The UAE is home to diverse expatriate communities, all of which have left an indelible mark on the country’s culinary landscape.
According to the New York Times, Dubai has more restaurants per capita than New York City, boasting approximately 13,000 establishments. The global awareness and appreciation for the unique opportunities the country’s food and beverage (F&B) sector holds grows parallel to the Gulf country’s popularity as a destination for tourists, digital nomads, and those simply looking to forge a new chapter.
For Sarah Abualia, a founder of Waffries, a quick-service restaurant concept with its first store in Mall of the Emirates, the fact that there are numerous international chains and food brands contributes to the robustness of the country’s F&B market.
“F&B is one of the things Dubai prides itself on, [attracting] people from all over the world with its diverse offering,” she says. “So, although challenging, it’s a great place to launch because it’s a mature playing ground, and if you get things right, it’s a perfect launchpad for an international business.”
For Sri Vidya Surendar, Founder and CEO of Mondy Cheer, offering traditional Indian sweets and savories, the challenge that the diverse landscape presented was clear, but her motivation was stronger. “The belief that we had something unique to offer was the key to entering the market despite the formidable presence of numerous international food brands.”
Magnus Ericsson, who launched Viking Bageri amid a global pandemic in 2020, recalls, “I started baking and focused on trying to bake the best baguette in Dubai, something I couldn’t find at the time, at least not like the baguettes you find in France.”
From gifting bread to friends and neighbors, Ericsson soon found a following through Instagram, where he chose to document his journey. “One thing led to another, and all of a sudden, we realized that we had enough demand to start a business,” he says.
TURNING ON THE HEAT
Whether borne out of passion, leveraging an untapped concept, or simply the pursuit of excellence, restaurants, and food businesses must navigate shifting market and customer trends to survive, especially considering reports, such as those from CNBC noting that around 60% of new restaurants fail within the first year.
Elaborating on these challenges is Surendar, who speaks on the struggle of positioning themselves in a crowded marketplace, which, over the years, has seen lesser importance being given to brand loyalty. “Customers today have multiple food outlet options and a mindset for experiencing something new regularly,” she says.
Amidst the constant challenge to remain flexible, dynamic, and cash-positive, Abualia believes this can be done through careful management. “It’s important to know how to manage cash well and the cost of growth,” she says. “It’s also important to know what your product/market fit is so that you can know how you would be affected by different economic conditions.”
QUALITY AND CASH FLOW
Another challenge is in the form of quality and consistency. Surendar points out that shelf life is critical with food and requires time, effort, and resources. “Our strategy to attract and retain customers is to focus on the quality and attractive branding and packaging. The focus on quality takes precedence because, in the long run, aspects such as fragrance, taste, and texture find appeal among customers.”
The focus on investing in quality is also critical for Ericsson. “Our main goal has always been to bake the best baguette in Dubai,” he says. “We are aware that we’re running a business, so we need to be financially sound. But we look for different options that will produce the same result, but it can’t be on the cost of the quality.”
MARKETING THE BRAND
Admittedly, Surendar says the availability of funds is always on the mind of business owners, especially those in F&B. “Our approach is conservative; we realize we are in for the long haul. Much of the marketing is through word-of-mouth.”
Perhaps there is no better time for such an approach than in this digital age, where social media facilitates word-of-mouth.
Ericsson believes social media helps to stay competitive without relying on the often-astronomical marketing budgets other international chains have within their arsenal.
“Early on in our journey, we started ‘The Nomination Baguette’, where we had people nominating friends to receive a couple of free baguettes,” says Ericsson. “That led us straight to some of the biggest foodies in Dubai raving about our bread. We didn’t have a significant marketing budget, and we could only do it by word-of-mouth.”
For Abualia, finding the right balance in marketing budgets can be challenging. “We are still trying to crack that,” she says. “But I’m starting to realize that it’s about many different activities in parallel. We’re lucky to live in the social media age where people will market your product for you, which can be a great tool.”
KEEPING A PULSE ON LOCAL CUSTOMERS
Abulia adds that navigating cash flow, whether in terms of operations or marketing, is critical to attracting and maintaining a strong customer base, pointing out that, as a business, they focus on ensuring consistency, value for money, and brand equity.
“[It’s about] resonating with our audience so that they not only love the product but also the brand.”
“Building a loyal customer base is a formidable challenge in a crowded marketplace,” adds Surendar. To build brand loyalty, she says, is to give customers the unique choice of buying food that’s unavailable elsewhere.
For Eriksson, it is essential to know his customers and, when possible, build a relationship with them. “We listen to our customers and take feedback seriously,” he says, adding that he and his wife, Maria, would actively engage with customers to refine and improve the recipe.
A TASTE OF WHAT THE FUTURE HAS TO BRING
Despite the hurdles that local food businesses have encountered, the opportunities are palpable; Abualia says that Waffries, since its launch, has had a demand to expand, underlining that despite the potentially oversaturated market, there is always room for good ideas.
It’s all about identifying the distinguishing features of your business, says Surendar. Ericsson agrees. “Try to find out what would make your brand and product unique. That will help you understand how to market it,” he says. “If your product is niche, by quality, selection, or any other aspect, then that’s what you need to focus on.”
Amid the dynamic and competitive landscape, where international chains and food brands flourish, homegrown food businesses continue to display resilience, highlighting how passion and innovation will continue to shape the future of the F&B industry in the UAE.
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