By Tamara Pupic
Two childhood friends moved from their native Beirut to Dubai in the span of a decade to carve out their own path to entrepreneurial success. Ziad Kamel, founder of Couqley UAE, a French bistro tucked away in Jumeirah Lake Towers, and Samer Hamadeh, founder of Stereo Arcade, the preferred choice of Dubai’s arty, laid-back party crowd, tell us what it takes to beat the odds and succeed in a sector saturated with fierce competitors
Most entrepreneurs occasionally face unfavourable circumstances, from underperforming staff or chronic complaining customers to difficult economic conditions, mounting fees, and other often unforeseen hassles. However, there are outlier entrepreneurs, those whose decisions to persevere greatly outnumber the impediments they encounter.
“I was stubborn. I had been dreaming about that project forever. I didn’t want to give up,” says Ziad Kamel, founder of Couqley UAE, a French bistro opened in the Movenpick Hotel, Jumeirah Lakes Towers, in June last year.
Kamel is talking about his very first businesses, Gauche Caviar, launched more than a decade ago. It was after the second successful New Year’s Eve party that Kamel, a junior account manager at Leo Burnett Beirut office at the time, co-organised with Patrick Cochrane at Sursock Palace in Beirut in 2005.
In then less-known neighbourhood of Beirut, Gemmayze, he decided to rent a venue to open a bar and target people with a higher purchasing power but interested in more relaxed and affordable F&B concepts. Yet, not even a month later, political instability shook Lebanon following the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the country’s former prime minister, on February 14, 2005.
“Everyone told us to stop and cut our losses, which were very minimal at that time,” Kamel says. “But, of course, we didn’t want that to stop us although Lebanon was not a very stable place then.”
In early July 2006, Gauche Caviar was launched. “When we finally opened the place, I was the happiest person ever,” he says. “During the following four days, we were packed, it was beautiful. And then, on July 12, 2006, Israel started a war against Lebanon.
“The bar was not far from the port, and I remember being with the team, at around 5.00pm, and setting up the place for customers when we heard something what turned out to be Israel’s Apache helicopters. Then we heard them fire a couple of missiles at the port and our whole place started trembling, literally.
“I looked at my staff, five of them at the time, and I had to be responsible, even though I was the youngest one among them. I sent them home while it was still possible.”
From Beirut to Damascus, then to Amman, the Kamel family finally found shelter in Kuwait. “I was on the very first flight back to Lebanon, which was around August 20, 2006,” Kamel points out. “I called my staff and we decided to throw a ‘ceasefire’ party.
“After that, the war was over. We were fully open again on August 24, 2006. There were very few people in town, but we filled the place up. It was very nice to be back, see your place full with people, even though we had a few power cuts [he laughs].
“There were many issues in the country and it has never been stable since then, but in hindsight I can say that our silver lining was that we had a place ready to open immediately after the war. We could open our doors straightaway while others needed some time to catch up.”
In the following few years, he turned a passage discreetly nestled in the heart of Gemmayze into a business quarter housing five small businesses, namely Cloud Nine, a lounge bar (2007), The Union, a retail shop (2008), The Tanning Salon, a tanning beauty salon (2008), and Couqley Gemmayaze, the first branch of the now well-known brand co-founded by Chef Alexis Couquelet, Patrick Cochrane, and Kamel (2009).
“We were targeting different demographics and trying different things,” Kamel says. “We wanted to see which one was the winning horse.
“There is a life-span for every business in the world, but when you look at the F&B alone, nightclubs have the shortest life-span, usually two years. This is true anywhere in the world. After a few years, they have to change to remain on trend and new. Also, a decent life-span for a bar is four or five years, especially in cosmopolitan, open cities. I knew that time was running out and I knew that I had to work on something that my kids would be able to go to and possibly inherit.
“Also, it was about building something scalable. Clubs and bars are very difficult to scale up, especially in this region, but Gauche Caviar showed me how food makes people happy and also how much the demographic is different and wider when you start offering food. It is a completely different beast than nightlife, where you open one shift and that is it. In the restaurant business we serve three generations at the same table.
“So, Couqley is a scalable business, and after the first Couqley we knew we had something special.”
Before opening the second branch – Couqley Blueberry Square, in the area of Dbayeh, north of Beirut, in 2013 – the team again had to manage the unexpected.
