Dishing the dirt

The Food and Beverage industry is dogged by short-term thinking

Daniel During
Daniel During
Helen Beardsley
Helen Beardsley
Mark Burns
Mark Burns

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CID sits down with three Food and Beverage specialists to find out what impact this is having on restaurant and bar design across the region.

The region’s food and beverage (F&B) industry is still plagued by short-term thinking. Ever eager to make speedy returns, restaurant and bar owners are reluctant to commit to a significant upfront investment. This, of course, is having an inevitable impact on the quality of F&B interiors across the region, as interior design budgets are often the first to suffer.

Unlike their peers in many other parts of the world, who spend years developing and strengthening their chosen concept, restauranteurs in the Middle East tend to focus on short-term profiteering, with little consideration for how sustainable their business model really is.

“The region falls a little bit short in terms of the willingness to look at long-term investments rather than short-term,” agreed Mark Burns, managing partner of Fondue, a kitchen consultancy company that is committed to educating hotels on the need to employ specialist designers for their F&B components

“Owners cut capex in a bid to get an immediate return in 12 months, neglecting long-term potential gains and the process of building up a reputation. They are not looking at the way a lot of European stalwarts have operated, gradually building up a business for 20 years and then making a fortune. A lot of our clients look at that and think ‘we can have that’, and open a restaurant expecting immediate returns,” he said.

As a result, restaurants in this region often enjoy a high-profile opening period, followed by a few months of success, before business inevitably dwindles. Very few F&B concepts have shown an ability to maintain the loyalty and interest of their customer base for an extended period of time.

“You get your six month honeymoon period, but then what? We are seeing a huge number of closures within one or two years, because they haven’t looked past that initial great wow opening,” Burns said.

This lack of long-term thinking impacts every aspect of the business. Cost-cutting measures do not start or stop with the interior finishes – they also creep into the back of house and severely impact operations.

“For example, they tend to forget that one of the most important things in a restaurant is the chef,” said Daniel During, managing partner of Thomas Klein International, a turnkey F&B consultant that covers everything from feasibility studies and concept creation to interior design and branding.

“When it comes to spending money on a chef — and I’m not talking about a celebrity, just a good chef — they would rather save AED 5,000 on his salary and get someone who is mediocre. That’s when you have restaurants closing after six months to a year, because the quality isn’t there.”

This segment of the market is becoming increasingly competitive, with a higher than ever number of so-called F&B specialists battling for projects. This is further impacting the quality of design being rolled out.

“We are getting greater competition coming in from outside for far less work. The good will survive and the rest will fail. But there is not enough work to sustain everyone,” said Burns.

“Where we were competing with maybe six or seven companies previously, we have a job at the moment where we are competing with 37. This is a job in Dubai. Suddenly everyone is a consultant. It’s going to drive down fees and, more importantly, the quality,” Burns continued.

The market already suffers from a severe shortage of original design solutions, suggested Helen Beardsley, client services manager at interior design firm, Keane. “There is a huge amount of copy and paste coming in from elsewhere in the world, but there are very few new, creative, passionate ideas going out from here to the rest of the marketplace,” she said.

One problem is that clients often have unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved – expectations that are fuelled by a lack of experience, understanding and research. “Everyone is a foodie these days; everyone knows everything about food, everyone is a chef and everyone is a restaurateur,” said Burns. “It was very fashionable to open restaurants here and it was only when they started failing that there was a realisation that there was more to it than putting a sign above the door,” he added

“Sometimes I have to say: ‘I’m not designing for you and your friends; we are designing for the public’,” During pointed out. “One example was a client who had an AED 70 price point for lunch and said: ‘We are going to have lobster and crab legs’. We had to tell him that he couldn’t have that on the menu unless he wanted to give it away. If you like that, go to Nobu and eat it. At your place you are going to have spaghetti,” During elaborated.

A maturing of the region’s F&B market is undeniably underway but will not happen overnight. The F&B sector will have to go through an unavoidable process of trial and error before it can compete with its more established counterparts around the world.

“It goes back to understanding the audience,” Beardsley pointed out. “We are finding that schemes we did five years ago are a bit tired and need redoing, but the clients are now more concerned about putting in a scheme that won’t age or date. That’s down to materials – not going for lots of stainless steel and chrome and everything being glitzy. It’s about natural schemes, with finishes that wear and get better with age.”

But unrealistic clients are not the only challenge that F&B designers have to overcome. This is still a highly specific market, and designers have to work within a very precise set of parametres. “We find with design that this region is different in terms of what people want from an F&B interior.

“Some of the schemes we would like to do really wouldn’t suit this market. We are doing some amazing stuff in London at the moment using reclaimed materials and it already feels ten years old, which is part of the charm of the interior. You sit on a bench, but there’s no way that that would translate to this marketplace,” said Beardsley. “We’ve just done something in the Seychelles which would never work here. Everything that is served in the restaurant which is vegetarian is grown within the vicinity of the restaurant. Projects like that don’t come around very often.”

Cultural considerations invariably come into play when creating concepts for this region. “We can’t use the same square metre parameters that we could in Asia, for example,” said Burns.

“We have to be a little more opulent with the front of house space, which creates challenges in maximising opportunities back of house. The one third to two thirds rule still works today and has done for 35 years, but it only works up to a point here. We really need to push the size of the toilets and the circulation.”

Experts are often frustrated by the industry’s lack of variety. The medium segment of the market, for example, remains criminally underserved. The market is crying out for more casual eateries that offer high-quality, wholesome food at reasonable prices. Meanwhile, oversupply reigns at the very top end of the market.

“We need to look at more medium, value for money, high-quality projects, something like a Jamie’s Italian in London, which I know is being brought over here and I know will be a phenomenal success. There is no booking and it does exactly what it says on the tin. Frankie’s has done it here, to an extent — it’s that Mediterranean cuisine where there is something for everyone,” said Burns.

This gaping void in the mid-segment of the market is hardly surprising given the fundamental make up of the market. Opening a restaurant somewhere like Dubai is still an expensive business – which places a limit on the kind of concepts that can realistically be sustained.

“The trouble is you need a lot of money to open a restaurant in Dubai. You can forget about a small restaurant on the beach with a guy grilling fish and a couple of beers, but that’s really what’s lacking,” Burns pointed out.

“A hotel will not give you 300m of the beach to open your little fish grilling restaurant, because they can make much more money doing something far more fancy. Ideally, I’d like somewhere where you can walk in as you wish and the food would be good, without a big-name chef — just John Smith who cooks great grub.”

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