Dubai Food Festival showcases homegrown restaurants

As this year's Dubai Food Festival celebrates home-grown restaurants, we take a look at some of Dubai's most promising newcomers.

Tahir Shah, owner of Moti Roti, at one of his pop-ups in the Aswaaq supermarket, Knowledge Village, Dubai. Mr Shah says mobile kiosks and food trucks can greatly reduce overheads. Sarah Dea / The National
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From mobile food trucks to pop-up kiosks, chefs and entrepreneurs are capitalising on the UAE’s international flavour to bring us a feast of homegrown dining options.

Dubai is fast becoming a star-studded international food hub. But this year’s Dubai Food Festival is paying homage to the diversity and entrepreneurial spirit of its homegrown restaurants.

While the emirate’s international brand reflects its love for all things luxurious and large, festival director Debra Greenwood says this year’s focus on Dubai-based brands is a testament to the burgeoning number of successful entrepreneurs in the city, who have emerged alongside the emirate’s rowing urban culture.

“In the past three years, and coming into this year, there’s been a lot more homegrown brands popping up, and there’s a lot of support for the homegrown concept,” she says.

Ms Greenwood believes the increasingly cosmopolitan Dubai is spearheading the Middle East’s homegrown food and beverage industries. Using social media, she says, is a great way for restaurants to capitalise on the community’s growing support.

“Because Dubai has more than 200 nationalities living here, the opportunities – in terms of the cuisine, and the depth and breadth of that cuisine – are what you see coming through; and that’s why they are so popular, because the concepts are across a variety of nationalities’ food choices.”

While some brands, such as Just Falafel, are already conquering the international market, Ms Greenwood says the sophistication of restaurant entrepreneurs will see more brands use Dubai as a springboard, both regionally and internationally.

“Internationally, everyone is aware of the five-star restaurants that we’ve got here, but less aware of the unique homegrown concepts that have started to come out of the woodwork.”

One recent trend, she says, is the emerging use of food trucks – which can provide restaurateurs with a much cheaper alternative. This is a trend that Moti Roti, a restaurant founded in 2012 by Briton Tahir Shah, wants to capitalise on.

The hardest part of setting up a business in Dubai, says Mr Shah, is the huge initial cost – exacerbated, he says, by the abundance of competing entrepreneurs who do have large amounts of capital at their command.

However, with a little ingenuity and experimentation he soon worked out a business model that worked for him– pop-up outlets.

“We don’t have bricks and mortar yet, because we’re so young and we don’t have the kind of financing that a big brand would enjoy,” he says.

“Historically, it was quite difficult for someone new in Dubai to set up a business in food, because it’s very tricky here, with all the different kinds of rules and regulations – not just hygiene, but for trading and business.”

Instead of leasing outlets at malls and other public areas, Moti Roti operates out of small mobile kiosks in supermarkets, hotels and other buildings.

Moti Roti’s pop-up model delivers less revenue, as the central kitchens it works with and the outlets that host its temporary counters take a cut of the profit.

However, the overheads and capital expenditure are far lower, says Mr Shah, which makes it “a great way to get to know your brand and get your idea tested”.

Mr Shah, who has lived in Dubai for eight years, used to work at Nokia. “I was a typical professional office worker. Yeah, you get a good salary, but you have very little time. You don’t have time to cook, you don’t have time for lunch. But you want something good to eat.”

He says that people move to Dubai to “upgrade their lifestyles, well-being, health, salaries and families”, so it was a no-brainer that people needed high-quality lunches, prepared with haste.

“In those days in Dubai, you just settled for a sandwich you found in a coffee shop, or a supermarket, and only now you see that burgeoning – that fast casual market, or that slightly upmarket fast food.”

He believes the incoming food truck concept will fit perfectly alongside Moti Roti’s pop-up model. The food-truck revolution will see homegrown brands lease and decorate trucks imported from the United States.

Mr Shah says events such as the Dubai Food Festival are a breath of fresh air for start-ups, because they raise awareness of local talent.

“It might be a cuisine that’s influenced by expat lifestyle – mixing the different lifestyles here in Dubai – and people don’t get to know about that, simply because we don’t have the clout to get into a big mall or a high profile location.”

Another curious new entrant to the homegrown market is Moylo’s Burgers, founded in September by Emirati brothers Ismail and Jamal Alsharif. The Jumeirah restaurant prides itself on its uniquely eco-friendly design, which incorporates recycled wood and energy-efficient lamps.

The menu began with a “special sauce”, crafted by Ismail Alsharif himself.

“It was hard coming up with the rest of the menu,” he says, “but, with the help of my sisters and our executive chef, we all came up with a great menu”.

Though the selection is small, with just five types of burgers, Mr Alshaer, a 27-year-old from Dubai, says it is meticulously crafted.

Mr Alshaer’s love of food began at a young age. Even at the age of 17, he knew he wanted to run a restaurant. “I wanted a fine dining restaurant, but it turned out to be a burger place,” he laughs.

When he went overseas to study, he would grill for his friends, and continued doing so when he returned to Dubai – especially “when the weather was perfect”, he says.

Mr Alshaer is very hands-on with his restaurant. “I try to go every day, just to see how the operation’s going. I try to help in the kitchen sometimes and I like to serve the customers,” he says.

He celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit, enthusing that while Dubai used to lack enough restaurants, it is today “one of the best cities” in the world for quality and a range of cuisines.

“I think the food even tastes much better now than before,” he says.

Looking forward, he hopes to conquer the local burger market and possibly venture into a more diverse range of food chains in the next few years.

However, he remains proud that the business is Emirati-owned and an Emirati idea: “From A to Z, even the interior was with the help of my sister and our designer.”

Meanwhile, the food festival is a good platform for the restaurant and other “crazy, funky” concepts, he says.

“A lot of expats go to the food festival – it had a footfall of around 40,000 people last year – so I think it’s going to help.”

One homegrown company that knows all about expanding across different markets is Coffee Planet, which is in its 10th year of operation. According to managing director, Robert Jones, there is a lot of room for Dubai-based brands to succeed in foreign markets.

“We’re present in about 10 countries now, through distribution and franchising, so I think as long as you create something stable that works, and is scalable and can work across various markets, then there’s a great deal of room.”

Mr Jones says trying to find good retail spots within Dubai can be hard, as landlords and retailers often prefer international brands.

However, he says successful Dubai brands are often seen as international brands in other markets.

Although business has never been better, safeguards put in place after the 2008 financial crisis have forced businesses like Coffee Planet to remain flexible.

“We’re constantly trying to predict the future when it comes to buying coffee, and we try to ensure that we’re protected against any spikes or major changes in the market,” says Mr Jones.

The company supplies coffee to hotels, airlines, retailers, supermarkets and other customers, as well as coffee machines at petrol stations.

Mr Jones says support for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) has grown drastically over the past decade. However, there is still more that banks can do to help ease start-ups’ cash flow problems.

“To give you an example – as a business, trying to get an overdraft is impossible. There’s certain things like that where the banks are very risk-averse, whereas for SMEs, they have to be a bit more lenient.”

The Dubai Food Festival began last weekend and runs until the end of the month. Visit for more details.