UAE neighbourhood gems feeling the heat from chain restaurants and delivery services

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For decades, they have been the focal point of their communities, a place where families ate, friends swapped gossip and elders smoked shisha at the end of a long day.

But family-owned restaurants offering cheap, home-cooked food are finding it increasingly tough to get by, with many closing their doors or forced to diversify.

The rise of delivery services such as Deliveroo, UberEats and Talabat have encouraged an eating-at-home culture, some restaurateurs said, while the shisha ban in residential areas has hit others.

One chain was the Special cafe, which shut its three branches on Abu Dhabi Corniche earlier this year.

The cafe was a popular spot among Emiratis and expats, open 24 hours and catering to all ages and palates.

A spate of openings, often chains, in other cases hotels selling alcohol, left Special struggling to compete.

The owners have now moved their business to Al Bateen where they have invested in Special Marine.

The three-storey outlet features a shisha cafe on the ground floor, a Lebanese fine-dining restaurant on the first floor and a live cooking Asian restaurant on the second floor.

“We needed an upgrade to stay in competition with the new trends in Abu Dhabi,” said operations manager George Fares, adding that prices will be increased by 5 per cent to support the investment.

“There are so many new restaurants opening with different and catchy themes, that we had to keep up with the changing dine-in market to survive and flourish in the years to come.

“Let’s say we have nine million people in the UAE, within that you have people from every nationality, some have medium-range salaries, others can afford much more, so we need to cater to everyone.”

In addition to the Lebanese and Asian restaurants, which will open this month and after Ramadan respectively, Special Marine will also have two boats.

One will be permanently docked at the port, serving seafood and the other will probably serve alcoholic beverages – something the owners have not done before.

“We could get a licence to serve within the cafe but while that would add customers, we would lose many too,” Mr Fares said.

Previously, the cafe, and many others, were missing out on the delivery market, which is now seen as crucial to a profitable business.

“The latest trends mean we now heavily rely on delivery. People are becoming lazy to go out and eat,” Mr Fares said.

The India Palace chain, which has 12 restaurants across Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has not been immune to market changes after 20 years.

“We have had generations within the same family visiting us, although the authenticity of our food was the same from day one, we have had to make changes to improve the whole customer experience,” said founder and managing director K Muraleedharan.

“When we first opened, there was no social media, word of mouth was the best way to spread among customers, no pictures, posts, reviews.”

Rohith Muralya, Mr Muraleedharan’s son, said everything has had to change.

“Today, how things looks, presentation, packaging – all of it needs to stand out. We have re-branded our logo, changed the colour of uniforms, added iPads for customer feedback, how the home-delivery bill is presented, everything has changed,” he said.

But not all outlets have been able to adapt.

Staff at one once-popular shisha and gaming centre in Darat Al Miya have said their takings fell by more than half in five years.

“Five years back people used to be happy with what they got, but now they want more of everything,” one employee said.

“They first demanded internet, so we installed it. They then asked for better TVs and consoles, which we replaced too. But there is still demand for food, outdoor seating and better ambience, which we have not changed.”

As a result the cafe, like others in the area, has lost customers.

“We would usually do business of Dh5,000 per day, but now on a bad day it could be about Dh2,000,” he said.