Dubai: Freshly caught fish, grilled or fried using simple techniques and special spices. Add to that sure-shot Arabic cuisine favourites like hummus, fatoush and lentil soup and you have a guaranteed hit. That has been the secret behind the popularity of Bu Tafish restaurant and it has done them good for over half a century.
This is the story of a young man’s entrepreneurial passion and the nurturing business environment that has been the bedrock of UAE’s success.
Our story starts in 1966 - a young Palestinian man from the West Bank left home and travelled to Jordan, and then to the UAE, in search of success. And success, it seems, was in search of him, too.
Walking around the Abu Dhabi beach, back in the 1960s, he saw a simple opportunity and grabbed it. Beachgoers at the Corniche, opposite the old Hilton Hotel, were enjoying a good day in the sun. But wouldn’t they be thirsty, he wondered.
He couldn’t see a shop anywhere in the vicinity, so he decided to set up a shack selling water and cold drinks.
But there was a problem - it wasn’t ready cold. He didn’t have an electricity connection and the car that delivered ice would have days it did not show up. But this was 18-year-old Radwan Osman Al Tamimi, who refused to give up in the face of any adversity.
Eventually he got a trade licence and set about fulfilling his business aspirations. Al Tamimi wanted to do something for Abu Dhabi and hoped to start his own restaurant. He had travelled thousands of miles to this new country, he was like a ‘tafish’ - someone who has left his land and reached a foreign land. And that’s where the the name of Al Tamimi’s new food enterprise came from - Bu Tafish.
“In GCC countries, there is a culture where when a man has a son, he will not be called by his name. Instead, he will be called ‘bu’ and then the boy’s name. This practice of adding ‘bu’ started from that tradition,” Sakina said.
She added that ‘bu’ can also be used figuratively, in humorous situations or to express affection.
In rare situations, when used figuratively, ‘bu’ may refer to ‘the one with ...’ or ‘the one that is ...’, rather than literally ‘father of …’.
The beginnings of Bu Tafish
Bu Tafish became an instant crowd puller in Abu Dhabi, when it started in 1968, as it was the first floating restaurant in the Emirate.
People could walk onto the floating abra and enjoy healthy, tasty seafood and cold appetisers. Today, the same customers who were children back then, return to have a good meal and relive fond memories.
“There were children who would swim on the beach and then come to the restaurant and try to catch the fish that we had in the aquarium for customers. It was very relaxed back then. Today, the same people are in their forties and fifties. They talk about how they would try to run away with the fish and my father would run after them. They have very fond memories associated with Bu Tafish,” Wael said.
From a single abra in 1968, Bu Tafish then moved to a restaurant along Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi, and over the years, they have built four branches, the largest opened up recently in Dubai’s Jumeirah area.
“On the weekend, there are no empty chairs, inside the restaurant or in the outside seating area. We are three brothers who are managing the restaurants … it is a family business and we are going to continue growing it. We want to start a franchise, as we have a lot of people asking us for it,” Wael said.
A recipe for success
Bu Tafish seems to have mastered a form of Arabic comfort food. Their fish is always fresh, as it has been from the day the restaurant started. While today, the restaurant branches do not have an aquarium from which fish is freshly caught, the staff go out every day and catch the fish directly from the sea. On days this is not possible, the fish is sourced directly from the local market.
“Hamour, kanat, safi, these are the most popular fish. We also serve calamari, oysters and shrimps. If people don’t want seafood, we also have a mix grill, which is very popular,” Wael said.
This year, Bu Tafish was recognised by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) as an Urban Treasure – an establishment considered historically significant in Abu Dhabi and identified as part of the city’s vibrant cultural and urban scene. Wael attributes the success of the restaurants to the special start they got, as well as a ‘special sauce’, which is popular among customers – a mildly spicy concoction, that you can use as a dip with your meat grills.
However, one reason the restaurant has continued to thrive for over half a century may have something to do with how Al Tamimi’s sons were groomed to take over the business.
“When I was young, I would visit the restaurant often with my father. When I turned 18, I joined him in the business. That is something I can never forget – on my first day, I reached the restaurant and wanted to sit at the cashier’s desk. My father was the owner, I wanted to be the big boss,” Wael said.
What happened next came as a shock for Wael – his father asked him to go to the kitchen and wash the drinking glasses. Next, he was asked to mop floors. This went on for a week.
“I was so confused … why is he asking me to do all this when we have staff that we pay to do this?” Wael recounted.
The week after that, he was asked to wait tables and go to the market to get fresh vegetables. By now, the young man had cottoned on to why his father was making him do every single job that was required in the restaurant.
“Today, if a waiter is late in bringing something, I am able to understand why he might be getting late. It helped me understand, and know what he feels when he is being yelled at. I learnt what needs to be done when they go to the market, I know how much everything costs when I go buy it from the market. I can never forget how my father made me learn how every department is run in a restaurant,” Wael said.
He added: “I learnt to be patient from my father. He started from zero and established this restaurant. That is what I learnt through his training. At the end, I did sit at the cashier’s desk, but I was a different man, alhamdulillah.”