When Ghazi Azzabi pitched up in Dubai in 1987, he had just finished college in the United States and his plan was to scrape together some money to return Stateside and continue his studies in engineering.
Slogging it out on the night shift and scrubbing his way through mountains of dirty pots and pans during his first years in the hospitality business, thoughts of being headhunted by the airline executive James Hogan or running a multimillion-dollar business that included the Cavalli Club among its interests must have seemed rather far-fetched.
But after a couple of torrid years working for Arab African International Bank (part owner of the Hyatt) and Jebel Ali Resorts and Hotels, his interest was piqued.
“It was interesting because it got my foot into Dubai and to see what hospitality was like,” Mr Azzabi recalls. “But it was totally different from what I expected: it was three-star hotels which were pretty derelict and I wanted to move on and do something a bit more with the trend.”
It was with Emirates Airline that his career began to take off, so to speak.
The new airline was looking for people with premium hospitality experience and Mr Azzabi fit the bill.
Over time, he leveraged his talents to become a trainer and developed some of the airline’s early products. From there he went to Etihad Airways and then in January 2004, at Mr Hogan’s request, to Gulf Air, where he was part of the team that managed to – temporarily – revive the fortunes of the Bahrain-based airline.
“That was an interesting adventure,” he says, adding that he learnt a lot about marketing from Mr Hogan. He was ultimately responsible for introducing the revitalised brand to 5,500 employees across the network from catering to operations to ground staff to cabin crew.
Central to the strategy was identifying different “touch points” and relating them to the customer rather than just for the sake of creating something, he says.
From there he went on to manage the passenger terminal at Sharjah International Airport, to do a stint at International Financial Advisors before moving on to the venture capital firm Pragma Group to oversee its leisure assets.
“My objective here was to restructure the Cavalli Club; put it back in operation and make it a moneymaking.”
This he succeeded in doing in less than six months, he says.
“It’s [now] quite big money-maker,” Mr Azzabi reflects.
As a self-confessed foodie, one suspects that it is in his latest guise running Fine Dining Ltd, the company that has the Middle East franchise for Ruth’s Chris Steak House that Mr Azzabi may have truly come into his own. For the uninitiated, the chain got its name after Ruth Fertel bought an existing restaurant called Chris’s Steak House and added her own first name. The 144-outlet chain now prides itself on serving up the best USDA prime beef. The calves are grass and corn-fed and the steaks are grilled at 1,000°C so as to retain their flavour and juices, according to the restaurateur.
“Ruth’s Chris has a great reputation in the US first but also throughout the world but [it] needed just a little bit of a tweak here in the Middle East to bring it up to that level [that’s expected here] and that’s exactly what I am doing,” he says.
Mr Azzabi recognises the need to stay on his toes, given Dubai’s discerning clientele.
“We changed a few things,” he explains. “We changed the lighting; we changed the sound system, the playlist [bringing in live jazz]; we follow through with our clients on a more persistent basis rather than just passively.”
The restaurant in Dubai Marina has been open for a year-and-a-half and has “been very successful since the opening”, Mr Azzabi says. It is intended to be the flagship outlet in the Middle East as he looks to other locations, including Abu Dhabi, Doha, Bahrain and Tunis to open venues.
Ruth’s Chris in Dubai is a member of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an international gastronomy association with origins in the 13th century that was revived in the 1950s by the food writer known as Curnonsky.
“Obviously it’s a very big reference when it comes to identifying quality food prepared in line with the traditions of good establishments,” says Mr Azzabi.
He surely has a solid reputation for bringing brands to the Middle East and revitalising those that are flagging – but wouldn’t he like to establish his own brand?
For now, the group is looking at bringing several other brands to Dubai – more along the contemporary rather than fine dining style, he says. But establishing his own brand is not something he is ruling out.
“It is possible,” he reflects. “When that opportunity comes certainly we will take advantage of it but I think it’s maybe not this year, maybe not next – but we’ll see.”
The UAE still retains huge potential for new ventures – and for any Dick Whittingtons who, like Mr Azzabi more than two decades ago, come seeking to make their fortunes – or indeed some cash to get them through school.
“Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become sort of international platforms,” he says. “There are many more opportunities today. I think this is a land of opportunities …where anyone with an entrepreneurial approach to life can succeed.”