Another venture, Amarres, a waterfront bistro and café in Beirut’s Zaitunay Bay area, was opened at the beginning of 2012, to cater for the GCC tourists occupying the neighbouring exclusive hotels. “A few months later, which were fantastic for the business, the war in Syria started escalating,” Kamel says.
“Then, in May 2012, the GCC had issued the travel ban to Lebanon for its nationals due to security reasons, and our sales went down 70 percent overnight. So, the first six months was coping, and the next six months was negotiating the exit from the landlord. As that business was failing, we were working on Couqley’s second branch, the opening of which saved us psychologically.”
With both Couqley branches hitting their financial targets, it was time to focus, Kamel says. “At that time I was already a dad. So, I started thinking about growth. Which one is the winning horse? I wanted to build a brand that I could bring to the GCC, which at the time was absorbing all kinds of brands.
“I could either spend more time, energy and capital in Lebanon, or I could take what I had to Dubai and diversify our portfolio. So, instead of having all our businesses in Lebanon, which proved to be volatile, we decided to offset it by opening up in another city.”
Why Dubai? The figures seemed tempting. Due to eating out being high on the agenda for UAE residents, the city is dubbed as a foodies’ paradise. Furthermore, being positioned as a major global tourism and retail destination, the city saw 500 restaurant openings in 2014, when Kamel took the leap. The following year, the number of openings rose to 1,540, also according to a Dubai Municipality report. From international chains, featuring celebrity chefs, to locally-owned restaurants, cafeterias and coffee shops, the city is now home to more than more than 16,000 food outlets.
Despite fierce competition, Kamel was confident that the city’s eclectic restaurant scene was ready for finer but more affordable fare. However, the supply of new outlets slowly started outstripping the demand, owing to low oil prices affecting the emirate’s economy. His tenacity was again put to the test.
“We opened Couqley in one of the most economically challenging years in Dubai, when oil prices were at their lowest and multinationals were restructuring and downsizing,” Kamal says. “People who were downsized were middle to upper higher management. That kind of eradicated the whole demographic of people who would go out, wine and dine.
“But, in every crisis there is an opportunity, and I truly believe in that. In Lebanon, we went through the biggest crises but the opportunity came because we faced very little competition.
“The same happened here. When fine dining in the F&B sector here got hit a bit harder, we came in and said that you could still treat yourself and have fantastic food, with all ingredients on par with fine dining, in a casual environment, and at affordable prices.”
Couqley UAE, which opened its doors in June 2016, is a 180-seater restaurant, featuring three distinct areas - a dining area, a bar area, and an indoor terrace. Both Beirut-based branches are half this size.
The concepts falls into the affordable luxury category, with the average cheque price being AED 235, including drinks.
To cover the costs of renting, renovating and furnishing the 6,000-square-foot venue, the two co-founders of the UAE franchise – Samer Hamadeh, and Kamel – raised capital from a group of individual investors, each opting for different ticket sizes.
However, Kamal reveals, the lease was signed when only 10 percent of the investment had been secured. “You can’t raise investment just on the idea of having a restaurant,” he readily concedes. “It’s a catch 22. If I went to investors without the location secured, there would be no way to even talk to them.
“You have to secure the lease and then start raising investment hoping that you’ll get it all. Also, you have to hope that your rate of raising capital will be quicker than your rate of using capital because you will come to a point that if you don’t raise it, you will not be able to continue. If you can’t continue, you can’t raise more. It was quite a stressful period, but we managed. We were always one dirham ahead from where we needed to be.”
In Lebanon, Kamal lived in – and understood – his market. In Dubai, he had to rely more on marketing which, he says, is costlier and not as effective due to many language and cultural barriers.
Staffing – Couqley currently has 33 people on books – was even trickier. “When you open a new restaurant in a new area you always need one and a half times more staff than you would in efficiently run operations that have been going on for a while,” he says.
“It takes more man hours to do the same thing and maintain the standard for a new team than it does for an experienced team. Hospitality and feeding people is something very intimate. I view it as something one step below healthcare and whatever you offer them needs to meet certain standards that cannot be undercut. “
Seven months since the opening, Kamal says, the business is stable. Next steps are to continue scaling up Couqley, even if it requires him to oversee, track and, where possible, own every step in the process.
“I want to see what happens when I put everything that I have into a brand and grow it,” Kamel concludes. ”My personal ambition is to have at least 10 Couqley restaurants in the MENA region.”