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Mon 18 May 2009 04:00 AM

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Dare to be different

In the Middle East's crowded F&B market place, it has become difficult for operators to develop a ‘new' concept; something that is truly unique. Lucy Taylor asks some of the region's success stories: what is the secret to standing out from the F&B crowd?

Dare to be different
Dare to be different
Peter Lau with his pan-fried, corn-fed chicken breast marinated with coriander and soy honey, served with pineapple salsa.
Dare to be different
Le Classique’s head chef, Francois Porte.
Dare to be different
Shangri-La’s Pearls & Caviar outlet.
Dare to be different
InterContinental Mzaar’s Khaymet el Hor restaurant.
Dare to be different
Qasr Al Sharq’s Mattam Al Sharq restaurant.

In the Middle East's crowded F&B market place, it has become difficult for operators to develop a ‘new' concept; something that is truly unique. Lucy Taylor asks some of the region's success stories: what is the secret to standing out from the F&B crowd?

The Middle East has an incredibly diverse collection of F&B offerings - indeed it is this variety which has propelled the region's restaurant scene to the forefront of the global gastronomy market.

But such speedy expansion has taken its toll: with outlets of every conceivable concept and class mushrooming, it is increasingly hard for one outlet to make itself stand out from the crowd.

So exactly how can an outlet be different and stand out successful in today's marketplace mêlée?

Unique selling points

It may sound like a monumental task, but certain outlets have succeeded spectacularly - but what is their secret?

Peter Lau, executive chef at The Noble House at Raffles Dubai, says consistency plays a big part.

"I think our primary appeal, something which builds repeat custom, is that we maintain consistently high food quality and service," he asserts.

Emirates Golf Club general manager Chris May says this view is shared at the property's established Le Classique restaurant, which has been a firm favourite among Dubai diners for 18 years.

"The restaurant prides itself on continuing to offer top classical French cuisine, always priced to offer excellent value for money," May says.

Arguably one of the region's most breathtaking venues, Khaymet el Hor restaurant at the InterContinental Mzaar Lebanon Mountain Resort and Spa is located at the foot of the Mzaar Mountain.

The restaurant's F&B manager Chuckri Nemnoun, who calls the restaurant "the success story of the hotel's F&B department", explains that taking a traditional approach has proved invaluable to business.

"Al Hor tent is an agrotourism concept, reflecting the authentic villagers' way of life, where traditional Lebanese mountain cuisine and music is offered around open-air fireplaces," he says. "It is extremely popular with both locals looking for authentic fare and tourists looking to experience a true taste of Lebanese culture."

At Oman's Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay, resident manager Ashish Modak has seen similar success with a traditional concept.

"Dining on the Sand, our Arabic brasserie with simple flooring, unfinished walls and thatched roofing, takes guests back to old-world Oman," he explains. "The small details, right from the scent of frankincense as you enter the restaurant to the offering of welcome drinks in traditional clay cups, all reinforce the concept of rustic simplicity.

"We believe in providing an experience rather than just a meal in our restaurants," Modak continues.

"For example, our ‘Destination Dining' programme offers over 15 different and unique locations for dining experiences. One of the latest offerings is the Date Palm Garden Dinner experience, where guests are invited to a date palm garden for dinner hosted by the Zighy Bay locals, with traditional Omani food on offer."

The proof is in the pudding

After the concept for a restaurant has been decided on, the next priority has to be the menu, as Raffles' Lau points out.

"The main thing is to find good suppliers; we source a lot of products from Singapore and Asia, and we have had to find our own suppliers to get the quality of products we want for the restaurant," he explains.

Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat Al Beri Pearls & Caviar restaurant manager Hendrik Durot agrees, saying that at his outlet "the use of local spices and fresh ingredients is key".

Raffles' Lau also believes in the importance of staying true to the concept's roots. "As per the layout and décor, our menu is a fusion of Cantonese and Szechuan cooking full of traditional flavours," he adds.

InterContinental Mzaar's Nemnoun points out that an authentically traditional menu can act as a major draw for tourists looking to experience some of a destination's culture.

"We serve a variety of traditional Lebanese mountain specialties, such as eggs with kawarma, mountain cheese, tabouleh, assorted ‘Nayeh' (raw meats)and saj bread (Arabic bread). In addition, Khaymet al Hor uses only natural, home-grown products to ensure continuous freshness," he says.

Interior intelligence

A restaurant's location, layout and décor can have a huge impact on its success.

The Lebanese restaurant Mattam Al Sharq at Hilton's Qasr Al Sharq (Palace of the Orient) hotel - a member of the Waldorf=Astoria Collection - in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a prime example of how an outlet's interior can significantly influence the tone of a place.

"The restaurant is sumptuously decorated, in the style of an oriental dining room in Scheherazade's palace in the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights," explains the property's manager Thomas Huber.

"Decorated with gold leaf, lit with crystal chandeliers and with intricate latticework on the walls, it sets out to recreate the most lavish environment of Arabian narratives."

According to Raffles' Lau, it is important that the interior design reflects the overall concept. "[The restaurant has] elements of traditional Chinese style, with majestic high-backed chairs and elegant trims and tableware. But it also has a modern edge, with the vibrant colours and fabrics, the ornate glass light fixtures and the structure of the restaurant itself," he comments.

At InterContinental Mzaar's Khaymet el Hor, Nemnoun says the whole theme is geared towards offering a "traditional" experience, including the interior layout.

The tent covering the outlet is made from real camel leather, while even the hand washing sink is authentic.

Six Senses' Modak sums it up by saying the restaurants are designed to "flow with the surroundings".

