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Mon 24 Feb 2014 05:19 PM

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The new RNB stars

How Jason Myers, Gert Kopera and Christian Gradnitzer plan to revolutionise the Jumeirah Group’s approach to restaurants and bars, leaving behind traditional F&B in order to develop brands that can be rolled out worldwide, in or out of their hotels

The new RNB stars

Don’t panic; three of Dubai’s most famous foodies have not ditched their forks in favour of a microphone. Instead, with the launch of Jumeirah RnB, Gert Kopera, Jason Myers and Christian Gradnitzer have signalled their intention to reject traditional hotel food and beverage and focus instead on creating restaurants and bars good enough to compete on the high street. They may not be set to storm the charts, but this trio have a clear plan to score some number one hits with their new restaurant concepts — and perhaps even break some records as they attempt to change hotel dining as we know it.

The name may be new, but the idea behind it isn’t, asserts Jason Myers, general manager operations food and beverage and managing director Jumeirah Restaurants, who joined Jumeirah in May 2012 after a long career with restaurant companies including Ignite Group, Gondola Group and Greene King Plc. He refers to the company’s success with home-grown brand The Noodle House, which now operates a portfolio spanning 23 operating outlets, with many more signed, including London, which is set to open in a matter of weeks.

When asked who currently leads the hotel industry in the world of food and beverage, the three gentleman are typically cagey. Refusing to be drawn on other companies’ work, their answer is obviously ‘Jumeirah’, though Kopera, the Jumeirah Group senior vice president RnB and head honcho, admits he hasn’t always been so convinced.

In Kopera’s previous role, as vice president of food and beverage for Rosewood Hotels and Resorts — for whom he worked for 15 years before joining Jumeirah in January 2013 — when luxury hotelier Jumeirah launched  casual dining brand The Noodle House back in 2002, he questioned the group’s rationale.

“We were asking ourselves ‘why would you put your own competition into your own hotel? Why would you put a price point that is different to a normal hotel or traditional hotel restaurant?’,” recalls Kopera. “And they were right. They were the first to do free-standing restaurants inside hotels and that is really what we are all about.”

A Madinat case study

Madinat Jumeirah, where our interview takes place in Mina A’Salam’s newest outlet Tortuga, sets a shining example of Jumeirah Group’s commitment to food and beverage. Across three hotels, there are 45 restaurants, 25 of which are run by Jumeirah, and there are nine more due to open in 2015 when a fourth hotel opens on the site. This is a “serious statement”, says Gradnitzer, corporate director culinary at Jumeirah, not to mention one that is “highly unusual”, adds Kopera, and all down to the “different train of thought” followed by the team.

“Restaurants are no longer an amenity to a hotel. They actually create the ambience, they are the face of the hotel,” asserts Kopera.

The shift to Jumeirah RnB came just over a year ago, following the appointments of Myers and Kopera. Gradnitzer has been with Jumeirah since 2000, his last position being resort executive chef at Madinat Jumeirah, and he left operations last year to bring the culinary brains to RnB and form the trio.

They spent six months or so planning the new division, which was unveiled at Jumeirah’s annual F&B conference in September  2013 to rave reactions. Sixty Jumeirah senior food and beverage executives from across the globe came to Dubai for three days to share best practice and create the vision that the entire “F&B fraternity” will now follow, reflecting the group’s “huge investment and commitment” to this division, says Myers.

Kopera explains: “The reason why we created RnB and went away from F&B is simple — because our focus is on restaurants and bars. It’s a restaurant experience, a bar experience, it’s not just serving food and beverage; there is a distinct difference. We were only a gang of three in February last year and we had to get this baby born, so we set out to create our mission statement which is actually very self-explanatory”.

At this point, Myers pulls a slip of paper from his wallet — the mission statement, to which every project must adhere.

“We had a vision and it’s the same vision today and we are really proud of that,” he says. “Our mission statement is to create and operate highly innovative, desirable, market driven restaurants and bars maximising revenues and profits to establish Jumeirah Group internationally as a leading operator of successful restaurants and bars.”

The globalist nature of the business is something Gradnitzer is particularly passionate about: “That is where we differentiate, and talking about the mission statement, it is very simple, it’s easy to understand from a global perspective. Everybody understands it and knows he’s part of that success. It’s really up to the team and if we see it from a global perspective, there are so many great talents out there, which we obviously want to extract. We look to invest in people and people are a very major part in everything we do. We do monthly calls with them, so every last Tuesday we do a global conference call,” he reveals.

Myers pipes up: “We have created this global worldwide F&B family that is tight. Christian was doing this phenomenally well. We are moving the culinary team, growing, developing them and we have done 25 to 32 international transfers. We worked on creating this amazing incentive scheme — you can literally earn double your salary. We believe in that, we believe in empowering people and there’s a real focus around empowerment F&B and ownership, whether that’s chef-led operations or GM-operated and we have really invested heavily in that.”

“We are very determined...to get the right people in, not to manage them, but to give them the tools to deliver what makes a great brand restaurant,” adds Gradnitzer.

Meet the chef patron

Of all these people, one is particularly important; the person heading up each new restaurant, whether chef or general manager.

Gradnitzer reveals: “The core differentiator of RnB... is we give a single point of responsibility in one restaurant. So here at Tortuga we have Carlos — he is the owner, he runs and operates the restaurant as if he owns it. He is in that case the chef patron — the chef and GM. In other instances we have a general manager and the chef reporting to him”.

