Dubai Food Festival will run for three weeks from Sunday (March 28), with the events this year being spaced out rather than confined to a handful of locations. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: After months of navigating an extraordinary level of change with a global pandemic and enforced time at home, the year 2021 seems to be looking up. While some industry insiders are excited and hopeful for the new year, some are approaching it with prudence.

Dubai’s F&B businesses – from fine dining to those serving up takeaway meals – are getting a chance to put their best foot forward for Dubai Food Festival, which kicks off on Sunday.

With these businesses having had to combat the COVID-19 impact for 12 months now, events like this are vital for success… and survival. “It’s all about exposure. Government-led festivals get the brand under the spotlight and allow people the chance to visit,” said Seher Farooq, Marketing Manager at Bella Restaurant and Lounge, a relatively new entrant in the market. “Additionally, having Government backing on events gives guests an added vote of confidence in these unusual times.”

The Dubai Food Festival kicks off on Sunday MArch 28th and is running until April 17. To add more value, especially this year, the Dubai Restaurant Week has been extended to 17 days. The sub-event within DFF is an opportunity for food fans to enjoy more optimally priced set meals at top restaurants, or take advantage of up to half-price deals.

“I think fine dining restaurants can give the perception that they’re too expensive, so this event allows guests who perhaps would disregard eating at fine dining restaurants, to come down and give it a try,” Farooq said.

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More than a taster

DFF showcases the city’s food and the capabilities of its F&B players. The event will host chefs, restaurant brands, street food and homegrown eateries inspired by the over 200 nationalities living here in Dubai.

"Participating in DFF gives us the opportunity to piggyback on the event’s marketing strategies," said Yannis Manikis, the Director of Culinary and F&B operations, Conrad Dubai. "Our venue’s name is publicised by the festival’s marketing team in press releases, e-mail newsletters, online and offline marketing techniques and therefore creates a big boost to increase awareness of the venue as well as revenue."

All of this happens without the restaurant having to invest too many PR resources of their own. Any dish or concept can become a talking point at a food festival, provided it hits the right quality and approach with the guests.

"Guests love a one-time dish promotion and get excited about new pop-up concepts. The key to success at DFF is to produce a very buzz-worthy concept or dish and be able to sustain both consistency and quality." Manikis said.

This year, the city will be rolling out special events, including masterclasses, chef’s tables, and bespoke dining experiences in partnership with restaurants. Additionally, there will be appearances by celebrity chefs, cooking competitions, and one-time-only promotions in malls.

A great benefit of DFF is that it allows chefs to connect with customers. "They might know our food, but participating in events like this allows chefs to put a face to their brands as well as being an opportunity to launch a new dish or concept," explains Manikis. "DFF gives chefs an “out of the box” approach to try new items along with go-to favorites and also present new pop-up concepts. If the recipes or concepts are a hit, it can be a sign that they’re ready for permanent implementation on a menu."

The potential of achieving targets in an existing restaurant or a new pop-up is tremendous. Another benefit is that government-led food festivals create networking opportunities among local companies, other restaurants and suppliers. In the long term, this will forge a strong bond and foster cooperation between all parties involved in the festival.

Dropping the flagship

The Beach Canteen was always a major event at Dubai Food Festival. This year, it's been postponed to the end of 2021.

But one of the major attractions, the Beach Canteen, has been postponed to the end of 2021. Essentially, DFF this time, is more spread out and less location-based. The dining offers, masterclasses and chefs tables are happening across restaurants rather than at any particular venue hosting the event.

This ensures that all activations follow prevailing safety protocols and social distancing guidelines.

“DFF is a great chance to get people out there and support local restaurants without attending a massive event with a large crowd,” said Marwa Salama, a resident. “So it’s a win-win because the restaurants benefit and the people still won’t miss out on one of the most fun festivals of the year.”

Another socially distanced activity to enjoy during DFF is their Foodcation initiative, where over 15 hotels offer a culinary-themed staycation. The foodcation usually involves complementary meals, a special masterclass and experiencing restaurants at the hotel.

All about leveraging the event

"My team and I really wanted to go the extra mile with our offerings for this edition of the Dubai Food Festival and have created dining experiences which will be only available in our restaurants during the festival," said Steven Smalley, the Cluster Executive Chef at Hilton Dubai Jumeirah and Hilton Dubai The Walk. "Our regular guests already getting really excited about the events and we are also looking forward to welcoming diners, who are trying our restaurants for the first time."

"It is great to be part of the government-led festivals such as this. The support we are getting in terms of marketing, exposure and customer engagement is incredible," Smalley said to Gulf News.

Even restaurants that aren’t officially taking part in the Festival are leveraging the celebrations. “It encourages residents from across the UAE to try out new culinary experiences,” said Monica Metzger, Food and Beverage Manager at Nakheel Mall. “We will be offering special packages to customers from March 25 to April 10 at The Pointe, Club Vista Mare and Palm West Beach.”

Food markets too are playing their parts. “We launched our food hall at the Food District in November as a seasonal concept,” said Metzger. “As we approach Ramadan, Food District will be closing for the summer season and we will work closely with the tenants to identify what the next best step is for Food District's evolving journey as a dining hub. The goal was to access The Pointe’s high-volume visitors during peak seasons.”

This relatively new food market offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, paired with beverages from the following speciality vendors, each helming their own booth.

One of these booths, Bramble, is planning to take advantage of the government initiative. According to Mirzo Hadizov, its Managing Partner, “It really allows us to connect with new audiences.”