Food retailers take time out for Ramadan

The Life: Ramadan can throw up some interesting challenges for food retailers
Marwan Al Hamar, the development manager for Subway in the UAE, says it is the hidden things that are hardest to manage. Duncan Chard for The National
Marwan Al Hamar, the development manager for Subway in the UAE, says it is the hidden things that are hardest to manage. Duncan Chard for The National

When it comes to operating a business, Ramadan can be a tricky time for food retailers.

Many see a sharp drop in the number of shoppers and have to adapt to different opening times or even close for parts of the day. These factors all create a logistical challenge in managing staff during the holy month.

"It's a really tough business," says Marwan Al Hamar, the development manager for Subway in the UAE. "It's the hidden things that are often the hardest to manage."

One difficulty for Subway during Ramadan is that food and drinks cannot be served in its restaurants until iftar. However, its contracts with mall operators state the restaurants must open and close at certain times.

This means staff have to arrive before 10am to open the store, but in many cases, they are not allowed to serve anyone until after sundown.

"Unfortunately, we have a contract where we are obliged to open and close after mall hours, so we still have to open at 10am in the morning and close after 2am," says Mr Al Hamar.

Subway has 108 outlets in the UAE, all under a franchise structure, and Mr Al Hamar owns about 20 of them.

But it is not only management and owners who have to deal with the challenges of different timings and shortened staff hours.

"There's reduced productivity, but staff also feel the pinch because they are more likely to miss their monthly targets and bonuses," says Mr Al Hamar.

These obstacles are not unique to Subway. Most food outlets across the country face similar issues and, retailers say, must also factor in Ministry of Labour rules that require staff in the private sector to work six hours a day during Ramadan and be paid overtime for any extra hours.

Cravia, the company that runs the franchises in the UAE for Seattle's Best Coffee, Cinnabon and Zaatar W Zeit, shuts some stores, which are in quiet locations, for the duration of Ramadan and others for certain times of the day.

As a result, Cravia sends 40 to 50 per cent of its staff on holiday during the month.

The company operates 10 Zaatar W Zeit outlets, 22 Cinnabon and nine Seattle's Best Coffee shops.

"We actually do the planning ahead of time. We send most of our staff on leave," says Rita Eid, the company's human resources manager.

"We do the planning process before, asking the employees what they want. Some will go before Ramadan and some will go during the month."

For many restaurants, the timing of Ramadan this year is beneficial for staff logistics because it falls in the summer months when business is traditionally slow.

"It happens that Ramadan is during the summer time and normally August is a dead season," says Ms Eid. "During the busy seasons the outlets need staff so they are not encouraged to go on holiday then."

Subway used to also have a policy of sending many staff on holiday for weeks during Ramadan, but Mr Al Hamar says it became too hard to decide who went on holiday and who stayed.

"We now try to manage our holidays all through the year. We find that easier," he says.

McDonald's opens only a small number out of its 90 restaurants in the UAE during daylight hours in Ramadan.

Rafic Fakih, the managing director for Emirates Fast Food, which runs and owns McDonald's outlets in the UAE, says business during Ramadan is much slower than any other period and so staff are encouraged to take holidays.

"We don't force people to go on vacation but they can go if they want," he says. "We give more vacation during this time."

Published: August 18, 2011 04:00 AM


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