The UAE’s top executive chefs gathered at award-winning restaurant Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire at InterContinental Dubai Festival City to debate how hotel restaurants can maintain quality and generate profit when kitchens are running with less manpower in today’s tough marketplace.
With hotels dropping their rates, the pressure is on for F&B outlets to bring in the money. What are you doing to protect your bottom line?
Anston Fivaz:I think you have to streamline your operation; being more productive is the key.
You also need to be more creative with your promotions. If you are to refer to set menus, I’ve noticed [people are choosing] value for money. They read the à la carte menu and work out if they are going to have three courses, it’s going to cost AED 300-400 (US $82-109), so what we do is channel a three or four course menu at below the price of the three items you would normally order off the à la carte and it would cost AED 250 ($68) instead — people opt for that because it’s better value for money.
Another thing is campaigns; tie in a campaign with suppliers like A&E or MMI; bring diners into your restaurant and offer a bottle of wine. Last month we ran a campaign in Spice Emporium, which was every Monday pay what you like; it’s not something that’s been just been invented, it has happened before.
Uwe Micheel:Yes, I did a promotion like this about 10 years ago and actually we made more money than if we had charged for those dishes. With promotions it’s not about creativity, it’s about who gives more discount. Open Time Out now — it’s only about discounts. So you have to look at how far can you pull your trouser down; how low can you go?
You have to be creative but it’s much more difficult because of pricing, it’s more sensitive. You can change your products — I can buy a piece of beef for AED 30 ($8) or AED 230 ($63) — how far do we go?
Do we reduce our quality or do we make sure we stick with our quality, but then what do we do with profit?
Marcus Gregs:I’ve streamlined my menus; one kitchen is doing room service, banqueting, one of the outlets and the pool bar, so you try and put certain items on all three outlets so one chef is not having to do 56 items, he’s doing 24.
Anston Fivaz:I’ve had to look at all my menus in the whole organisation — luxury just isn’t an option anymore. Last year, we talked about truffles, caviar and Japanese kobe beef that had just hit the market at AED 1300 ($354) a kilo. My chef de cuisine in my steakhouse wants that product, but please justify who is going to buy that product, who is going to pay AED 1300 ($354) for 100g?
But we don’t cut on the quality, it will always be there so we look at alternatives. Instead of having the kobe we will have the wagu, instead of having your Angus maybe you’ll have the American choice. It’s about analysing every product — get all your suppliers and do blind tasting. How else do you keep high-quality standards in your outlets but save on expenses in other areas?
Christophe Prud’homme:With functions and events, you need to find the right balance between the volume and the profit. If the function finishes at midnight, you’ll need to know beforehand how much profit you will make at midnight [before you commit to it]. If you have no volume you are wasted, you cannot make it; but if you have no profit you cannot make it either. You can’t put percentages in the bank I always say; you put dollars in the bank. Anston Fivaz:The Westin only opened last year and when we opened with our price structure in our banqueting function, we were doing pretty well, but this year everybody that comes to get a quote has done their shopping at different hotels so they say Fairmont has offered this menu; can you do it for the same price. Do you take it or not? If you don’t you’re sitting with an empty ballroom. [Everyone wants a deal] and this is what wasn’t there last year or the year before.
Uwe Micheel:So during times like this, when talking about food costs and profit percentages; you make your estimation, your pre-P&L and then see if you have anything left over or not.
It’s not about ‘my food costs should be 30%’; it doesn’t work and during the summer I don’t think many places will make their food costs.
Christian Knerr:We are driving right now the best food costs since we opened the place; we streamlined our whole order system, we streamlined our expenses and a lot of suppliers went down with their prices.
Olivier Biles:[We have achieved this] in the kitchen. I come from standalone restaurants so it used to be that revenue is the restaurant because we didn’t have a hotel; we didn’t have a choice but to have good food costs.
We still import products from France and I can get the ingredients I used at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, but it’s about working with the line staff in the kitchen to educate them so that they don’t waste anything.
Marcus Gregs:I’m spending more money and my food costs are better because I’m buying onions peeled and I’m buying carrots peeled because then I’m not wasting anything. I’m paying for what I get.
Christian Knerr:Here we have very a good cost control team working behind us; it gives me every day a cost of how much I can spend according to the functions that we have and according to the occupancy. Before I used to approve all the orders at once, now I only approve them when the outlet chef is sitting beside me. I think it’s very healthy for all the employees to come back to their roots and understand what is going on.
For us it’s very important that we stick with the quality. This will be the thing that gives you the edge of success compared to other hotels. When I hear that hotels are getting out 20% of their services teams, what goes down — quality of service.
The majority of hotels have either lost staff or put a freeze on recruiting. How has this affected your kitchens?
Marcus Gregs:If someone resigns, you don’t replace them.
Uwe Micheel:At the moment my number two is gone and I don’t replace him. But I would say one general can run an army, but if you have 10 generals and no soldiers, then for the same salary as my executive sous chef I would have to lose 10 or 15 commis, I can’t run the show. But if I have the commis I don’t need the middle management for a while. In the long term you need them, when business picks up you are going to need them.
It affects the kitchen in terms of the things which before you were too busy and too well-off financially to look at, but its actually very good for the whole team to learn and to work more efficiently.
