Is the restau­rant scene in Dubai over­stuffed to burst­ing point?

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Matt Pom­roy

The UAE is one of the world’s lead­ing food and bev­er­age mar­kets, worth Dh52.4 bil­lion in 2015, ac­cord­ing to global mar­ket re­search group Euromon­i­tor.

Dubai alone has about 7,500 places to eat, from street cafes and fast-food out­lets to fine-din­ing and high- end restau­rants es­tab­lished by big-name chefs. Many will show­case their best dishes dur­ing Dubai Restau­rant Week, which ends on Sat­ur­day.

Jean- Luc Naret, the F& B se­nior vice pres­i­dent for Jumeirah Group (and for­mer pub­lisher of the Miche­lin Guide), pre­dicts that within a few years Dubai will be one of the top culi­nary des­ti­na­tions in the world. But, as part of that evo­lu­tion, the city ap­pears to be un­der­go­ing some­thing of an ad­just­ment. The head chef of a new Dubai restau­rant at a big-name ho­tel, who asked not to be named, said it had re­ceived more than 100 pos­i­tive re­views in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, and on web­sites and so­cial me­dia, yet this had not trans­lated into foot­fall.

You can walk into most restau­rants without book­ing. It is not un­usual for your party to be the sole din­ers for most of the meal – even at good restau­rants with ex­cel­lent food.

Sup­ply is set to in­crease, with 138 ho­tel projects un­der way across the city. Fig­ures re­leased at the Ho­tel Show Dubai last year re­vealed that 59 of those are set to open in 2017. With new ho­tels come new restau­rants, as it is un­think­able for a four- or five-star ho­tel to open without at least one high-end eatery – and prob­a­bly sev­eral. At­lantis, The Palm, for ex­am­ple, has 23 restau­rants, in­clud­ing a Nobu, Gior­gio Lo­catelli’s Ital­ian restau­rant, Yuan ( from chef Jeff Tan, for­merly of Hakkasan May­fair) and Gor­don’s Ram­say’s Bread Street Kitchen & Bar.

But there ap­pears to be some economis­ing. KPMG’s 2016 UAE Food & Bev­er­age Re­port shows that as a re­sult of price in­creases, 19 per cent of 840 sur­vey re­spon­dents said they eat out less, and 28 per cent are more con­scious of what they or­der. A sur­vey of more than a dozen UAE busi­nesses re­vealed that 48 per cent ex­pect a de­cline in the next 12 months.

“Op­er­a­tors might be well ad­vised to take a cau­tious ap­proach – try­ing to achieve growth through con­tin­u­ally open­ing new out­lets or rapid geo­graph­i­cal ex­pan­sion could be un­sus­tain­able,” notes KPMG. “In the longer term, the ap­peal and the qual­ity of the con­cept will de­ter­mine suc­cess.”

This view is echoed by some of Dubai’s top chefs.

“The ma­jor­ity of restau­rants in town are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dip in sales due to the slight de­crease of tourism in the re­gion, but the amount of new restau­rants open­ing also plays a part,” says Christo­pher Gra­ham, ex­ec­u­tive chef at At.Mo­sphere Burj Khal- ifa. “Many Dubai sta­ples that have been here for years are find­ing the need to diver­sify, re­brand and stay rel­e­vant to com­pete with all of the new in­no­va­tions. “Look­ing at the high- end ca­sual restau­rants, brasseries and fast-ca­sual out­lets, there is def­i­nitely a sat­u­ra­tion. With a lot of money in the city, it’s very easy for peo­ple to just get an in­vestor and open a restau­rant – quite a lot of the time they aren’t do­ing their home­work and go­ing un­der just as quickly.”

Gra­ham be­lieves the pro­posed in­tro­duc­tion of value added tax, likely next year, will make things even tougher.

“In a mar­ket al­ready con­sid­ered to be ex­pen­sive, any­thing that can drive the cost of sales up is a po­ten­tial risk,” he says.

Stephane Cocu, ex­ec­u­tive head chef at La Serre Bistro and Boulan­gerie, is also wary of the num­ber of new restau­rants about to open, ex­pat turnover and You have open­ings, and for every open­ing you’ll have a clo­sure be­cause there are only so many mouths to feed An­drew Mor­row head of F&B de­vel­op­ment and op­er­a­tions at con­sul­tancy firm Ròya In­ter­na­tional fluc­tu­at­ing tourism num­bers. “Dubai is small and 60 new restau­rants will prob­a­bly be too much,” he says.

“Let’s see how many will make it af­ter the first three months.”

Yet this can also be viewed as a nat­u­ral step in the emi­rate’s culi­nary evo­lu­tion. An­drew Mor­row, head of F&B de­vel­op­ment and op­er­a­tions at Ròya In­ter­na­tional, a Mena-re­gion spe­cial­ist hos­pi­tal­ity con­sul­tancy firm, points out that reg­u­lar clo­sures are a pos­i­tive sign. “The mar­ket needs to ma­ture and I would say in the past 18 to 24 months we’ve seen that mat­u­ra­tion,” he says, “and we’re ref­er­enc­ing Dubai be­ing sim­i­lar to Lon­don, New York, Syd­ney, the big in­ter­na­tional cities. Part of that spec­trum is restau­rant clo­sures. In the next two years you will start to see a sig­nif­i­cant amount of fail­ures in the in­dus­try, and that’s not say­ing Dubai is a fail­ure but it’s just one of the world play­ers. You have open­ings, and for every open­ing you’ll have a clo­sure be­cause there are only so many mouths to feed.”

In Dubai there is one place to eat for about every 280 in­hab­i­tants. In New York, it is one for about 420, so an ad­just­ment here is due, and com­pe­ti­tion should even things out. As Cocu points out, restau­rants that com­pro­mise on qual­ity will go.

“In my ex­pe­ri­ence, lots of new restau­rants start with high-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents and ser­vice but then as soon as the cov­ers go down, the rest fol­lows,” he says. “This is the begin­ning of the end. “We ... have never com­pro­mised on the qual­ity of our food and the fo­cus on good ser­vice. These are the two para­mount fac­tors to suc­ceed­ing in Dubai and sur­viv­ing in the long-term.”

The or­gan­is­ers of Dubai Restau­rant Week de­clined to com­ment.

art­slife@thena­tional.ae

Kam­ran Je­breili / AP Photo

Ara­bic food at Dubai Ma­rina, which has an ar­ray of fu­sion restau­rants re­flect­ing the di­ver­sity of the city.

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