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Dubai's restaurants and destinations did a good job of it on New Year's Eve. But they will need to keep repeating the same formula to make this year work well for their numbers. Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News

Dubai: The worst may be behind them, but UAE’s restaurant operators are not about to forget the lessons that 2020 handed them. In fact, the new learnings will be central to how they chart the future. It’s a brave new world for the food and beverage industry in 2021.

Cashflow issues were a serious matter for many last year… and will remain so well into this year. “The industry will look at 2021 with cautious eyes - that includes being wise on recruitment and expenses,” said Jaime Castaneda, General Manager of 99 Sushi in Downtown Dubai.

“We all have become much more cost-efficient. Although the road is long until we get back to the ‘old normal’, I do not see any step-backs. Every day is better than the day before here in the UAE.”

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Caught in a grind

COVID-19 imposed harsh and immediate realities for restaurants and the wider F&B industry. The only ones to benefit somewhat were those that could rely on their order-and-deliver operations during the weeks and bitter months of trying to overcome the worst of the pandemic’s impact.

But recent weeks have brought back partial cheers. “Cautious optimism” is a phrase that gets used a lot.

According to Yunib Siddiqui, CEO of Jones The Grocer, “I speak based on our experience in the last two months and also conversations I have had with other operators. Most of us saw a relatively decent end to a fraught year.

“But the recovery appears fragile and dependent on people able to travel. This is resulting in trade-offs in income allocation.”

La Serre Business Lunch
Dubai's fine dining establishments are doubling down on dishing out uniqueness to make it more compelling for diners. (Image used for illustration purposes.) Image Credit: Supplied

Reworked business models

He reckons that “For 2021, business models that are versatile, that provide multiple revenue streams, not solely reliant on dine-in are more likely to survive. I see a flat first-half and perhaps a steep decline during the summer months as people are final ably to travel.

“The last two quarters should start to see a recovery with revenue edging back toward pre-COVID-19 levels.”

Or the old normal, as Castaneda says.

Awaiting the return

While consumers cooked more than ever before in 2020, they unmistakably missed dining out in Dubai - and a new player - CZN Burak in Downtown Dubai - confirms this. “We entered the market less than two weeks ago and our 700-seater restaurant is full from the time we open until we close,” said Rizgar Sak, Chairman of Dives Holding, the owning company of the new CZN Burak.

People have been coming for a glimpse of the internet-made-famous chef Burak. “That is a testament to how hungry the people of Dubai are to eat out,” said Sak. “I think they are bored with staying home. With news of the vaccine, we can also sense that residents are more motivated to dine out.

“I presume 2021 will be more about casual and affordable dining. We are planning to expand our concept to include a casual burger eatery - a spot that’s for millennials, Generation Z and even kids. They are the target audience and the ones to impress in 2021.”

Tourists bring in plenty of business

Tourists and visitors flying into Dubai for holiday will be just what the F&B industry needs for that extra push.

With more tourists and visitors expected later in the year, restaurants will get to reap the benefits. This is “pivotal for restaurants in Dubai, as well as continued support and interest from local residents who are not travelling as much,” said Lloy Rubio, General Manager at Lola Taberna Espanola, a new Spanish restaurant in Barsha Heights.

“I predict people will be seeking out casual environments and looking to spend their time in venues that provide good ambience, music and food at a reasonable price point without compromising on quality.”

But many are thinking about their health first. Plant-based dishes have now gone mainstream. “I foresee that a sustainable and plant-forward focus is going to take centre stage in 2021,” said Lendl Pereira, Executive Sous Chef at Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah. An increasing number of chefs are trying to source ingredients locally and extra care is being taken to buy from sustainably managed sources.”

Getting the right mix

There has been a general tightening up within the industry on all sorts of costs. But with new locations opening, it will create opportunities to test the waters all over again.

With consumers being more cautious about where they’re spending their money, restaurants need a near-perfect combination of great F&B, unique design and entertainment in order to stand out,” said Brendan McCormack, Director of Operations & Marketing - Food and Beverage, The First Group.

Reassessing priorities

Ilker Yokus, Cluster Executive Chef of Wyndham Dubai Deira and Super 8 by Wyndham Dubai Deira says: “There are a few trends we can expect, one being the demand for comprehensive selections of healthy options on menus to cater to the renewed interest in health and wellness. Additionally, al fresco dining may become more coveted as people search for open-space eateries.

“Lastly, delivery options as well as DIY food will still be on the rise, taking cues from the habits formed in the pandemic.”

Over and above everything, for a sector that depends on disposable incomes, the focus needs to be on customers’ needs and wants. That would be the best recipe for sustenance and success…