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Fri 30 May 2014 09:47 AM

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Interview: Bahrain restauranteur Roaya Saleh

Bahraini restaurateur Roaya Saleh is the founder of Villa Mamas and is carrying the flag for the local cuisine with ambitious plans to expand across the world

Interview: Bahrain restauranteur Roaya Saleh
Bahraini restaurateur Roaya Saleh is the founder of Villa Mamas.

If there’s one thing common among the people who toil away in the F&B industry, it’s passion for what they are doing. And passion is certainly something I spot when I talk to Bahraini restaurateur Roaya Saleh, who founded Villa Mamas, a restaurant that serves local cuisine with Mediterranean influences in the Saar suburb of Bahrain.

With a lilt in her voice, and a determined crinkle in her eye, Saleh has promoted Bahraini food, not only in her country, but across the GCC. Without a marketing plan in place, Villa Mamas’ success is even more phenomenal to consider. With over 25,000 followers on the restaurant’s Instagram account as just one example, Saleh’s restaurant has been accepted with full fervour.

She says the concept developed when she realised that Bahraini food had so far been underestimated and largely undiscovered by people in the F&B industry. Over the years, as Bahrain progressed, many international franchises entered the country. “But what about the identity of Bahrain? As a Bahraini, I crave to go to a restaurant that has beautiful surroundings and enjoy good quality Bahraini food,” she says.

Saleh admits that while there are some venues offering local cuisine, it is not cooked in an authentic manner. This needed to change, she thought. “The need [for a Bahraini restaurant] was there, 100%.”

Facing obstacles

However, Saleh has had an uphill task in realising her dream. Formerly a banker, she had no experience in the culinary industry before dipping her toes into the business. She explains: “When setting up I didn’t know about the restaurant business or what to expect from a professional kitchen; I knew how to cook and I knew all about my ingredients.

“It took a lot of energy from me because I haven’t done restaurants before; I was a banker. I just knew that this was my dream and I had a mission which I wanted to accomplish in spite of all the negativity at the time. When I opened Villa Mamas in 2011, we had a severe political situation in Bahrain.”

Saleh didn’t predict the overwhelming success of Villa Mamas. She never aggressively pursued marketing the brand and did not, as is the current norm, hold a soft opening. Saleh says she was focused on the quality of her food and had to juggle her need for perfection with the pressure of receiving orders with a quick turnaround time.

In the initial days, her husband and children used to help serve the food in the restaurant. She did not have the necessary number of employees as she was pressured to hire locals, when “there are no Bahrainis in this field”. She reminisces: “So at one time I had 100-130 people, and I was preparing the dishes with just two more chefs.”

Another issue Saleh has been dealing with from the very start is the lack of electricity and water — an issue which continues today. She has handled this by working with generators and water tanks. When I ask why, she says: “Because the owner didn’t fulfil his promise. When I signed the contract, he was supposed to connect us to electricity and water after two months. After I signed the contract I started taking loans, started implementing my business plans and every time this got delayed. I couldn’t go back because I had invested money in the restaurant. If I had given up and said I’m not going to start work until the problem was fixed, I would have lost everything. Forty million dinars (US $106 million) would have gone. I just had to start work.”

Menu and ingredients

The restaurant, which has a seating capacity of 120-130 people, is located in the north-east the country next to the Bahrain-Saudi Arabia causeway, with a fertile soil that allows Saleh to grow some vegetables in the area. She picked a villa as the site to further convey the message of home-cooked food. She explains: “I wanted to develop something that was truly home, not just a façade of this being home cooked.”

Saleh says she works with local farms when she can and grows certain items around the villa. “People can go the farm and see what we grow there; they can see that we are growing items in our villa.”

The fruits and vegetables start appearing in October, and while the harvesting depends on each item, these are picked until the end of May. She says this only supports them for half the year, and so she has to import items for the remainder of the time.

“Our capability isn’t sustainable to support us for the full year because of the weather conditions in Bahrain. If we want to sustain our farming we need a huge investment from the government, as well as our own. We are waiting on this to continue, so we can have farms that can control the temperature in order to have sustainable, local, and organic fruits. But we continue supporting ourselves by using farmers in Saudi Arabia for example.”

Saleh has accounted for these variables and has created two menus — a fixed menu, and one that changes according to the season. “My menu is changeable according to what I find fresh in the market. Don’t expect to have something specific — if it is not fresh I am not going to serve it to you.”

Kitchen life

Saleh is proud of her work ethic, and explains: “I invite anybody to come into my kitchen and see me, my staff, and observe the hygiene levels I have. I dare any five star hotels to maintain this hygiene and standard.”

