For most of Sergio Lopez’s career, he’s been known as one half of a wildly successful twosome.
For a long time, the pair, known creatively as Tom & Serg, seemed to have something of a hospitality Midas touch - each new venue borne under their moniker was an instant hit. Their first venue, the eponymous Tom & Serg in Al Quoz, an industrial, Melbournian-inspired hangout that spawned their Dubai empire, is likely the first place you'll be steered towards if you're in search of a flat white, or decent eggs.
So what happens when one half of the pair, steps away? How does one go on to being, well, just Serg?
While rumours have been swirling, Lopez is quick to put an end to any talk of bad blood in his first interview since his departure from the hospitality parent company he co-founded with Tom Arnel, Bull & Roo, in February last year. Or, as he prefers to put it: “there’s no beef”. All chefing puns aside, Lopez says his decision to step down was "a business decision and a person decision; probably more personal”.
Arnel and Lopez met in 2010 while working for Jones The Grocer, and almost instantaneously cultivated a fiercely loyal following upon going it alone. The Sum of Us, Common Grounds, Brunswick… each was built on the laid-back, urban chic Tom & Serg-aesthetic - well that, and the fact that their names are basically synonymous with good coffee. Mexican cantina Muchachas and Thailand-inspired Uncle Jheff were the pair’s first foray outside the Flinders Lane-esque eateries.
Tom & Serg classics
As far as Dubai was concerned, the pair - with their slick social media campaigns and yoga attire-approved venues - could do no wrong. However, Lopez admits, rapid success doesn’t come without drawbacks. "In four years we opened seven outlets," he says. "It was too much and for me, I needed a bit of a break. Tom wanted to take over, and we decided it was better for me to step back a little bit and move into other things.”
Those other things involved spending time with friends and family, and returning to his Spanish homeland to open a restaurant in Madrid. He then went on to open several other restaurants outside the UAE. But it wasn’t long before the familiar came calling. “My brain was like: Serg what are you doing; you need to get back into the stress,” he says with a laugh.
But what do you do when your name is forever connected by an ampersand to that of your former business partner’s? Well for starters, Lopez set his sights on a whole new city: Abu Dhabi.
His new concept, Sanderson's, will open in the Al Seef Resort & Spa by Andalus in September, with a couple of familiar faces at the helm along with him. General manager Sumi Payne has come from Common Grounds, and head chef Troy Payne worked at The Sum of Us, as well as other high-profile Dubai venues.
The move was based on a long-standing desire to enter the capital’s hospitality scene, Lopez says. “I’ve always wanted to work in Abu Dhabi. As we know, Dubai is overwhelmed with restaurants and cafes and places... so we wanted to do something different and unique in Abu Dhabi.”
The location at Al Seef was chosen due to its “small Mediterranean village” aesthetic; the name was plucked because of its nuances as “an international name, a global name, a traveller, trustworthy, like the guy next door”; and the concept, he says, relies on your mood.
The space is split into two areas - one restaurant with a main kitchen and an array of menu items, and a more casual pool bar area with a focus on salads and raw items. He doesn’t like the word “healthy”, he says, as he prefers to describe his dishes as “balanced”.
“Everything we do is in-house. From A to Z, everything is made - the bread, all the drinks - everything is done here,” he says. “We also wanted to work as much as we can with local producers, and make it sustainable. The UAE is going towards something more sustainable and that's something we wanted to do with Sanderson’s.”
The latter point is partly influenced by his own life, having been an early adopter of social sustainability and the first resident of Dubai’s Sustainable City community, where residents grow their own vegetables and rely on renewable energy. At the end of the day, he says, his new venture is more about the people than any end goal. He is looking at expanding, slowly this time, but also has his eyes on a few other international outposts too.
“I've also learned that it's better to go step by step, see what it is, do it well and move on when the time is right,” he says. “Everything I'm doing now is about the people that I work with and people that I call friends. It comes down to the fun of it. Sometimes we can get too corporate and there’s too much thinking about what's next rather than what I'm doing now.”
So what for Dubai, then, where the first incarnation of Serg flourished? While the cafe that launched the duo's industrial-cool brand will continue to carry his name, Lopez is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations, although he still remains as part owner and serves on the board of directors.
UAE food scene
Lopez is pragmatic about his adopted hometown, and says it will continue to be in his future, and he’ll likely go on to split his time between Dubai and Spain. “At the end of the day, I need to wake up and love what I'm doing and love my team. The moment I say you guys are really smashing it, I don't need to be here anymore, then I move on.”
So does he have any advice for any budding entrepreneurs hoping to follow in his successful footsteps? “Dubai has changed a lot, it's not more difficult, it's getting more competition, you need to be better,” he says. “If you're opening a restaurant to think first what they're going to open, why, who is the team behind them, because the team is really, really important.”