UAE entrepreneur Paul Evans on how to pandemic-proof restaurants and open new ones

The chief executive and co-founder of company behind concepts such as Lock, Stock & Barrel and Asia Asia is preparing for a slew of new openings this year

The past year has been a bumpy one for those in the hospitality industry.

Even as things gradually get better, with a slew of new restaurant openings this year alone, they have not gone back to the way they once were. However, one local hospitality group is bucking the trend with a string of new openings over the course of 2021.

Solutions Leisure Group is known for some of Dubai's most famous concepts: it's brought us Lock, Stock & Barrel, Asia Asia, STK, Wavehouse and Karma Kafe. And there's plenty of exciting launches to look forward to – both in Dubai and Abu Dhabi – in the months to come.

What’s coming up in Yas Bay Waterfront?

The group has made waves by announcing that Asia Asia and Lock, Stock & Barrel will soon be opening doors in the highly anticipated Yas Bay Waterfront in Abu Dhabi.

They will also be accompanied by The Central, a new concept that Paul Evans, co-founder and chief executive of Solutions Leisure Group, describes as a "family entertainment complex, similar to the one found in Wavehouse at Atlantis, The Palm".

“We’ve combined the concept of a fun family entertainment centre with good food.”

If you’re wondering what that means, the space will feature arcade games, soft play areas, and a four-lane bowling alley. Meanwhile, the food is American, with a lot of burgers, shakes and casual light bites, while the interiors are all about being “fun and casual”.

“Think London’s underground subway, with arches and exposed brick walls and steel columns,” says Evans.

No opening date has been announced yet. As Evans points out, “it’s all part of a bigger picture”.

“With a prime location at Yas Bay Waterfront, we’re surrounded by quite a number of other food and beverage establishments. The thought process is that we will all be opening together. It may depend on what Yas Bay Waterfront as an organisation will do but we’re getting ready for a September opening.”

It's true that the restaurants are opening among a slew of other well-known names in UAE's culinary scene – Siddharta Lounge, La Catrina, Akiba Dori and The Lighthouse are few others that are scheduled to launch at the Abu Dhabi location towards the last quarter of the year.

“I’ve always been a fan of having multiple concepts next to you,” says Evans, dispelling any notion that he fears competition.

“In my experience in the food and beverage sector, which is some 20-odd years, I’ve learnt not to fear sitting next to others but to embrace it. It gives the customer freedom of choice which is brilliant. You know if you don’t do your job well, guests will leave for another establishment, so it keeps us sharp. It’s our job to be the best we can be … so we’re stronger together.”

What’s new and what’s different in Dubai

Not one to rest on his laurels, Evans's group has a number of new ventures planned for Dubai as well. This includes Koyo, a Japanese hot spot set to open in InterContinental Dubai Marina in June.

The “sleek, upbeat and sophisticated Japanese venue” is inspired by the beauty and intrigue of a Japanese geisha, Tokyo nightlife and the “kabuki” style arts and entertainment, and will spread over two levels of the hotel.

Meanwhile, also on the cards is a complete overhaul of the long-standing steakhouse West 14th, on Palm Jumeirah.

“We’re thinking something more Spanish in look and feel. Entertainment-driven, accessible and modern,” says Evans.

While he is tight-lipped about future plans, he does say it will be beach-bar casual, with a Mykonos feel, and plenty of outdoor space.

“I think using the outdoors is a huge component that wasn’t very well utilised as it has been in other countries. Dubai didn’t really have all that much interest in the outdoors except for a few months in winter. But Covid-19 has shown everyone that they want to be outside, they want more space."

It’s a good thing the group has experience with revamps over the past year. In 2020, Solutions Leisure replaced Q43, a popular Dubai venue, with BabyQ.

According to Evans, it was nostalgia, more than anything, that led to that change.

“Q43 was where we started, it was our first concept,” he says. “Even with the pandemic, we couldn’t bear to close it for good. But it had become more of a club than a restaurant; it was tired and needed a relift. So, the team came up with idea of BabyQ, tied to the idea of it being our first venue. It was an emotional decision.”

BabyQ is more lounge than club now, he says. Instead of the thumping music synonymous with the place pre-pandemic, people come by for drinks or even tea and coffee.

It's a similar story with Lock, Stock & Barrel which Evans admits was the hardest hit by the pandemic. Known for its party-like vibe, the venue, which has branches across Dubai, is now more laid-back and casual. Even though the venue is "raring to get back to the way things were", Evans says what the community really needs right now is for restaurants to be safe and follow the rules.

“We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We’re all excited about having the place at its usual pace again, but we need to all follow the rules so we can recover together quicker. For now, we’re just going to have to be patient.”