She is passionate about her food, and admits unprompted: “My kitchen is like Hell’s Kitchen all the time; people are on their toes. Even if I am not here, they know I am watching!”

The venue now has 12 chefs and with service staff, the total number of employees is 30. However, Saleh says she needs double this to be fully comfortable with the numbers at the restaurant on a regular basis.

The personal touch, Saleh thinks, is why people travel from across the GCC to visit her venue. She recounts an example of a customer who flew to Bahrain from Qatar for lunch, and went back home for the evening. And not just customers, but franchise requests keep pouring in. “We have people coming in from Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, and elsewhere, begging me to open franchises there, but I say I can’t.”

Saleh’s reticence is because she is reluctant to hand over the reins to anyone else. She says her physical presence at Villa Mamas is what makes it special, and it’s something she intends to keep.

Going global

She, however, doesn’t intend to stop her path of success, and has plans for the brand. At the end of 2014, she reveals, the sister brand of Villa Mamas will be launched: Mama Gourmet. This will source ingredients from across the world to supply to her restaurant, and can also be purchased by her customers as well as gourmet F&B outlets.

She explains: “It’s an absolutely new concept in Bahrain. I care about my ingredients; I do not use just anything. Some spices I do get from Bahrain, but a lot of herbs I use in my menu are for a Bahraini-Mediterranean fusion. For that reason I need a lot of best quality olives, spices and herbs. For the last two years I went through a lot of agony finding these. I needed to travel to Turkey, Cyprus and Athens to get the right quality.

“It’s very difficult to get small quantities for one restaurant. And I know that people who visit Villa Mamas are those who appreciate gourmet food. So I thought, why not bring quantities that will not only support Villa Mamas, but can be sold to its customers and also support the gourmet market of Bahrain?”

Mama Gourmet will also have a dining facility, which will support itself as well as Villa Mamas if needed. In conjunction with this, she is working on filming a reality TV show which is planned to be broadcast on Food Network, Travel Channel and National Geographic. Work has already begun on the project, and will showcase her journey to launching Mama Gourmet ­— from construction to kitchen problems, and the grand finale. In addition to her journey, she hopes this TV series will show an international audience what Bahrain is really like. “A lot of people have the wrong idea about Bahrain, that it’s all about riots and things like that. We want to show Bahrain in a good way.”

She’s not stopping there. “When we finish setting up Mama Gourmet by the end of the year, we will need another three years to build a strong team of kitchen and service staff. In the next three or five years, our first point of existence outside of Bahrain will be London, Istanbul and New York. After that we will be coming back to the Gulf and our destinations will be Dubai, Qatar, Riyadh, all over the Gulf. It will all happen with a very strong team; before that it's not going to happen.”

These branches will be directly owned by Saleh but she doesn’t “rule out partnerships”. She laughs and says while she doesn’t have regrets, “sometimes I'm in the kitchen cursing myself and everybody around me”.

After a pause, Saleh adds: “But when it’s quiet, when it’s more relaxed, I’m just loving it and I want to give more. Otherwise I wouldn’t expand in the current situation of Bahrain. I wouldn’t spent millions of dinars into something that I don’t believe in. I do believe in what I’m doing and I have a very clear vision about it.”

Winning situation

Her ability to work under pressure has led her to becoming a judge on a reality TV show on Bahrain TV, where, out of 150 hopefuls, one will be chosen to win more than 50,000 BD (US $132,620) worth of start-up capital.

When I ask how hard it is to be an entrepreneur in Bahrain, she reveals it was extremely difficult to get financial backing when she began her journey. However, she cites a governmental entity, Tamkeen, as being a good resource for start-ups, and she is a vociferous supporter of the work it does. Tamkeen was established in August 2006 and is meant to encourage creation of entrepreneurial work, and support these as well. Its funds come from 50% of the fees collected from the Labour Market Regulatory Authority.

However, as a start-up, Saleh says, you need to have capital to begin with. “I didn’t have that. I believed in this more than anybody, with only my family behind me. I showed my project to some banks to be partners with me; they weren’t very keen. Now they are knocking on my door, wanting to become partners and expand with me. But now the ball is in my court.”

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RAK 5 years ago

BHD 40m for a restaurant? Is that right??

Ali 5 years ago

$106mn dollars to set up a restaurant? Surely not.
Also it's restaurateur not restauranter

Farhan 5 years ago

The BD 40 mil is highly likely an error. The land where the famous restaurant is located was for sale at BD 4 mil. The market considered that to be too high. Great food. Highly recommend it.
F :)