Virtual brunches and delivery meal kits: what Dubai's food industry might look like in a post-Covid world

Restaurateurs and food experts weigh in on how the industry looks set to change

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Papers and plastic collected at the kibsons HQ, Dubai. Ruel Pableo for The National
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One of the most commonly heard "first world problems" of the last few weeks in the UAE is a melodramatic lament from residents at not being able to dine at their favourite restaurants.

With eateries forced to shutter their dine-in options amid the coronavirus pandemic, it's meant restaurateurs have had to push everything they've got towards their delivery options.

It is a seemingly straightforward solution, but not when kitchens are at the mercy of the steep commissions charged by food delivery aggregators. The present situation has left many in the industry struggling to make ends meet over the past month or so, with some facing the prospect of shutting their doors for good.

[Our] live music, concerts and events could be streamed to peoples homes in the future.

As such, many have had to get pretty creative with their events list, and have set about tweaking their menus. A virtual quiz night? A live brunch? An easter egg painting class? All available at the click of a button.

Several restaurants across the country have introduced these as an online feature; quizzes with food delivered to your door as you tap away on your device to answer trivia questions, for example.

Even the hallowed UAE brunch lives on in several "live brunch" iterations, where you can stream live musical performances on your computer screen and tuck into a multi-course delivevry feast. Sure, it's no Saffron or Bubblicious, and the people-watching isn't anywhere near as good, but for those who suddenly find themselves with a lot of free time on their hands on a Friday afternoon, it may just be the next best thing.

So, as the shell-shocked brunch clientele emerge from a far quieter few weeks of isolation, could deliveries and online events be the way to ease a population acutely wary of crowded places back into the UAE lifestyle? Could self isolation brunches really catch on?

Irish restaurant McGettigan's will deliver two-course meals to customers as part of its Live Brunch offer.
Irish restaurant McGettigan's will deliver two-course meals to customers as part of its Live Brunch offer.

Well, perhaps not, but many restaurateurs believe there could be a place for some of these events, especially virtual quizzes, in a post-Covid-19 world.

McGettigan's was one of the few who were quick out of the starting blocks in attempting to migrate their weekly offerings into a quarantine-friendly format. This meant a "live brunch" on a Friday, complete with two-course meal and beverage package delivered to your doorstep. Days later, they announced a free weekly Quarantine Quiz, held online.

Others have followed suit; Reform Social & Grill have rolled the two concepts together and now hold a Friday brunch with a quiz.

And while they may sound destined to flop, in the current world, they've a been raging success.

Could live brunches live on?

"We have been astounded with the response to our live brunch and quiz nights so far. It is great to see so many people getting involved and enjoying themselves during what is a stressful time for everyone," Brendan McCormack, McGettigan's director of brands, sales and marketing, says.

Reform's too has been successful. For the first weekend, over 200 teams took part in the virtual quiz / brunch.

And while these offerings simply seem like a revenue stream to keep things ticking over until normalcy returns, McCormack acknowledges they could become permanent. Home deliveries and takeaways are sure to become more important, too.

“‘Home entertainment’ is certainly an exciting prospect,” McCormack says. “[Our] live music, concerts and events could be streamed to people’s homes in the future. Although our preference would be to get everyone off their sofa and on to a bar stool, if the demand is there, we will be happy to provide.” As to when that return to normalcy may realistically come about, McCormack predicts by September.

Moving forward, consumer confidence and hygiene will also be front and centre for most establishments – a sentiment many agree with. 

Delivery options will remain an expanded offering – alongside cook-at-home meal kits

While UAE diners will undoubtedly return to fill restaurants after they reopen, there will still be those who will shun dining out in favour of home cooking for some time. And even now, restaurants are preparing for that.

Elias Madbak, managing director of RMAL Hospitality, which operates Wagamama, Trader Vic's and Marco's New York Italian, is set to undertake many changes coming out of the pandemic.

Wagamama's dedicated kids’ cooking classes are now held online. Courtesy of Wagamama
Wagamama's dedicated kids’ cooking classes are now held online. Courtesy of Wagamama

Firstly, they are expanding their delivery options to offer meal kits to allow customers to build their favourite meals from all their brands at home. The newly introduced Wagamama virtual children’s cooking classes could become a permanent fixture, too.

"While eating out is not a necessity, it has become embedded in our way of life. In the UAE more than 60 per cent of the population dine out at least once a week, and that’s without considering take out or delivery. I don’t think that will change," Madbak says.

Having said that, he believes there will be a heightened focus on food delivery. He also worries that “some establishments will not be able to survive the lengthy loss of business. This reduction in supply will give an opportunity for new players to enter the F&B space.”

But there are other silver linings to be found, too, especially operations-wise. Madbak believes the pandemic has taught the industry a new way of operating remotely. He will now be looking to implement distance working for staff permanently, as it “allows for a higher quality of life for everyone with less commuting and is better for the environment by reducing the carbon footprint”.

The era of online meal delivery services?

In fact, considering the uptick in people's time spent at home, surely that has translated into more time in the kitchen for a lot of people?

It has certainly led to an increase in orders for Let’s Cook founder Abhijit Rajwade. Most operations for this subscription-based ready-to-cook meal-delivery service, were already primarily online, meaning little adaptation to the pandemic-hit market was necessary.

Let’s Cook has, however, clocked a solid increase in orders in the past week or so, and expects the number to climb. Rajwade says the company has also introduced a 40 per cent discount to help residents “during these tough times”.

Notably, most people tend to be ordering the vegan options, “because being homebound means a lack of sufficient exercise and people choose the healthier vegan options for dinner time cooking”, says Rajwade.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Papers and plastic collected at the kibsons HQ, Dubai. Ruel Pableo for The National
Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Papers and plastic collected at the kibsons HQ, Dubai. Ruel Pableo for The National

Similarly, grocery delivery service Kibsons is understood to be swamped with orders amid directives for residents to stay home. Whereas previously you could expect your Kibsons box the same evening or the next day at the latest, the wait time is now at about a week.

Another fresh fruit delivery platform, NRTC Fresh has received a 200 per cent increase in daily orders.

This means that, while some food businesses need to scale back their staff and make redundancies, others have tripled the size of their teams, added double shifts, and “increased the delivery fleet size from four to 50”, says Mohammad Al Refaee, chief executive of NRTC Group.

However, stricter hygiene standards also mean that the company cannot be as quick as it once was. NRTC Fresh’s same-day delivery service has been replaced by a next-day delivery model.

A large vegetable box from NRTC Fresh. 
A large vegetable box from NRTC Fresh. 

Enhanced hygiene practises – including increased hand washing, body temperature checks, more thorough cleaning of delivery vehicles – will be implemented after the pandemic, too.

Social responsibility campaigns will be part of a company's ethos

Not only will there be extra care afforded to the safety of customers, but so too will there be a corporate push to look out for others, in general. It comes as many hope that corporate social responsibility campaigns that have been introduced amid the pandemic, stick around until well after it's gone.

The Noodle House is one of many businesses that have introduced special initiatives to help those working on the front line. It has teamed up with home-grown agri-tech farm VeggiTech to deliver free care packages to medical workers across Dubai each day.

“When it comes to any organisation, CSR will no longer be a quota or requirement,” says Nicola Walsh, marketing director for Sarood Hospitality and Dubai Retail, which manages The Noodle House, as well as Pierchic, Flow and Hillhouse Brasserie.

“It will become an essential part of corporate life as a means of brand expression – and the world will be the better for it,” she says.