By Tamara Pupic
The founder of Silver Spoon Investments, the emirate’s latest restaurant group, explains why F&B excites him more than winning tennis championships or running a family business
When you enter the Jebel Ali Building on Sheikh Zayed Road to get to the office of Salem Khalifa Bin Dasmal, vice chairman of the Bin Dasmal Group, a diversified trading and industrial group of companies, you’ll pass by a small food kiosk.
Selling healthy bites and locally-sourced coffee, this unit is a much more exciting talking point for the 46 year old Emirati Bin Dasmal than the family business, which has employed hundreds of people since his father, Khalifa Abdulla Bin Dasmal, founded it in 1976.
Without undermining the group’s significance, the VC’s numerous high-profile government posts, or his wife’s successful business that he helped grow, it’s food and drink that really seems to motivate him most.
“I wanted to pursue my passion and do something that I really love, and I felt it was the right time a few years ago,” he says about his high-quality, mid-market restaurant group, Silver Spoon Investments, which he set up in 2014.
“I’ve sort of found what I want to do, and this whole journey of life gets you to a point where you discover your passion,” he adds.
“That’s the whole idea. And then when you discover it, you need to focus on it to make it successful. So I’m very much now focused on the restaurant group.”
With the vision to develop home-grown brands that offer quality food at affordable prices, the group launched its first ‘casual-chic’ Japanese dining concept, Atisuto, in the Galleria Mall in 2014. Less than a year later, four new branches – in Bay Square, Al Ghurair Centre, Ibn Battuta Mall, and Dubai Marina – are due to open their doors soon.
The portable, self-sustaining kiosk in the Jebel Ali Building is a pilot version of their second brand, Ground Rush, a grab-and-go concept that will soon start offering locally-sourced, fresh and healthy breakfast, lunch and snack options in numerous commercial towers across Dubai.
A third concept, he says, is in the pipeline.
The speed of the group’s progress might take most people a few years, or even decades, to match, which is the length of time Bin Dasmal had postponed his entrepreneurial debut.
“You wouldn’t think of me as a classical entrepreneur, but in my heart I was always an entrepreneur, from day one,” he says.
“Other people take a little bit of a different route [than famous start-up founders]. For me, my education and going into the corporate world were my safety-net, although inside me I had a burning entrepreneur.
“That’s a big [piece of] advice I give to entrepreneurs. It’s not an all-or-nothing kind of approach, but I think you have to be safeguarded a little bit and have a safety-net just in case things go wrong.
“So I’ve been very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had, but it’s also been planned. I planned it, and then I thought to myself [that] I couldn’t leave it too late before I pursued my passion.”
As a CPA (certified public accountant) from the California Board of Accountancy, who earned his bachelor and masters education in California, he started his career with Ernst & Young.
“Although I prefer strategic thinking and high planning, I’m able to dive in and look at details. That’s not something I love to do, but I can do it,” he says.
It was his acute financial brain and entrepreneurial spirit that helped him lead one of the most ambitious projects in Dubai – Dubailand, billed as the largest collection of theme parks in the world. It was planned to be double the size of Disneyworld in Florida and 100 times the size of Monaco when it was unveiled in 2003.
After a year-long stint as deputy director general at Dubai Holding, he dedicated the following three years to bringing Dubailand to fruition. “I used to call it ‘flaf’, and they still quote me, because it’s just talk, but when you get into execution, that’s the real test,” he says.
“It was very ambitious, and people always ask me, even to this date, whether Dubailand is complete. I always say that Dubailand is not a project that gets completed. It’s a city within a city. It will always develop and grow.”
In spite of the global financial crisis mothballing many of its sub-projects, such as a F1-branded theme park, others have been completed, including Global Village, MotorCity and Dubai Outlet Mall. Its official website further states that Dubailand will feature developments including City of Arabia, Palmarosa and Dubai Lifestyle City.
Bin Dasmal explains that the projects of this scale aren’t what ‘normal’, risk-averse, and traditionally slow-moving governments do. To keep up the pace, he says, leadership has been demanded from the people in charge. “And also you have to dream,” he adds.
“That’s the other thing that I learnt in Dubai and I love it. I love the process of imagination and dreaming that they encourage in the government and Dubai, which is an amazing thing because a lot of people discourage you from dreaming [saying that] you have to be practical.“
Helping others to build their dreams, from the family to the government, has been central to how Bin Dasmal has set his path.
Bursting on to the emirate’s tennis scene in 1984 as a 15 year old runner-up in the UAE National Tennis Championships, he hit the newspaper headlines in 1993 by winning the National Championship, Dubai Open and the then-popular Super League.
Winning the national doubles title with his father is a memory he is most fond of.
He was reported as explaining that he hadn’t allowed his father to throw the game due to an injury, even if it had meant Bin Dasmal senior standing in one part of the court and Bin Dasmal junior effectively playing against both opponents by himself.
Similarly, Bin Dasmal adds he is a big believer in supporting the entrepreneurial dreams of women around him, explaining “whether it’s my wife’s or my sisters’”.
With his wife he set up the first N.Bar in Jumeirah’s Palm Strip Mall in 2001, and since then the nail bar business has enjoyed annual two-digit growth.
