"I would love to take Gossip abroad and be seen as an Emirati brand in that market," Shayma Nawaf Fawwaz told The National in 2016. Two years later, on August 14, 2018, the Emirati entrepreneur opened the first branch of Mlkcakes by Gossip in London's Covent Garden, which counted Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, among its first guests.
The venture, says Fawwaz, was a trial run for what’s next on her business bucket list: opening up the Gossip brand to become a franchise, albeit with one very clear rule – that she and her team will manage said franchise for the investor. “I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told how ridiculous that idea is, how little sense it makes. But I am adamant.”
To understand why the ever-canny Fawwaz would choose to add to her already full workload, you need to get to know her a bit better. After earning her PhD in genetics, she served as vice president for health care at Mubadala in Abu Dhabi for three years. “I’ve always loved baking and dreamed of having my own place for a long time. But I was not ready to do so until I got enough operational and asset-management experience, two things that my government job taught me and that I needed to run my business successfully,” she explains. “The sectors may be different, but experience is everything; it helps you structure and plan and operate better. After all, even Apple’s Steve Jobs hired the CEO of Pepsi-Cola.”
In 2012, Fawwaz began location-hunting – and despite being born and working in Abu Dhabi, and attending high school in Dubai, she chose Sharjah for the first Gossip Cafe. “The Galleria location in Abu Dhabi and BoxPark in Dubai are amazing, but Sharjah made more sense to me five years ago. In a restaurant business, a good location is half the battle won, and my strategy was to have a Gossip in every emirate.
“The opening coincided with the launch of what was then one of the best malls [Matajer Al Juraina]. I knew then if I let this go, I might have to wait five years to secure a prime location. And because there weren’t too many home-grown brands in early 2013, Gossip created such a buzz that people from Abu Dhabi and Dubai travelled all the way to Sharjah for it,” she adds.
The cafe boasts an extensive sweet and savoury menu, with patrons raving about the ultimate Benedict, served on waffles with marinated pulled beef and smashed avocado; truffle eggs with charcoal bread; Mexican casserole with cheese tortillas; and saffron and pistachio milk cake. The exotic-sounding flavour combinations are a deliberate decision. “I love gourmet food. If I’m stepping out for a meal or indulging in a dessert, it has to be worth it, the best quality and the best taste.”
More importantly, the menu adheres to a Fawwaz-approved clean-eating concept. “Sometimes marketing wins over quality, which I think is a bit sad. I won’t go to a place just for its vibe; it has to have fantastic food as well. I need to know what I’m eating is safe for me,” says Fawwaz.
“These days, you order a salad and a juice in some places and you might as well have gone for the burger and a cola.” Gossip sources its all-natural ingredients from the royal family’s Al Ain farms and supports Emirati producers and suppliers as much as possible.
“Other than clean eating, it was important to me to infuse the brand with Emirati culture – from the hospitality and sharing-food point of view, as well as using the spices and ingredients found in local kitchens in the UAE.” The Emirati ryoog (balalit with eggs, chabab, dibbs, white cheese, local honey, regag bread and chopped dates) is particularly good.
The team is also constantly updating the menu based on seasonal produce, and ingredients that are trending. Case in point, the acai bowl and charcoal burger buns. “Nobody wants to eat the same thing forever, no matter how tasty it is. In that sense, food is very much like fashion – you have to study the market, find out what’s doing well and why, and then add it to your wardrobe, or in this case, the menu, with your own twist.”
The UAE and London’s cafes aside, the Gossip brand has also expanded to include events, luxury retail and gifts, in the form of Street, Fix, Iced, 1971 and Glo by Gossip. From the fresh ingredients and luxe packaging to the enthusiastic staff, Fawwaz oversees every detail. Circling back to those franchises, then, the entrepreneur puts it simply: “I don’t want to wake up one morning and find something shocking in any of the outlets. Operations is the hardest part. I have a full-on infrastructure, expertise and team in place, but it’s still an effort to get things 100 per cent perfect day-in, day-out.
“Most franchises involve handing over your brand with a manual of instructions. A lot of people may frown at my decision to manage each franchise, but imagine having an investor who does not know anything about food. It’s my name associated with my brand, and I would like to have full quality control; they can reap the profits alongside.”