We have reduced waste; waste in manpower, waste in energy which is a lot of money — gas, water, oil, lights, fridges etc. How many kitchens did you go into and see all the flames on? Or you have no-one in the kitchen in the afternoon and you see all the lights on, or the dishwasher started with just five coffee cups — these things don’t happen anymore. Now I’m cleaning the deep fat fryer three times a day so I can keep the oil. You just drain it three times a day so the oil has more than double shelf life — that’s just an example.
In a poll by Caterer Middle East, 23% of respondents said it was impossible to find skilled staff unless you poach them, making it the biggest problem facing F&B outlets today. Would you agree?
John Cordeaux:Everybody has to be more creative and look at staffing sensibly; look for the right people at the right place at the right time. I think it is a worldwide phenomenon. But for us it’s different, we are opening, we’re in a fast stream to hire as many people as we can to go full flat into the marketplace and it’s a very exciting time in Abu Dhabi.
Uwe Micheel:John is in a good position now; staff are going by themselves too. There are definitely some positive elements [to the crisis]. There are people in the marketplace that potentially wouldn’t have been there a year ago. I get CVs from people who are looking because they are scared they won’t keep their jobs. A lot of people in this country are still managing by fear and I think it’s one of the biggest issues that a lot of people still work this way.
John Cordeaux:We received 2000 applications in two days. There’s plenty of staff out there in my opinion — my humble opinion having only been here for three weeks — but finding quality and skilled staff is the key.
Uwe Micheel:It was a big problem in the past because of so many new openings; people were hired and moved from one hotel to another with a promotion but they were not ready.
The most positive thing for me on this whole crisis is we have more time for training again, whereas before you hired new people and they were straight into operation.
We have a lot of great people, but they don’t have the basic training that most of us have from back home; we did three-year apprenticeships.
When we started in operations, dish washing was part of it once a week. If you know how tough it is cleaning then you won’t make such a mess, whereas a lot of our guys leave stuff on the floor because they know the steward is coming [to clean up].
I have said to my team before if you don’t change I will send the whole stewarding department on vacation for three months; it was the only way to get them thinking about how much mess is really necessary.
If I have to clean the burned pot I will make sure that next time it doesn’t burn. If I never have to clean it I don’t care.
Christophe Prud’homme:If the middle management don’t understand this, it doesn’t matter, they will have to grow and they will get a higher position because of the market anyway. If he is a demi chef he will become one way or another chef de partie, but his attitude and his behaviour will never change. He will be just as dirty.
Marcus Gregs:But it will be worse because he’ll be in higher position.
Christophe Prud’homme:Correct. How can he command staff, they’ll behave the same as him.
How can the industry overcome such major gaps in training?
Anston Fivaz:I think it’s a worldwide problem — I think it’s this era of chefs. The era before you’d be in a particular position for two years minimum before you’d move up. So it would be a slow process to get to chef de partie level, whereas now people come out of culinary school and get to chef de partie level, and then you [subsequently] hire them because they are at that level, but they’ve got no basic skills.
John Cordeaux:But the schools are giving them that impression; kids are going to schools and they’re spending a lot of money to go to schools.
They come out of culinary school, they think they can cook and their teachers have told them that when they finish they’ll be a chef de partie, but in actual fact they have no training skills and very basic knowledge.
Uwe Micheel:For lots of schools, it’s not about teaching the guys, it’s about making money. But I just came back from Cairo and the government funds a school for cooks there. The goal is to take kids from the street who would not have had a chance to get a job in a hotel otherwise and to put them in the school for six months starting with the basics, from peeling or cutting onions.
In Oman again, the government is sponsoring a school and they have 200 students for two years; it’s a proper apprenticeship.
We’ve been trying for many years [to set this up in the UAE] but the problem is who pays for it? In the UAE, one reason that the government is not putting money into it could be that there are no locals who will go to this school. Or they worry that if they invest in a school, after the two years the people will leave.
Christian Knerr:But you can do training internally. Last year we promoted 15 stewards to commis chefs. We trained them and they have sometimes got a better attitude than some chef de partie.
If I leave a guy in one position for a year, he’ll get bored if he doesn’t get chance to learn anything else and he will eventually leave.
So you have to really take care of the individual, you cannot do it with everybody but what we are trying to do is really talk to them and find out where they want to work — this is the chance to get really loyal people.
After summer, I’m going to smash down the whole manning and try and transfer people internally in the hotel. Will Dubai’s restaurant scene ever fully recover from the impact of the economic crisis?
Uwe Micheel:I personally believe that in Dubai the business will come back after Ramadan, slowly. I don’t think we will ever again enjoy the profits that we had in 2007/2008 though; it wasn’t real, it was too high due to the shortage [of hotels] but now there is enough hotels and I think everything will balance the market out a little bit.
Christian Knerr:I think it’s very important to be aggressive now. For Ramadan, we are planning a massive tent. We are full steam ahead.
Marcus Gregs:For Ramadan, we’re looking at doing 2000 more covers than last year and that was double the year before.
Christophe Prud’homme:It’s good to be cautious but not good to be scared. We need to plan for next year.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.