Open for 42 years, Dubai's Al Ustad Special Kebab reflects on the pandemic

In 2008, the Bur Dubai restaurant's sales were down by about 25%, but in recent weeks they've seen a dip as low as 95%

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In a new series we talk to UAE food institutions that have been serving customers for decades about these unprecedented times... 

Al Ustad Special Kabab is a household name in the UAE.

Started by Mohammed Ali Ansari 42 years ago, the restaurant in Mankhool, Dubai is famous for its yoghurt-marinated chicken and mutton kebabs, but also for the friendly family who run it and the interiors plastered with photographs.

These photographs pay tribute to the restaurant's long legacy and feature many Bollywood and Iranian celebrities and royalty who have dined there.

It is a Dubai institution, but no restaurant worldwide has been unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic, and when asked about how badly this crisis has hit them, son of the founder and co-owner Abbas Al Ansari, gets nostalgic, and says it is unprecedented.

“Last week I was going through the books – we have records since the restaurant started – and I was looking at the 2008 figures when the Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008. In the months that followed, our sales were down by 25 to 30 per cent. But that still was not too bad,” he says.

“If your business goes down 15, 20 or 30 per cent, that’s a rough patch, but when you see it go down 90 to 95 per cent in the span of a few weeks, that is a disaster,” he says.

While relaxation of restrictions on movement allowed the eatery to reopen in late April, like all other restaurants across Dubai, Al Ustad Special Kabab stopped accepting dine-in customers for a period from mid-March. It focused on deliveries instead. However, according to Abbas, who owns and runs the restaurant with his elder brothers Majeed and Talil, it has not been enough to sustain the restaurant.

Deliveries account for around 10 per cent of the normal business, and so they had to dig into their reserves. “Restaurants have high daily costs. Those who do not have reserves at this point will find it very challenging.”

A video from when The National visited the restaurant in early 2019:

However, even on the brink of disaster, Abbas retains the positivity he and his hospitable family are known for. “Things have improved since the UAE allowed restaurants to allow 30 per cent dine in customers. We are not getting the footfall we used to, but we are hopeful that we are moving towards better times.”

Cost-wise, the biggest factors for them are sponsorship fees, staffing, food, electricity and rent. Abbas says rent is the biggest outlay, chalking up to 18 to 20 per cent of the total monthly expenses.

“If landlords who have been taking rent for years can show a kind gesture by waiving rents for a few months, that will be a big help. If we close tomorrow, that’s 30 staff that will go unemployed, which in turn is bad for the economy. It’s the landlords’ job to take care of us, not the customers who have always been loyal,” he says.

Al Ustad Special Kebab is currently owned and operated by brothers Majeed, Talil and Abbas, sons of Mohammed Al Ansari, who founded the restaurant.
Al Ustad Special Kebab is currently owned and operated by brothers Majeed, Talil and Abbas, sons of Mohammed Al Ansari, who founded the restaurant.

Abbas says it helps that, as a family business, a lot of the work is done in-house, with the brothers taking on the roles of accountants, purchasing managers and public relations officers.

They have also taken on delivery work and are doing their best to ensure no staff has to be let go. "They have been with us through our tough times. As they say, you cannot clap with one hand. We want to give everyone a happy life. That is what our father [Mohammed Ali Ansari] taught us – to live and let live."

As of now, Abbas says they will wait and watch how things unfold before making any big decisions, although they need to see business pick up or rents waived by the end of the year, to be able to continue operating, he says.

As his family restaurant moves into unchartered territory, he says he's holding dear the lessons passed down from his father. “Our father taught us, and this is what we're passing on to our own children, that the secret to a successful restaurant is to be clean at work and respect people. Give them good service, good food and at reasonable pricing. The rest depends on God,” he says.

The founder of the restaurant, Haji Mohammad Ali Ansari (1933-2015):