Here's what it's like to open a new restaurant in the UAE during a pandemic

Three brands, which are in the process of launching physical branches in the region, share the recipe to their success

Popular Japanese restaurant 99 Sushi will open its doors in Dubai this summer. Courtesy 99 Sushi

It’s no secret that the UAE is a food lover’s paradise.

A total of 429 new restaurants opened in the first four months of 2019, according to the Department of Economic Development Dubai – that's an average of three new restaurants a day.

However, with the global food and beverage industry hard hit by the pandemic, restaurants have been cutting expenses wherever possible rather than expanding.

Yet, there are some restaurants that have not just managed to stay afloat, but are also setting up new branches.

Here’s what it takes to start a restaurant during a pandemic, according to UAE establishments that are in the process of setting up shop. While they might not have planned it this way, having started the launch process months prior, they're taking it in their stride and adapting to the new normal.

Create new experiences

Popular Japanese restaurant 99 Sushi, which first opened a branch in Abu Dhabi’s Galleria Mall in 2017, is all set to open in Dubai.

The restaurant, due to open a branch in Downtown Dubai on Thursday, July 2, signed the lease in January this year, according to its general manager, Jaime Castaneda, who points out that no one can foresee something like a pandemic.

99 Sushi will open its doors at Address Downtown, offering views out over the Burj Khalifa. Courtesy 99 Sushi

However, Castaneda is taking world events in his stride, and says he is not too worried about them deterring business. “99 Sushi is about the culinary experience more than anything else. Our competitors might focus on entertainment, but, at 99 Sushi, you don’t come to sit at the bar. You come to enjoy the food. At our restaurant, we already have a two-metre dining distance.

"Meanwhile, fine-dining restaurants are all about serving quality to smaller numbers. It would be impossible to give excellent service if you’re attending to 100 to 200 diners at the same time.”

The new restaurant will have an intimate space so that staff can focus on its customers, he adds.

A matsuri roll of spicy tuna with jalapeno sauce and avocado from 99 Sushi

While the small number of diners at the restaurant suits current circumstances, Castaneda admits the crisis will change some aspects of the restaurant's opening.

For starters, the amount of staff was a major consideration. The restaurant got around this by only recruiting 60 per cent of the workers it originally intended to hire, and they have moved some Abu Dhabi employees to Dubai temporarily. “It’s a good thing – they have already been trained, so we can expect the same quality from the day they open,” he explains.

The restaurant is also looking at minimise operating expenses wherever possible, from social media to stationery and facility management, and have an increased focus on delivery.

“Gone are the days when fine-dining restaurants did not need to do delivery because it ‘devalued the brand’. Delivery, earlier seen as an extra feature, is now part of the business plan. At the moment, we are thinking of ways to maximise this new source of revenue.”

At the end of the day, Castaneda believes there is an audience for fine dining – even if it is delivered to homes. “It’s part of UAE culture,” he explains. “The population in the UAE is quite young. We are not like our parents who spent hours preparing food. People here want an experience – even if it means ordering in something special and creating that moment at home.”

Staying positive… while being prepared

Chef Reif Othman is expanding his business to Palm Jumeirah at Depachika Food Hall. Courtesy Reif Othman

Chef Reif Othman has remained busy throughout the pandemic. In May, the Dubai chef launched a cake and chirashi counter, as well as a donburi pop-up at Nakheel Mall, Palm Jumeirah. Both ventures are a prelude to Kushi by Reif, another concept opening up later this year.

So, how has he managed to do all of this during a pandemic? “Well, as a person, I’m very energetic. I can’t keep still and during this pandemic there’s no one around. It gives me time to come up with more ideas,” he quips.

His upcoming concept, Kushi by Reif, was already in the pipeline when the crisis hit earlier this year, and it did halt the plan temporarily. Nevertheless, the chef is looking on the bright side of things. “When I first opened Reif Japanese Kushiyaki [on Al Wasl Road], I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed. It took a bit of time to get into the flow of things. But this pandemic has given us more time for training, to get into a momentum. It’s an opportunity to get the staff familiarised, and a learning curve for us all,” he says.

Dubai's Nakheel Mall is getting a cake and chirashi counter, featuring 13 desserts with a Japanese twist. Courtesy Reif Othman

Like in the case of 99 Sushi, Othman has redeployed some of the team from his established restaurant to his new one, and is running on a skeleton crew until everything goes back to normal. He admits this has been a hard time for his restaurant, which is still making a loss.

But, at times like this, savings are truly important, he says. “It is savings from the company that’s helping us continue the business. I’m proud that I can keep paying the staff salary and take care of my employees.”

His advice to all in the food and beverage industry is to be wise in terms of funding and spending power. “It’s important to plan for the bad days,” he says.

Adapting to the new normal

Blaze Pizza launched its first Dubai branch in May 2020 in The Dubai Mall. Courtesy Blaze Pizza

While the 99 Sushi and Kushi by Reif venues are still in the process of being set up, Blaze Pizza, a US brand, launched its tenth branch in the Middle East in The Dubai Mall at the end of May.

The pizza place, which is backed by NBA superstar LeBron James in the US, had to “completely re-think” how it went about the restaurant opening as compared to pre-Covid-19 times, a representative tells us.

“Ensuring the safety of our team and guests was the number one priority. Teams from the head office, the Mena team and the US worked remotely via video technology to support the new opening, alongside the additional measures we had to take in light of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, there would have been a senior support team on the ground from Mena and the Blaze host brand from the US.”

The Dubai Mall branch of Blaze is the brand's 10th in the Middle East. Courtesy Blaze Pizza

The goal, the representative adds, was to make it as close as possible to a pre-pandemic restaurant opening, while introducing changes like encouraging contactless payments, providing a QR code to display the menu, introducing a hand-washing sink and implementing social distancing measures. Awareness campaigns were pushed digitally and hygiene measures – such as regular sanitisation of surfaces, controlled seating capacity, usage of masks, gloves and hand sanitisers – became a must.

The best thing restaurants can do in the current environment is to adapt to the new normal – and embrace it, adds the brand's spokesperson. “Be nimble, so you can adapt the offer and communications to what guests want from your brand and restaurant.”