Interested in an inventive look at Dubai’s culinary scene? Co-founders and sisters Arva Ahmed and Farida Ahmed launched Frying Pan Adventures (FPA) to offer culinary tours around old Dubai with authentic food and cultural experiences in the city. Currently in its third year of operations, Ahmed says that FPA has recently added new experiences to the company’s offering, including the “Local Flavors” experience at the fish market, the “Chocolate & Spiced Infusion” party for small private groups, and a wildlife drive through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.
The startup is also working an “organic farm cook-out experience” to give a glimpse of desert farming planned for the cooler months. But perhaps the most attractive FPA experience, bound to attract a slew of new clients, is the “Unseen Trails” with Gulf Photo Plus. Described as a regional educational photography resource, Gulf Photo Plus and FPA team up to offer guests a combination of food, culture and photography trails, accompanied by a Frying Pan guide and photography instructor. “Unseen Trails are designed to connect with and capture some of the humblest yet atmospheric parts of the city. These are urban city walks that aim to unveil parts of town that many have forgotten or have never known existed beyond Sheikh Zayed Road.”
The Frying Pan concept, conceived in 2012 and officially launched in 2013, gained traction through patience, a controlled social media marketing effort on a limited budget, and focusing on their target market that the co-founders call “discerning travelers.” Ahmed’s advice for launching and keeping a venturing running includes listening to customers, maintaining a social media presence, and “taking your expected startup expense figure and multiply it by three- you might [then] come close to your real expenditure.”
In terms of keeping up with social media’s ever-changing landscape, Ahmed says that the constant changes require vigilant attention. “Stay on top of it, because investing in social media is far more effective from a cost and returns standpoint than is traditional advertising or promotions. Rather than posting prolifically, it’s more important to be an authentic voice online if you want to stand apart from the clutter. Constantly pushing your product/services is the best way to be shut out! Make sure you engage with the targeted community in a way that impacts their interaction with the industry as a whole, beyond your product or service.”
On the subject of what she feels startups in the ecosystem need, Ahmed lists funding and government support, which includes cost-effective licensing processes, incubation spaces for LLC companies, and “a crackdown on competitor startups who play unfairly by selling unlicensed products/services for cheaper prices.” However, the co-founder emphasizes that the biggest key player for a startup are its customers: “Funding and government schemes can only get you so far if no one buys your product!”
Adding that there is an urgent need to support homegrown businesses, Ahmed says “consumers need to support local startups with their purchasing power, and local media can help in spreading the word to those consumers.” What’s next for the startup? Ahmed lists developing a summer plan for trails and services, onboarding more guides, and building a video format, which is something that FPA guests have requested its founders for.
Q&A with co-founder Arva Ahmed
What are some of the interesting trends you’ve noticed in your sector?
Food tour operators were almost non-existent before 2008-2009. Then they started entering the market as lone wolves. The growth of food tourism businesses has been phenomenal over the past few years- to the extent where it now makes sense for food tour aggregators to come online. I’m noticing food tour operators engaging in partnerships with comprehensive tour aggregators as well as with food-specific operators in other countries. We’re also seeing companies launch entire food vacations rather than just a multi-hour trail- I’m looking to attend one in Morocco myself soon!
What made you decide to pursue business endeavors in the Middle East?
Even though the Middle East has some of the most ancient and soulful flavors, culinary tourism is far behind what it is in the rest of the world. This gap was just screaming to be filled with more creative culinary initiatives– not just interesting restaurant concepts, but a broader spectrum of food tourism services. Maybe if I had still been in New York –an example of a city that is quite saturated and competitive on the gastronomic front– I may not have even thought of launching Frying Pan Adventures. But with the Middle East, the idea was still new and a natural extension of my love for food, culture and discovery. Our target market is the discerning traveler, the one who most likely does not outsource their itineraries to a travel agent, but prefers to research the trip themselves online so our most effective channels are through online searches and TripAdvisor.
What were the biggest lessons from your endeavors?
First, develop a thick skin to take on negative customer feedback. I had nightmares for the first month after receiving my first brutally negative review, because Frying Pan Adventures is so close to my heart. It hurt, so much so that it took me until the next month to realize that the customer actually had a point! Especially since we actively ask for feedback after every experience, we have had to learn to accept the good, the bad, the ugly. And there will always be a ‘bad’ and an ‘ugly’ with any startup– it’s about how you to take the next step forward in addressing it.
Second, be patient -incredibly patient- because projects of passion often lead to rash decisions! In my first two years of running the company, I’ve had some very close encounters to losing a lot of money in trying to get things done quickly, and not taking the time to judge who I’m dealing with or find better solutions. Customer communication might be the only thing that requires a lightning-fast turnaround time, but everything else can wait a tiny bit before you rush to get it done.
Third, be creative about how you promote your product and/or services. We haven’t had a marketing budget over the past three years, not because we don’t believe in the power of strategic marketing, but because as a startup, we simply couldn’t afford one. Furthermore, we first wanted to tap into all the free resources out there, be it word of mouth, social media or online channels like TripAdvisor. The free channels are actually more work– you don’t always have control over what people will say, but they keep you on your toes to make sure you deliver something worth talking positively about.
What are some resources that you find useful in business?
The best resources have been fellow startups and business partners. Tahir Shah from Moti Roti has been a great sounding board (and mutual vending partner!) from the concept stage. Many of our friends own businesses in the city and they are our first points of reference when we're looking for solutions. Mohamed Somji from Gulf Photo Plus has inspired us with his sharp business acumen and creative ways of doing things. We revamped the way we sought out job applicants thanks to his idea of building an online questionnaire- an obvious idea in retrospect, but one that simply doesn’t occur to you when your head is buried knee-deep in the problem.
My family has also been a great support- my father, who started his own business in Dubai, my mother, who is a nutritionist and cook extraordinaire, my sister, who is my partner and backbone of the company, and my husband who is a technical genius and entrepreneur– all of them collectively make up our free advisory board! While books, events and hubs may be useful, we’ve kept things old school by relying on our community. We’ve preferred to connect with the people close to us who understand what we do, who are not so deeply entrenched in our business that they can’t offer a third party perspective, and above all, who are far smarter than we are!