Urban RetrEAT: the innovative food hub cooking up a storm in Abu Dhabi

We meet Dana Al Sharif, the entrepreneur who helps other restaurateurs make it in the UAE

What entrepreneur Dana Al Sharif wants to see more of in the UAE’s hospitality industry is “healthy-but-tasty food”. The founder of Urban RetrEAT, a food incubator hub in Abu Dhabi, wishes restaurants would be more aware of diners’ health concerns. “We only have one 100 per cent gluten-free restaurant in the country right now: Tawa Bakery,” she tells The National. “I’d like to find more restaurants telling you where the produce is coming from, and how it’s being sourced.”

A shift in the UAE restaurant scene

At the Yas Mall food hub, Al Sharif supports a rotating bevy of home-grown eateries serving high-quality fast food, from seafood bites to authentic Emirati delicacies and Mexican classics. Among these vendors she’s noticed that, slowly, restaurateurs are beginning to turn away from processed junk foods.

“They are more aware of what they are serving, whether it’s harmful for the people who are going to eat it, or the environment,” she says. She’s also been happy to see eateries replacing single-use plastics with reusable serving trays, as well as segregating their waste and recycling.

Al Sharif has been a pioneer on the UAE’s restaurant landscape for years, as she and her husband started one of the first food truck businesses in Dubai, before they launched Urban RetrEAT.

“Starting Calle Tacos was very difficult because the regulations were not set for [this kind of business] in the UAE,” she says. “We had limitations in what and where we could sell. It’s not as easy as in other countries, where you can just park and sell food. That’s when we decided we could help different vendors who are struggling.”

While there are regulations in place now, the challenges of starting a new food brand still stand, Al Sharif explains. For example, the summer and Ramadan can be tough for businesses. “So they can come and try Urban RetrEAT as another source of income,” Al Sharif says.

Why Abu Dhabi was the perfect location

Usually, it’s difficult for small and new businesses to obtain a space inside a mall, as it’s a risk for the shopping centre. At the same time, the costs of renting a space are often too high for smaller companies. Enter Urban RetrEAT, which offers a free space and facilities within the heart of the mall in return for a share of the profits. “Vendors have high footfall and can spread the word about their existing businesses, while people who want to try the food business for the first time can, before they invest,” Al Sharif says.

Ms Al Sharif says she struggled to pay the bills when she first moved to Dubai. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Ms Al Sharif says she struggled to pay the bills when she first moved to Dubai. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Abu Dhabi was the right place to start such a concept, says Al Sharif, who lives in Dubai. “Dubai is over-saturated. There are a lot of new concepts that come and go. You have hype for a couple of months, then things slow down because there’s always something new popping up,” she says. “In Abu Dhabi, it takes time for people to start talking about your restaurant, but the hype grows in a more organic way.”

Yas Mall was also keen to support her vision, whereas other companies she approached were more hesitant. “They liked the idea and have supported us a lot,” she adds.

Plans to expand

It’s paid off, too, as Al Sharif is now looking to expand its services. As some of the vendors rake in the rewards of trading through the platform, Urban RetrEAT is now helping them take their business to the next level.

“Now we’re looking into the ones doing well and giving them the chance to open their own shops inside different malls,” she explains. “It’s the same kind of revenue share, but we set up a place for them and do everything, giving them the chance to have their own shop on a longer term basis.”

Specific success stories include that of seafood spot Off the Hook, which will open in a more permanent Yas Mall location by mid-April, and Burro Blanco Mexican Eats, for which they’re looking at a spot in another mall. Berri’s Los Angeles cafe is also thriving.

Al Sharif’s other future plans include taking the food incubator concept further afield. “Definitely to Dubai, and we’ve also had a lot of enquiries from other countries in the region, so we’ll be looking into that as well,” she says.

A drive to helping others success

Essentially, Al Sharif is driven by a mission to help others and to help them reach their business goals, which gives her a sense of achievement.

Food is life. It’s sharing everything through a plate – whether it’s culture or passion.

Dana Al Sharif

“All entrepreneurs have their own hacks and ways of overcoming issues they face,” she says. “When they all sit together, and start sharing those [stories], you learn from them and they learn from you. We learn from each other.”

It’s also about the food. “Food is life,” she says. “It’s sharing everything through a plate – whether it’s culture or passion.”

Al Sharif enjoys the whole process, from sourcing the produce and getting to know the farmers, to cooking and then presenting a dish. “Sharing food is like sharing a big table with friends and family; sharing culture and stories, and passions of different people all together. It’s everything.”

Updated: March 8, 2019 09:49 AM


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