For the Zighy Bay resort, this means "reminding diners of an era where simple, natural things were focussed on", he adds.

"This doesn't mean that we don't take the comforts of our diners in to account," he says. "On the contrary, all our restaurants have managed to blend in the simplicity of the years gone by with the modern-day comforts that our guests are used to."

Although targeting a slightly different clientele, Shangri-La's Durot asserts that Pearls & Caviar was similarly focused on ensuring its planned layout would fit in with overall ethos of the outlet, as well as offering an authentic atmosphere.

"We offer über-cool surroundings involving intricate mosaic tiling, face murals in the bathrooms and a mother-of-pearl bar that shimmers as you walk in to the restaurant," he details.

"This modern look is then combined with the rich cultural background of Abu Dhabi, with an old Arabic poem about pearl diving and fishing wrapped around the building in Arabic language. This can also be seen in its full glory embroidered on the wall as you walk in to the reception area."

Super staff

Food aside, the main point of interaction for guests are the staff, who can have a major impact on both the diner's experience and the overall tone of an outlet.

Raffles' Lau tries to create a "good working and learning atmosphere in which the staff respect each other and are happy", as that positive attitude will then carry through to the service, he explains.

At Qasr Al Sharq it is, once again, about authenticity, with an Arabic team trained to deliver "Arabic hospitality".

"We encourage our team to treat the guests as they would treat guests in their own home," expands Huber, saying that this adds a comfortable tone to the atmosphere of the outlet.

InterContinental Mzaar's Nemnoun adds: "All our staff come from the villages nearby. The uniforms worn by our employees are atypical, reflecting our cultural heritage.

"In the middle of the dining experience, guests will be entertained by authentic Lebanese folkloric dances such as the Dabke, performed by the restaurant's staff. Then some staff will share their village stories and experiences with guests."

Another key factor in building a top-notch team is to "ensure good product knowledge", points out Shangri-La's Durot.

Six Senses' Modak concurs: "The defining things which make a difference to the guests' experience is the passion of the serving team and their professional expertise."

The stand-out secret

These are all useful tips - but overall, what is the one thing that makes an outlet stand out from its competition?

The secret is three-fold, according to Raffles' Lau.

"Taste and appearance of food is very important - a dish must look good, as the guest will judge a dish with their eyes first," he points out.

"Staff are also important, as they have direct interaction with the customer.

"But the main item to focus on is consistency," he reveals. "To cook a dish nicely is very easy for a chef. It's going that bit further and maintaining the standards from day to day, over weeks and months, that's the difficult bit."

Shangri-La's Durot cites "good service from well-trained staff", while Emirates Golf Club's May sees four criteria for a successful outlet: "Consistency in the delivery of excellent cuisine; value for money; high standard of service; and appealing décor and environment."

But Six Senses' Modak is quick to point out that if an outlet tries too hard to be different, that can lead to confusion.

"At Six Senses, we believe in keeping things simple, as close to mother nature as possible, and this means effectively doing things differently to the rest of the cult, where you tend to be fancy because it is an ‘in' thing," he asserts.

Originality overload?

All good advice - but has the time for advice passed; are there already too many outlets in the region for restaurateurs to have any hope of a fair shot?

Raffles' Lau insists that there are already too many restaurants competing for business in the region.

"It's not easy for new outlets here, because there are so many of a similar theme already, it's hard to stand out," he comments.

Emirates Golf Club's May says it is "not so much about re-inventing the wheel but rather ticking all the boxes".

"We are so spoilt for choice when it comes to dining offerings that although people may sample some newly launched restaurants out of curiosity, they often return to their tried-and-tested favourites which can guarantee consistency, value for money and good service in a nice environment," he states.

However Six Senses' Modak does not believe such loyalty is always true.

"In today's world, diners want to try something new all the time. They tend to get tired of a place, a style and a concept very quickly and hence anything fresh which comes in always has an opportunity to make its mark," he asserts.

Qasr Al Sharq's Huber adds that there is "always room for new openings, as long food quality and service is the objective", with InterContinental Mzaar's Nemnoun agreeing that there is "definitely still room to bring new ideas into the region".

"Being original is not just difficult in the Middle East, but everywhere," Nemnoun reasons. "But competition is very good for the industry. It gives chances to great people to succeed and shine as well as providing a great learning experience for the entire market. Because the bad ones can learn from the good ones, and drive the industry forward."

There are numerous factors operators can control in order to make an outlet stand out - their menu, their staff and their décor being prime examples.

But as Shangri-La's Durot comments, stand-out success can be boiled down to one thing: "Uniqueness can always be achieved - it simply requires effort and hard work."

If you had to launch a unique new outlet today, what would it be?

"I would open a Malaysian-Chinese seafood restaurant, which I think would fit into the market well. Really good, fresh seafood is extremely popular here."

Peter Lau, executive chef, The Noble House, Raffles Dubai

"It would be virtually impossible to conceptualise a ‘unique' outlet - I would have difficulty naming another place that has more diversity of cuisine and dining innovation than Dubai."

Chris May, general manager, Emirates Golf Club

"A Spanish tapas and oyster bar which serves fresh Spanish seafood, cold meat, Spanish wines - complete with gypsy kings and cuatros [a stringed instrument] in the lively and colourful Spanish atmosphere."

Francesco Rizzo, chef, Pearls & Caviar, Shangri-La Hotel Qarayat Al Beri

"I would definitely open an Ice Bar, since this idea hasn't been explored yet in Lebanon and our market has always been keen on finding new concepts and adapting to them."

Chuckri Nemnoun, F&B manager, Khaymet el Hor, InterContinental Mzaar Lebanon Mountain Resort and Spa

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