced its plans to build accommodation to entice employees through positive word of mouth from existing employees.

Looking to new markets such as China and Indonesia will be another key step, according to Hyndman, as: "It will get to the point where we find it harder to recruit, and we will take people who are not at the level we want, but we will educate them."

"I would like to open a training facility in China, as well as in the Middle East, which would act as advertisements for the company. So we can take on people, teach them English, and then bring them here, this would pay for our investment upfront," he says.

The company also recently rolled out its management training program, which runs over one year, and includes subsidised IT learning in programs including Microsoft Project.

"Until someone develops a robot with personality, it always comes down to people, as competition is now too sharp," he adds.

In turn, the company also offers laptops for trainee managers, self-study English language training for front-of-house brigades, and internal training in specific cuisines for chefs, while incentives include the opportunity for staff to transfer to new openings across its global portfolio.

Hyndman says it is vital for employees to gain experience in both fast-paced, multi-volume and slow markets, with training in divergent locations such as Muscat City Centre and Mall of the Emirates.

"It allows us to take people who are less experienced and put them in a position with all of the management challenges. It also gives them security to develop their own styles with one of our mentors at one of those quieter operations," he says.

Hyndman also adds that the growth of the company and its doubling of units annually will also encourage ambitious employees to recognise opportunities within the company.

"We offer more investment in training than a company of our size would normally put in, as well as ensuring that if an employee decides to return to his or her home country, we can give them jobs with Hotbrands International in that country," he says.

The company's strategy will also include shifting its concepts to roadside and drive-thru locations, which Hyndman says will bolster profits for its home delivery and quick service cuisine restaurants.

Not only will this increase its market share, it will help drive the company forward and allow it gain a greater physical presence in the ever-growing casual dining industry.

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