Brand consciousness has made cafés, especially the premium ones, hip places to be seen in the UAE.

Strangely enough, the first character in Fried Green Tomatoes was the café, and the town. I think a place can be as much a character in a novel as the people.
- Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Fannie Flagg,who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café

If cafés were to be considered characters, as Flagg suggests, they would be gregarious, entertaining and affable personalities that draw people to them. And ones you can also count on for a steaming cup of coffee and a warm bagel at any time.

These elements are exactly what make cafés so popular with customers even today as they did in the 16th century when they first emerged. In more modern settings, the comfortable and causal ambience in these establishments has stimulated conversations, controversies and movie scripts, strengthened friendships, sealed business deals and almost always satiated caffeine cravings. The true essence of a café has endured even as small family-run enterprises in France, Italy, UK and the US have been overrun by bigger chains such as Starbucks Coffee, Costa Coffee, Second Cup, Gloria Jean's Coffee and Seattle's Best Coffee, among others.

Location, décor, cuisine, social trends, technology and contemporary management concepts have also had a great impact on the profile of cafés and have contributed to making these small establishments into big businesses.

Growing demand

Cafés and coffeehouses, especially premium international brands, are extremely popular and hugely successful in a cosmopolitan place such as the UAE.

"With a growing demand for customised coffee among coffee consumers and their enthusiastic embrace of existing foreign coffee shops, opportunities for global coffee chains in Dubai and the rest of the country are rapidly expanding," says Maan Kouly, Senior Operations Manager, Starbucks Coffee, Middle East, who also believes there is room for more coffeehouses that can meet the needs of different customers.

Raj Kevalramani, Operations Manager, Gloria Jean's Coffees, attributes the popularity of cafés and coffeehouses to the fact that nationals here have traditionally loved coffee and shisha, both of which form a combination found typically in Arab cafés. The huge expatriate population has also contributed to the influx and popularity of premium international brands. "A number of locals now travel abroad while some have even lived and studied in western countries such as the UK or US. This has exposed them to the café culture and brands popular there."

In addition, brand consciousness has made cafés - the premium ones in particular - hip places to be seen in the UAE.

While premium coffeehouses do attract customers because of brand value, people head to cafés for a variety of reasons, which depends on the location of the outlet and time of the day, says Pia Larsson-Norrman, Marketing Manager, Central Perk. "In the mornings, we mainly see groups of mums who have just dropped off their kids at school and business people having off-site meetings in a relaxed environment.

"For lunch, it's a mix, including people who live or work in the neighbourhood. In the late afternoon, we get groups of teenagers and school kids and people start dropping in after work. There are also large groups of friends seeing each other in the evening."

Khadija Al Jabiry, a UAE national media professional, says she and her friends, Sahar and Suad, head for a café after shopping trips. "We like to unwind and spend time at a coffee shop such as Starbucks or Costa in malls after a long shopping jaunt. I am partial to cold beverages and pastries while my friends like coffee. We catch up on gossip or discuss other interesting things. However, my mum likes to visit coffee shops for their pastries, cheesecakes in particular."

Sam Sultan, a manager with a leading insurance company who loves cafés that have character, great food and a good ambience, says he visits cafés often. "I go to Starbucks if I have to access the internet. But I particularly like hanging out at other independent cafés located in Jumeirah compared to the crowded cafés in malls. I usually read a book, enjoy a good meal or spend time with my girlfriend at these cafés."

Unlike cafés in Europe, visiting cafés here is more of a social event, says Simon Holroyd, Regional Manager, Costa Coffee – UAE and Pakistan.

"The turnover of customers is also faster in Europe, as customers here like hanging out at the café for longer periods. About 40 per cent of our customers also buy food along with the coffee, which is another trend that isn't as prevalent in Europe. This has also led to coffee chains here offering more diverse menus in addition to beverages."

Coffee chains also have to continually evolve in terms of quality, product offerings and service to ensure they succeed in a competitive market such as the UAE, which also has several independent players hoping to cash in on the success that international brands are enjoying, he says.

Themed-cafés such as Central Perk, Café Ceramique and Basta Art Café are popular here as are specialty cafés such as Organic Foods and Café and The Lime Tree Café, known for its use of fresh ingredients and healthy dishes. "When Jacqui Bowker opened the café just over five years ago, her intention was to provide Dubai's residents with fresh and transparently wholesome food within a location which was at once trendy and friendly. With this in mind, it was important to offer an abundance of seating with an alfresco option considering the weather in Dubai for eight months in a year is unbeatable," says Corrine Bowker, Co-owner, Lime Tree Café.

While location, products and service are considered sacrosanct in the business, several trends such as Wi-Fi are being incorporated in cafés. Starbucks was among the earliest to incorporate wireless hot spots at its cafés.

"High-speed internet access is a natural extension of the Starbucks coffeehouse experience, which has always been about making connections with the people and things that are important to us over a good cup of coffee. We try to keep our customers connected to the outside world while enjoying the world's best coffee. As easy as ordering a latte, our customers can also check e-mails, surf the web, watch streaming video or download multimedia presentations via a fast, reliable standards-based wireless internet connection for laptop/notebook computers and PDAs," says Kouly.

Central Perk also offers Wi-Fi access. Govinda Chhetri, Outlet Manager of Central Perk's flagship store in Jumeirah, says that Wi-Fi adds value as people can combine meeting with friends and staying connected. It's also convenient for business people if they have time in between meetings and need somewhere to work for a while and at the same time not miss out on lunch or an afternoon snack.

Radwan Masri, General Manager of United Restaurant Development, which has three franchises - Cinnabon, Seattle's Best Coffee and Zaatar W Zeit, says Wi-Fi plays a vital role in attracting clients. "Most customers these days want to be connected at all times. So Wi-Fi is one of the most important services we can offer them. We are Wi-Fi-enabled in all our cafés; for now it's free of charge if you consume a minimum amount of Dh 20."

Comfortable seating, warm interiors and a pleasant ambience are becoming the order of the day for cafés. Other trends include healthier food. Fruit juices, smoothies and low-fat choice are now sharing menu space with pastries, espresso and hot chocolate. Another trend gaining ground includes flavoured coffees or customised coffee beverages, says Kouly. These preferences are a clear indication that coffeehouses and cafés are moving with the times.