If he was disappointed, Ghazal did not show it.
“Look, awards and recognitions are great for the morale of the team,” he says with a smile. “But I think our work speaks for itself. And a lot has happened over the last five years.”
Ghazal’s meteoric rise in the UAE’s food and beverage scene is no mean feat. Five years after opening his first Dubai restaurant, The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill in JBR, he’s expanded the concept to two more locations in the city: The Maine Street Eatery in Studio City in 2019 and The Maine Land Brasserie in Business Bay in 2020.
Last year, The Maine became one of the first home-grown UAE brands to go international, with the opening of The Maine Mayfair in London. Housed in a Grade II-listed Georgian town house and spanning three levels with five distinct rooms, Ghazal says the restaurant’s opening exemplifies The Maine’s evolution as a concept.
“After a lot of trials, what is really cool about the brand is that it now has that flexibility and malleability. So what we’re really doing is dialing up and dialing down The Maine as required for the neighbourhood that it’s in. It has to take the shape of wherever it finds itself,” he says.
The London opening also gave the entrepreneur faith he was on the right track.
“In 2016, we started with 30 people on the staff and now we’re 400 people. That is huge in just five years,” he tells The National. “I was looking at the numbers thinking ‘that’s crazy how you'd scale up an operation like that’.”
Next week, Ghazal will embark on his first concept outside of The Maine, with the opening of Canary Club in JLT, his fifth restaurant, something he refers to as a bit of a “reinvention”.
Taking up a stand-alone building within the Banyan Tree Residences, the multi-level restaurant will tap into a new community, says Ghazal. It will also have the added bonus of being the only restaurant with a rooftop in JLT.
“Despite going international, we are also very aware of the fact that our brand succeeded because of the support of communities in Dubai,” he says.
“Also, what it says to us is that when you go to communities in Dubai which are underserved and with a compelling offer, you can earn the trust and the patronage of that community. And we proved that in JBR for the Dubai Marina community, in Studio City for Arabian Ranches, Motor City and Sports City and Business Bay for the Downtown community.”
When he was offered the location in JLT, it ticked a lot of boxes for Ghazal.
"It’s a new community we haven’t tapped into, it’s a very unique location and the catchment area is huge,” he says.
While The Maine brasseries are known for their American East Coast-inspired menus, Canary Club will celebrate a West Coast vibe, taking inspiration from California to Cabo, all the way to Lima in Peru.
"We’ve created a concept that incorporates a lot of Californian trendy, from healthy diner food and Mexicatessen to Asian influences and sushi and sashimi bowls," Ghazal explains. “Essentially, we’re creating a concept that does a lot of what we did with The Maine — bring popular favourites in a fun, buzzing environment with a very compelling hook, which in this case is our design and our rooftop. It will also be very much beverage led as much as food led.
“Basically, it’s a East Coast brasserie does a West Coast concept.”
Ghazal, who is Lebanese-Canadian, hopes to hit the same “sweet spot” he did with his first restaurant, which he’s since replicated in all his other outlets.
“When we started, we really pioneered and owned the premium casual category. People don’t really realise this, but before we came on the scene, there were no middle market brasserie offerings in terms of our pricing. There were lots of high-end restaurants at the Dh700 per head price points,” he says.
"We came in right at that Dh350 per head sweet spot. And that's really the reason for our success and the reason why we’ve been able to open up The Maine in strategic areas. It’s a formula that works and what people have come to expect from us.”
The community aspect of his restaurants will continue to be a driving force, he says. This is why he helped found the Dubai Oyster Project, which helps to create artificial reefs using hundreds of thousands of discarded oyster shells from his restaurant.
Inspired by the Billion Oyster Project in New York Harbour, Ghazal has partnered with the Emirates Marine Environmental Group and The Arbor School in Dubai. Used oysters are collected by students from the school, instead of being thrown in landfills, and then used to create marine structures, which are then placed in the water near Ghantoot, close to the border of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“It’s the first-of-its-kind community reef-restoration project. Our restaurants produce more than 50,000 oyster shells per month and we’ve so far donated more than 250,000 oyster shells to the project,” says Ghazal.
“Students of Arbor School put them in gargoors, which are illegal fishing nets seized by the authorities. These are then used to create biological building blocks to create artificial reefs.”
While providing a home for thousands of marine species, coral reefs also act as vital protection, reducing the impact of waves as they hit coastal areas.
“We’re trying to get more hotels and more restaurants involved. Our goal is to get it up to a million oysters shells per year, which is totally doable,” he says.
With five restaurants now in his care, Ghazal, who spent his childhood in Dubai before moving to Montreal in Canada, says he has a few other concepts in the pipeline, and more expansion plans for The Maine.
“We’re already looking at Maine Miami, in Vegas and in Mykonos and locations in Saudi Arabia and the Far East. We’ve already proven that The Maine as a concept has legs, and that we can dial it up and dial it down, depending on where we are,” he says.
“There isn’t really another international brasserie brand. There’s an international Nobu, an international Zuma and an international Amazonico… So our sights are set on that.
“And we’re not sitting back. There’s still so much work to do in the UAE.”