Learning On The Job: My Key Takeaways As An Entrepreneur In Dubai's F&B Sector
I never really knew how hard the F&B industry is… If a restaurant has the SOPs and manuals laid out, there’s no original thought that goes into it. I got maybe a 20-page description, and chef training. For someone like me, who had no experience in F&B, it was huge. Things like choosing a POS, finding your suppliers, contractors, etc... it’s all things you need to learn as you go. Here are a few things that I learned while developing my endeavor, the Clinton Street Baking Company in Dubai:
1. When you’re new to the industry, you won’t know who to work with
My first crack at development was a disaster: I had a designer and then he recommended me a contractor. In the beginning, you don’t know good designers and good architects. I had a horrible contractor and horrible kitchen supplier. Dubai went through a phase when you had so much demand in the market that all these subpar operators were in business even though they didn’t do good work. To put it in perspective for you, my contractor, kitchen supplier, MEP supplier, they’re all out of business now, and that tells you how bad they all were. We didn’t know any better, so this was the crap we ended up with.
2. Trying to save on key elements to your business may cost you more in the long run
When I was pricing things out, I learned an important lesson. You shouldn’t cut costs on integral elements of the business. You really do get what you pay for, and while you don’t need to go with the most expensive out there, don’t skimp, because this will come back to bite you later. You might as well go with a quality job- if you think your contractor is giving you a really good price on something, there’s definitely a reason. Even going with somewhat cheaper equipment from a supplier has repercussions, as we found out later.
3. Being the industry’s new kid means doors don’t open very easily
When you’re trying to find a location, it’s really hard when you’re an independent operator. You’re not Alshaya or these established guys, you don’t know anyone at Meraas for example, and no one knows who you are. So you’re knocking all of these doors just trying to secure a location for your business, and you’re hearing no over and over again.
4. There is no substitute for good client-facing staff
A lot of casual dining tries to go with cheap staff; I wanted to bring high quality food and service that you get at a high end outlet without this huge spend. Most of my initial launch staff was from South Africa, and yes, I’m paying more for my staff than someone in casual dining, but I think it’s worth it. Everyone says that you can’t make it work, but I think you can. At the end of the day, it’s about the overall dining experience, and being able to help guide the customer to what they want. Obviously if you have a rapport with your customer, you can suggest things and ultimately sell more food. Strong staff contributes to the business sustainability, because sooner or later someone will come along with better service. If you’ve got bad service and bad food quality, you aren’t going to last. Our food is really good and we have great service- that’s a combination that isn’t taken for granted.
5. Your business is more likely to weather market shifts if you’ve built a solid customer base
One thing I’m learning to is to trust and believe in what you’re doing. One day you might have 150 people come, and the next day you might have 50 people, and then you try and understand why you have that swing. Numbers might go down and up, but you need to examine it in the long-term. I’m hearing that F&B in general is down 20%, and our numbers have actually increased slightly, and I think it’s that we’re still relatively new and people are still coming to try us out. We’ve definitely retained our customers that are coming in, so that’s helped us a lot.
With business degrees from Georgetown University and Columbia University, Hisham Samawi moved to Dubai in 2006 and spent two years working in business development and strategy for Tatweer, a member of Dubai Holdings.
In 2008, Hisham recognized an opportunity to develop the art scene in the region and left Tatweer to partner with his cousin, Khaled Samawi, to establish Ayyam Gallery, one of the region’s leading art institutions. Opening their first space in Damascus the gallery has grown steadily over the years to include two spaces in Dubai, a gallery in Beirut as well as its newest gallery on New Bond Street in London. The gallery now represents many of the leading artists from around the Arab world and Iran. In addition to hosting exhibitions for its artists, Ayyam Gallery also hosts its own series of auctions called ‘The Young Collectors Auction’, and has a publishing house that publishes a wide range of artists’ books and catalogs.
Recognizing another opportunity and gap in the regional landscape Hisham Samawi brought over the famous New York restaurant, Clinton Street Baking Company and opened it’s first location in the region at Burj Views in Downtown Dubai in 2014. His first endeavor into the food and beverage industry, the restaurant has quickly established itself as Dubai’s go to place for all day breakfast and high quality casual dining. Signing the master franchise for the MENA region, Hisham is looking to grow and develop the brand across the region.