Event review – Global Restaurant Investment Forum

George Sell reports from the second Global restaurant Investment Forum, which was held at the Conrad Dubai last week.

After a day of visiting local restaurants, the conference proper got underway with a welcome from Jennifer Pettinger, managing director, Middle East, of organiser Bench Events.

FT restaurant correspodnent Nicholas Lander then gave an enlightening look at what F&B operators can learn from the world’s top 20 restaurants.

Later in the first morning, specific local markets were examined for the key trends taking place in them. Nagi Morkos, managing partner of Hodema Consulting Services, looked at the MENA region. His top trends included food trucks; French cuisine and French/Middle East fusion; local cuisine; healthy, organic food; and juice bars (where customers can ‘drink their salad’). His top three trends were burger joints (some featuring local ingredients such as camel), Lebanese cuisine, and coffee shops (returning to their Middle Eastern origins).

James Hacon, managing director of Elliotts looked at the UK market. He reported that London had witnessed 148 restaurant openings and 47 closures in 2014. National and start-up brands are expanding in the regions, said Hacon, with Cambridge and Manchester developing in to hubs for innovation due to lower property costs. Casual dining is the single biggest growth area in the UK, with Hacon’s top trends revealed as comfort and informality, the paleo diet, pop-up outlets, Korean food and artisan coffee.

US celebrity chef Todd English then discussed the trend for increasingly cosmopolitan menus – “People are eating food from all over the world at one table” – and the decline of the tasting menu – “fewer restaurants are serving them”.

A series of breakout session running concurrently covered a range of local and global issues. The social media breakout revealed an interesting trend in Saudi Arabia, where some operators are using Instagram as a sales channel. They post their menu on Instagram, and customers then ring or email their order.

Three-Michelin star chef Heinz Beck – who opened his Social restaurant in Dubai last year and is also the proprietor of La Pergola in Rome – spoke about the challenges and opportunities of the UAE market, as well as the importance of finding the right local partners.

Food busker John Quilter gave an entertaining presentation in which he said that restaurants today are about performance, and are analogous with the music industry. The best restaurants now go on tour like bands, he said, citing Heston Blummenthal’s Fat Duck going to Australia for six weeks, and Noma’s Tokyo residency for which it had a 60,000-strong waiting list.

“Hotels and restaurants should be looking to the entertainments and tech businesses for the way forward,” said Quilter, before affirming the power of video as a marketing tool. “If you don’t know about Youtube you should be worried. If you’re not planning to use video this year, you should be worried,” he said.

Later that evening, delegates enjoyed a networking reception at Clé Dubai, where chef Greg Malouf – formerly of Petersham Nurseries in London – spoke about his passion for Middle Eastern vegetarian cuisine.

Day two opened with Philip Shephard, partner at PwC, predicting that the GCC food service sector will grow by 50 per cent to reach $25 billion in 2018. “Oil price falls have encouraged governments of Gulf states to broaden their economies,” he noted.

Eric Partaker, of London Mexican chain Chilango, spoke about the potential of crowdfunding for securing restaurant investment. He said: “UK is the world’s biggest crowdfunding market and other countries will follow. It is the here and now, it’s already here. 50 per cent of all UK seed deals in 2015 will be done via crowdfunding and the UK alternative finance market was worth £1.7 billion in 2014.”

A session entitled Re-imagining hotel dining, kicked of with MPS Puri, chief executive of Nira Hotels and Resorts, stating: “F&B is often a weakness for hotels. They are often located in prime real estate and the F&B under performs.  The independent restaurant scene has become more vibrant at the expense of hotel restaurants – it’s a global phenomenon. The best hoteliers and restaurateurs – Nick Jones, Ian Schrager, Andre Balazs – stick to what they do best and keep it simple. Consistency leads to loyalty.”

“The key to a good hotel restaurant in MENA is to appeal to the customer with an offer that speaks of the location. Importing a name chef or international brand is not necessarily the answer,” he added.

Julide Ozbilge Nuss, manager, F&B asset management at Abu Dhabi National Hotels said: “More and more operators are positioning their restaurants as standalone facilities. But the management is sometimes lacking. The chefs and hotel restaurant managers need to act as entrepreneurs and run the restaurant as a true freestanding establishment.”

A restaurant design session then followed. Kim Rahbeck, CEO of Sticks & Sushi stated: “Design can enhance a good product but it can’t compensate for a poor product,” while Bob Puccini, founder of the Puccini Group said a good restaurant is about theatre – lighting and atmosphere.

Ben Jackson, director, MENA project & development services, JLL pointed out that restaurnat design isn’t just about the sumptuous interiors that the customer sees: “Engineering and building in the ability to deliver is often overlooked in restaurant design. Cooling, extraction and cooking equipment are often not up to scratch.

Max Grenard, corporate food and beverage director of Wasi Hospitality agreed: “A beautiful restaurant that doesn’t work is no use.”


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