Before long, an umbrella company had to be established since the business had grown to include two more concepts – 1847, a network of male grooming lounges, and Jet Set, a wash and blow dry hair-care concept. And so The Grooming Company was born.
The group now operates across the emirate and employs 300 people.
When asked about the demands of entrepreneurship on a family, he says: “You have to have a lot of energy for it, obviously, because it’s another family member.
“We have four children, but at that time we didn’t have any children and we started having children about four years later.
“So we actually had time to dedicate effort to that first baby. The business was our first baby.”
Planning his how entrepreneurial venture, Bin Dasmal decided to follow the model of a mid-market-priced, high quality service provider.
However, the sincerity of his entrepreneurial intentions was put on a test with his wife being diagnosed with cancer a year after he left his government post in 2007. These additional struggles coincided with the global financial downturn.
Fast forward six years, and the healed Negin Fattahi Dasmal has picked up numerous awards for female entrepreneurship, honouring the continued success of The Grooming Company. Her trophies include one for Arabian Business Businesswoman of the Year 2010.
The time for his own jump into entrepreneurship was finally right in 2014, Bin Dasmal says.
Looking at his profile, a specific interest in the food and beverages sector would easily escape your attention. But as a long-time resident of Los Angeles he was influenced by the city’s famous hospitality culture. And as a native of Dubai he had noticed an opportunity for home-grown brands between the high-priced five-start venues and numerous fast food outlets.
“I didn’t want to get into fine dining and I didn’t want to get into fast food,” he says.
“I thought that the best place to be was in the mid-market pricing because, at the end of the day, not everybody can afford fine dining and not everybody wants to have fast food every day.
“There’s an opportunity because people want to get value for money always. They may treat themselves to fine dining, they can take some fast food, but ultimately people want value for money.
“So we said we would create brands that provide value for your money.”
The group’s concepts are part of the fasted-growing movements in the restaurant industry worldwide – that of ‘uber casual’.
Offering freshly prepared and higher quality food than fast food restaurants, but picked up with the speed of a fast food outlet or consumed in interiors that often resemble a fine dining venue, the concept appeals to a typical post-financial crisis consumer – who eats on the run, prefers healthier options, and insists on getting value for money.
Having enjoyed comparisons between Atsituto and Zuma, the popular DIFC-based fine dining Japanese restaurant, Bin Dasmal says the big test will come with a DIFC-based branch they plan to open in 2016.
One advantage Atsituto will have in the mid-market priced segment is that of a Japanese chef, who will help cater to the 15,000 people who can choose from the best international cuisine in DIFC on a daily basis.
It is also a symbol of honesty and authenticity, Bin Dasmal explains, as most mid-priced sushi restaurants will not hire Japanese chefs to prepare the traditional Japanese food. Largely due to the higher costs involved. Something he believes shouldn’t be the case if the concept itself is strong.
“A lot of people in business take advantage of consumers. This is a key element,” he says.
”Their cost structure allows them to pass on much more savings to the consumer than they are willing to do. And I’m a businessman who asks why. I don’t have to be greedy. I can give you the same quality at a lesser price.
“I am an accountant, at the end of the day, I know my margins. I don’t have to overprice.
“If I price it well and give you high quality, the way I get compensated is that I get repeat customers. I get volume customers, not just one or two people come because they can afford it and the others can’t. Now everybody can afford it and they get good quality. I’m getting sufficient revenue to cover my costs.
“That’s an important aspect of business and you have to be confident with that. If you feel that you have to overprice then you are covering up for something, your concept is weak.
“If your concept is strong, then you can price it appropriately and even over-deliver on quality because over the long term you will make money. We were profitable in month four, and restaurants are not profitable until the third year.”
He applies similar logic to his Jebel Ali Building kiosk, Ground Rush.
“Why aren’t they making their own muffins?” he asks when comparing the brand with other grab-and-go concepts.
“I [already] have a central kitchen here and I have [only] one kiosk. There has to be some integrity. If I’m going to get into this business and serve you a sandwich, I’m not going to buy it from somebody and then serve it to you in my kiosk.
“I should control all the ingredients and the preparation of them. So that’s what we do with Ground Rush. We control everything from the first ingredient that goes into it. It’s not a brand new concept, but we do it by applying greater integrity to what people say that they do but perhaps they don’t do.”
Although this type of concept is still considered a relative newcomer to the restaurant industry, a number of US studies reveal that its growth rates are almost double that of the next-largest segment’s growth. Date showed collective annual sales to be $30 billion in 2014.
With the segment growing rapidly worldwide, franchise opportunities abound for the entrepreneur, especially in the region where similar concepts are few. Though this is not of much interest to Bin Dasmal.
“We want to lead by example,” he says. “We want the whole market to do what we do because this is how you bring value to consumers.
“We’re saying that you can be honest, and good and do the right thing by focusing on quality, investing in your people, and giving attention to every detail. Because if you mess up on one, all that investment is going to be a loss.”
With a set of strengths enabling him to push boundaries in both public and private sector, he also devotes his time and resources to philanthropy by addressing challenges faced by young artists in the country.
Three-sector leaders, they call them. And not without good reason.
For information, tips and advice on setting up a new business or insights from those who have taken the leap into the world of entrepreneurship, click on the Arabian Business StartUp section.