The approach at Tortuga with patron Carlos Hannon is certainly different — radio adverts feature him speaking, rather than a polished voice over, and invites to the launch were sent from him, not the marketing team. As chef patron, the menu is clearly his, with ‘Grandmother’s corner’ featuring authentic dishes he has grown up with.

After all, what underpins Jumeirah’s new vision is the fundamental importance of good, authentic cuisine, hence Gradnitzer’s role in the trio.

“It’s a culinary vision in its first step. It’s the whole package but if the food isn’t great you won’t return. Consistency is important. We want to create dishes which bring you back,” says Gradnitzer.

When it comes to the roll out, “we don’t want to say we will do 40 restaurants — we are going to build it and build it in blocks,” he asserts.

They started with Alta Badia at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, formerly known as Vu’s, which Kopera says “didn’t need much, it needed a soul and it needed identity”.

“It’s mainly touch points, ambience, people,” adds Myers, highlighting chef Claudio Melis, who used to run a two-Michelin-star restaurant in the food lover’s region of Alta Badia in Italy, but who now, is more focused on the authenticity of his cuisine than on seeking out stars.

“Claudio comes from that ethos of those guys that grew up knowing about produce, provenance, food, dinner, how to bring the whole experience together, and brilliant hospitality. He’s so much more than just a good chef,” says Myers.

“When you ask Claudio what makes you so special, he will never refer to the fact he is a Michelin-star chef, he will tell you ‘I cook honest food’. His ravioli, it’s nothing, it’s pea ravioli in a clam sauce and [when you eat it] you die ,and you can watch people and they take the ravioli in their mouth and it’s so pretty to watch,” says Kopera, salivating at the thought.

At Tortuga, formerly British restaurant The Wharf, located by Mina A’Salam’s turtle sanctuary, the concept was influenced by the elements surrounding the restaurant.

Kopera says: “[We follow] a three-to -five year culinary journey [and envisage] how we see a particular location to look in three-to-five years. There was no real authentic, happy Mexican restaurant and this is such a great spot — look at the water, look at the resort, it’s a great spot during the day — everyone walks by it going to the beach. A taco is something great to have at lunch, a Corona is something great to have in the afternoon, and a great meal is something nice to have in the evening. Kids love it, it’s very happy, very simple food and this is a great location — we have the bar, we have the restaurant and we have the outdoor space.

“We turned it into a very happy, light, airy cool space with happy food.”

The future of RNB

Getting Tortuga’s concept right was important not just for its success at Madinat Jumeirah, however. It could well multiply, following in the footsteps of The Noodle House and Urbano, and go global.

“Tortuga eventually, for example, could be its own brand and have its own GM reporting to the restaurant here,” says Kopera.

“This is potentially what is really exciting about Tortuga is that genuinely you could see it on a high street in different places — it doesn’t have to be in a hotel, this is a genuine standalone brand and we are very excited about the future of this for sure,” asserts Myers.

In the process of concept design, Jumeirah “incubates” restaurants as it analyses their future. Bahri Bar, again at Mina A’Salam, is undergoing this process and will be the first bar to relaunch, while The Rib Room at Emirates Towers, also to launch at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, is also under scrutiny.

“Within a month you will see significant changes at Bahri Bar,” says Kopera, while Myers adds that a general manager has been appointed and a music terrace is under development.

“When we incubate...we invest into the team, the food, the environment, the training, the touch points, the reception, the sequence of service, the style, and we put a whole standalone mentality into the operation,” says Myers.

“Incubation usually is refining, determining the concept, making sure we are clear who we are, making sure we deliver what we communicate,” adds Gradnitzer.

In other cases, new concepts will replace existing ones entirely.

“We are planning a smoke house concept, a Texan BBQ, with atmosphere, music and it will come somewhere in Dubai, it will replace an existing restaurant,” reveals an excited Gradnitzer.

A couple of all-day-dining restaurants at hotels are being transformed, into “a destination restaurant that serves breakfast”, while a lobby lounge revamp is also underway — though the team won’t reveal where just yet, although they did admit some projects are underway at Jumeirah hotels in Shanghai and the Maldives, as well as Dubai.

 “We are going to invest significant amounts of money over the next four years into our F&B operations,” says Myers.

The team will also be investing significantly in recruitment, training and transfers. Referring to the global conference calls, Myers says: “We’ve put a lot of effort into facilitating that and that’s through the international calls that we do. So the guys all get to know about each other and their properties”.

“Jumeirah is very RnB focused and we are very committed to building careers. We just transferred a waiter from here to become a management trainee in China. That’s a highly unusual concept so we transfer people on all levels and we are committed,” adds Kopera.

Two mystery restaurant concepts are also being created following suggestions from colleagues at the conference last September, demonstrating the trio’s keenness to get people involved at all levels.

Alongside this, part of the roll out will focus on communicating what Jumeirah RnB stands for to all stakeholders, though Myers points out that in reality, it’s not that far removed from what Jumeirah has done via its own brands and its partnership with Caprice Holdings. They won’t confirm whether contracts are signed, but hint that locations in Downtown Dubai are on the radar.

“From an outside point of view, probably we need to go and say ‘we are going to put a big site right in the middle of Downtown Dubai’ — I get that it would focus people’s minds,” says Myers, when asked how investors will get to know of Jumeirah’s plans.

“That’s not saying it won’t come in the near future, it’s something, watch that spot,” adds Kopera, typically coy, however, if Jumeirah’s track record is anything to go by, it would be fair to assume Jumeirah RnB will want to make an impact — in Dubai’s culinary sphere, if not in the charts.

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