By the time you read this, the cavernous space inside the Al Salam Tower on Shaikh Zayed Road will likely be buzzing with the sounds of satisfied customers scraping plates clean, a baker thrusting loaves into an oven, and the grind of two rather mammoth coffee roasters.
When tabloid! stopped in at The Sum of Us, the new cafe by the culinary upstarts behind Al Quoz’s Tom and Serg, it was, despite its building-site looks, relatively calm. The buzz was there, however — going on inside the heads of Tom Arnel and Serg Lopez, a couple of weeks away from opening their second venture in the UAE. They know that despite the success of their first venture, they’ve got plenty of work ahead at The Sum of Us, which at 1,000 sq metres indoors and 200 sq metres out, is double the size of Tom and Serg.
“Tom and Serg went quite well in the first year and a half, beyond our wildest dreams, really, and we were looking at other challenges. We constantly wanted to keep striving for something more,” says Arnel. “Dubai has lots of room for that, especially in the market we are in — speciality coffee, casual dining cafes, affordable. We just wanted to keep on with the success and do something that was a little more challenging.”
But, he adds, “we are not expecting success here. We know we have to work really hard to create success. We didn’t come to Tom and Serg, we created that.”
Pre-opening stress aside, the pair are enjoying having another opportunity to showcase their innovative sides. The cafe, which opened on Sunday, is an ode to the talents of their team at T&S, with in-house coffee and bakery (which will now supply the Al Quoz cafe).
“We thought let’s do a coffee roastery, because we’ve got great people in coffee, let’s do a bakery because we’ve got great people in bakery, so that’s why it’s called The Sum of Us, because it’s a bit of a collective in some way,” says Arnel. (Caffeine addicts: Stop in for a chat with Anthony in his Willy-Wonka-esque coffee room; it’s an education.)
“The core is still the same — really good food, really good coffee, really affordable, really approachable, just for everyone, every day. It’s the same approach, just a different location, a different style.”
“We have always wanted to do different things. It had come to the point where we thought that what we did at Tom and Serge was a mature business. We didn’t need to be there all the time to make it happen,” says Lopez.
“Even though we are there all the time,” Arnel deadpans.
It took them over two years to get Tom and Serg off the ground, but success came quickly, thanks to the cafe’s short menu of simple yet innovative dishes for breakfast, brunch and lunch (The Sum of Us may also serve dinner), fresh, bright interior and friendly, independent feel. Suddenly, Dubai-ites discovered late Friday breakfasts didn’t have to include high heels and bubbles to be fun.
The new spot isn’t a new concept so much as an “evolution” of Tom and Serg: It’s got a similar industrial feel with light wood, two floors and metal tins with cutlery on the table.
But what of the location, near Trade Centre Roundabout?
Lopez pulls out a staggering factoid: “I’m not exaggerating if I say we got offers of 70 locations since we opened Tom and Serg. We said no to all of them. We are really picky when we chose our location. It has to be the right area with the right access. We did a lot of market research before choosing and we saw that there was nothing around and there’s a lot of residents as well as offices.”
“Our point is that the food and coffee that we serve is for people to eat every day. You can’t go to a fine dining restaurant every day. People in all these offices need to go somewhere to eat and have coffee in the morning. So it was logical,” says Arnel.
And they’ve got a canny strategy for getting their loyal customers through the new door. Arnel is notoriously ruthless about taking beloved dishes off the menu. “I get into a lot of trouble from our customers all the time because I change stuff. And I like it that way. I’ve told a lot of people, any of the favourites I’ve taken off the menu at Tom and Serg, you’ll only see them again on the menu here.”
So what’s next? If you loved their Ramadan roasts, the two are cagey (with a smile) about whether they will do them again (they were so popular there were queues out the door). “I can’t tell you that. We’re going to do some cool stuff. We are conceptualising right now,” says Arnel.
“In the next few years we are going to try and think outside the square and be unpredictable and surprise people. We are moving from this into something else pretty soon which I think will excite people a lot.”
The Sum of Us, Burj Al Salam (next to Sheraton and H Hotel), is currently open 8am-4pm. Call 056-4457526.