Lesson learnt for Tom & Serg co-founder Tom Arnel: ‘The point is a restaurant is never a slam dunk’

With five locations and counting, Tom Arnel and Sergio Lopez's Bull & Roo remain at the forefront of Dubai's casual dining scene.

Alexi Mostert, the head chef at Muchachas works his magic in the kitchen. Antonie Robertson / The National
Powered by automated translation

When Sergio Lopez and Tom Arnel opened their first cafe, in Al Quoz’s Al Joud Centre in 2013, not only did they get it just right, but they also sparked a frenzy that turned into a fiercely loyal following.

“When we opened Tom & Serg ... we were young and raw and didn’t know what we were ­doing,” says Arnel. “But ­somehow it all magically came together and it hasn’t changed since we opened it, except we changed a few design features.”

Fast forward four years and the duo, who met in 2010 when they came to the UAE to work for Jones The Grocer, have remained at the forefront of a casual-­dining scene that had exploded in Dubai during that time.

They now have a parent company, Bull & Roo (named for their respective countries of origin, Spain and Australia), of which Arnel is managing director, four restaurants – with two more coming soon – and 217 ­employees and counting.

With all that success, however, come big expectations. And fans of Bull & Roo’s venues – Tom & Serg, The Sum of Us at the Burj Al Salam in the World Trade Centre area, and Common Grounds and Brunswick Sports Club at Mall of the Emirates – have come to expect a certain ethos. This ­includes a bustling, polished operation, compelling ­social media, knowledgeable and relaxed staff, inventive and delicious dishes, and the feeling that Tom or Serg might just drop by your table, or at least give you a wave as they walk by.

After hitting a few speed bumps last year after the ­opening of their fifth venture, Muchachas, Arnel says they were forced to do some rethinking.

Sure, they had created a buzz with their usual slick social-media campaign, and people were excited about the festive, laid-back Mexican joint in the prime location of the Holiday Inn Express Safa Park.

But there were complaints when customers turned up to find they were supposed to book a table in advance – whereas at Bull & Roo’s other ventures they could simply show up and wait for one.

There were complaints about ­higher-than-expected prices and smaller portions than they expected, as well as a staff that was not quite the well-oiled machine of the other ventures.

So, as Arnel and Matt Connell, the general manager of Tom & Serg and Muchachas, explain as I sample the Muchachas Fiesta menu (at Dh205, a filling and typically scrumptious Bull & Roo deal that includes a steady and shifting selection of staff ­favourites), they scrapped the booking policy, increased ­portion sizes, lowered some prices and reorganised the team.

“The point is a restaurant is never a slam dunk,” says Arnel. “And you have to make sure that you graft and you work hard and listen to what the consumer is telling you, and understanding their needs to make sure you are exceeding expectations.”

The game has also entirely changed since the launch of Tom & Serg, which was housed in a mall because no hotel ­wanted to take a risk on the then-­unknown quantities of Arnel and Lopez.

The Dubai foodie culture has grown up right along with Bull & Roo, who are now part of a crowded scene, with the emergence of destinations such as City Walk and The Beach at JBR.

Then there is the social-media factor, with complaints, ­requests, reviews, comments and praise pouring in on ­multiple platforms, including Zomato, Trip Adviser, Facebook and Instagram.

In addition to providing a steady stream of engaging social-media content to followers, restaurant managers now spend a considerable portion of their time crafting responses to ­online feedback.

“It’s also got to the stage where people will send a direct message through their Instagram account, explaining their ­experience, or they’ll send you Facebook messages now,” says Connell, who is from ­Melbourne. “Even in terms of if they are mischarged on the bill, or they thought something was wrong with the bill, they’ll do it at work rather than phoning up the restaurant the next day, or they’ll do it in their bed at 12 o’clock at night.”

With Muchachas now ­humming along, Bull & Roo shows no signs of slowing down: this month they will open a ­second, smaller Common Grounds inside the Warehouse Gym on Jumeirah Beach Road.

Next up is a home-delivery ­service called Uncle Jheff. Launched at Sole DXB last November, it will feature Thai street-food style dishes – one headline dish is curried short rib – and operate out of a shared kitchen at the Mall of the ­Emirates Common Grounds/Brunswick location.

The name of the service comes from a man Arnel used to work with in Singapore, who would cook a delicious staff meal every Friday.

“I just always had a fascination with him. He’s a lovely guy, his food is amazing,” says Arnel. “Thai is a big thing. People love Thai – it’s healthy, it’s tasty.”

And, in news that is sure to ­excite foodies in the capital, ­Arnel and Lopez have made ­several scouting trips to Abu Dhabi in the hunt for their first location in the capital.

Arnel admits his big dream is for the company to look even further afield and open ­restaurants in other countries.

But first and foremost, the focus is on doing whatever it takes to keep Bull & Roo’s ­customers well-fed and loyal.

“That’s the best thing we have, that we are creative and we are young and ambitious and ­prepared to take risks and just change,” says Arnel.

“We’re really proud of how we can adapt to our environment.”