Heinz Beck
More than just innovating in the kitchen... Heinz Beck went in for wholesale changes to his business operations at his restaurant on the Palm Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Switching things up, like dining concepts, pricing, the way food’s served, or ordered and delivered is the way for F&B brands to survive 2021.

Nearly everything to do with operating an F&B business in the UAE – and elsewhere - has changed. It’s been over a year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and subsequently became one of the most difficult challenges for the F&B industry to date. In addition to it being devastating to public health, the world saw more restaurant closures than ever before. Some of which even ended up being permanent.

A year later, as life in Dubai resumed with plenty of distancing guidelines in place, the F&B industry is still struggling to get back to its glory days. But many have used the closure periods to adapt and innovate. Social by Heinz Beck, a fine dining restaurant on the Palm Jumeirah has re-opened with a slightly different concept to adjust to new market demands. “We are changing our menu and offering a different price point,” Heinz Beck told Gulf News. “Some of our starters are lower in price and our dishes are just more direct. The menu is shorter and more focused.”

“Some of our starters are lower in price and our dishes are just more direct. The menu is shorter… more focused.”

The high-end dining spot treats guests to a Michelin experience with a menu starting from Dh65, with the most expensive dish priced at Dh230. Which is considered relatively reasonable for a fine dining establishment in a premium neighbourhood in Dubai.

“When we closed our restaurant during the pandemic, we used the time to come up with new dishes and different ways to combine ingredients,” said Beck. “In fact, when the restaurant launched eight years ago, it was more difficult to source good ingredients in comparison to today.

“Despite the pandemic, I would say today we have better ingredient sourcing than we did when we first opened.”

Most important, especially these days is winning repeat customers. “They make up a big portion of our diners,” he said. “We are slightly out of the way, especially for those who do not live on the Palm. But once the guest comes, they begin to understand that the concept is very experiential and they tend to come back.”

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Powering through

For other F&B brands, the present is an opportunity for expansion… and re-negotiate.

“We have been able to negotiate compelling deals with landlords and franchisees, allowing us to take the concept further afield in the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” said Ahsan Kahlon, co-owner of Reif Japanese Kushiyaki, a Dubai-based concept recognised for its unconventional spin on Japanese food. “We are assessing additional locations in the region… and globally.”

Reif Japanese Kushiyaki, which is helmed by the Singaporean chef Reif Othman, opened in August 2019. In the final three months of last year, it recorded a revenue increase of 85 per cent, which Kahlon attributes to getting creative with the menu, constant communication during the lockdown phase and a loyal clientele.

As a result, in May is the opening of the first franchised Reif Japanese Kushiyaki restaurant took place in Cairo. Three franchise-led locations are being explored for Riyadh, with the first due to open later this year.

New entrants, new ways

It’s safe to say that standard restaurant operations have had to adapt quite a bit, food retail however wasn’t affected as severely. Industry sources point to the increase in space dedicated to food products in the UAE’s retail space, at physical stores and online.

Maywand Jabarkhyl, the CEO and Managing Director at FBMI.

“I believe that with COVID-19 there’s been a lot of competition for food brands,” said Maywand Jabarkhyl, CEO and Managing Director at FBMI, which is launching Mira, an ethically sustainable dried fruit, nuts and saffron brand from Afghanistan.

“Many new entrants may see this particular time as a challenge. However, competition makes you better and we aim to differentiate ourselves on two key aspects – the quality of the product as well as the social commitment aspect.”

FBMI invests in healthcare, education, numerous social and economic reforms; and provides employment opportunities in Afghanistan. About 70 per cent of its employees are women who work from home. Each employee receives free vocational training, medical care and schooling for their children.

FBMI originally started as a carpet production and community development programme in 2010. “As we launched Mira, we separated the carpet arm of the initiative,” said Jabarkhyl. “I am confident that our existing customer base and followers will continue to support us through this new food retail arm.

“Additionally, COVID-19 has made consumers more conscious of their eating habits. People have been made to focus more on healthier options and favour more natural products and diets like keto. This shift, I feel, will benefit a brand like Mira.”

Mira’s range is being marketed at a premium. “Our aim is for Mira to be sold at boutique and gourmet stores as well as several other sales channels,” he added.

The products are not available commercially nor are they farmed commercially like the majority of agricultural products which involve heavy investment in machinery, technology to increase yields, and the use of artificial elements.

“Our food products are grown in the wild and handpicked daily by farmers,” said Jabarkhyl.

Just over a year since the pandemic showed up, UAE’s F&B space is into constant learning. Some of those lessons learnt are paying off.