The Connoisseur: Gastronomica Founder And CEO Basil Al Salem
Basil Al Salem, founder and CEO of Kuwait-based hospitality group Gastronomica says he can’t pick a favorite from the varied dining concepts in his portfolio, but admits that his business came into being thanks to his particular love for “quality” burgers. “When I first came back [to Kuwait] from the US [in 1999], I found myself missing a lot of different foods, but nothing so much as a good burger,” he remembers. “Kuwait was not short on burger options at the time, but none of these focused on quality coupled with a good dining experience. I immediately knew that if I was going to do something that would work, would carry minimum risk, and have great potential, it would have to be burgers.”
Returning to Kuwait from the US as a finance graduate armed with a passion for design, food, and to start a business of his own, the food and beverage sector seemed an ideal arena to Al Salem to explore his interests. With this culinary passion as a catalyst, Al Salem spent the next two years working on a business plan, and exploring design options and locations that could help him stand out in the industry. After a round of fundraising from family and friends, Gastronomica was born in 2003 with its first concept- the B+F Burger Boutique- opening its doors in 2005. Since then, as an operator of what it calls “original upscale dining concepts,” Gastronomica has grown to include eight restaurants and 15 operating units -all created in-house from scratch- and currently operates in Kuwait, KSA, Oman, the UAE, and Qatar (with Bahrain on the way).
Ask him about the one constant business mantra that he trusts absolutely, and Al Salem replies with a realization he had early on in his entrepreneurial journey. “The future of the restaurant business is no longer [about] the food, but providing customers with a standout experience,” he says. Bringing various concepts under one umbrella meant that “all these brands needed to have a common DNA that ties them all together.”
For instance, while B+F Burger Boutique is the group’s attempt at giving a makeover to a dish that’s historically considered junk food, Slider Station is an “industrial chic” restaurant serving sliders and other American food in the form of a “conveyor belt burger joint.” On the other hand, there’s Nomad Kitchen, which operates out of a vintage 1973 Airstream truck offering Kuwait’s customers gourmet street food on the move. As for a common theme running across all of Gastronomica’s outlets, Al Salem calls it TDE -Total Dining Experience- and it’s a tool he and his team have diligently focused on incorporating in their brands. “It’s that intangible aspect of the business that is very hard to propagate in the corporate culture, but once set in place, would have an immense impact on the success and sustainability of our restaurants,” Al Salem explains. “TDE focuses on all five senses, and thus we always need to think of all the various factors and elements that will have a positive impact on customers. It is through positive emotions that customers will get the best memory of their experience, and that is always our ultimate aim.”
Beginning his career at Kuwait’s sovereign fund Kuwait Investment Authority, Al Salem admits that the plunge into entrepreneurship from the corporate world comes with benefits, but also a lot of pressure. “I left behind a very good job, as Head of Asset Management at one of the leading regional real estate companies, to build this business,” he remembers. “This decision meant that I was constantly under mental, physical and emotional pressure to grow and develop this business, and I had to work tirelessly to build a large, profitable and sustainable business.” At the same time, setting out to grow Gastronomica with what he calls “a limited knowledge of F&B, and almost no experience in this field” just added to the struggle. But, luckily for him, his passion and drive to succeed proved to be strong enough to surpass such obstacles. “There were many hurdles along the way- from complicated bureaucratic red tape, to finding locations, and hiring the right team. It was tougher than I had expected, but I was young, and was more than able to take on the pressure.”
Getting into the restaurant business 12 years ago, at a time when there wasn’t Instagram to help get patrons in, Al Salem considers it quite “the learning curve.” For instance, expanding into other countries meant going through similar complex business procedures, which the group tackled by adopting a joint venture (JV) business model that enabled them to offload the procedural responsibilities to the JV partner. “That strategy worked and allowed us to grow quickly and establish Gastronomica as a regional player in the F&B industry,” he notes.
This numbers-first approach has also helped Al Salem get out of spots of bother with his business. “We did a gourmet falafel concept back in 2009 next to Slider Station, but the huge success of Slider Station overshadowed it. I felt we were missing out, and the opportunity cost of being there was great, even though we did fairly well with the concept. Six months later, Falafel & Co was shut down to make way for an extension to Slider Station. That was the best decision I had made, which gave Slider Station a life of its own till this day.”
As for the challenging nature of the sector that Gastronomica is a part of, Al Salem feels that what started out as an underserved industry is now “over-saturated with operators, most of which are failing, [and] the idea of supply and demand is very difficult when there are no SME resource centers that can provide research and professional counsel.” However, the crowded market doesn’t seem to have impacted Gastronomica adversely, which, according to the founder, has been cash flow positive from day one, and he counts the JV model as a key contributor to this, since it provided almost 50% of the finances needed for expansion. “We are enjoying high levels of cash flow at the moment, as we are adopting a more cautious stance towards a saturated market,” he reveals. “At this stage, our focus is not so much on further growth as stability and sustainability. We are, however, always on the lookout for good opportunities, but these opportunities are not as abundant as they once were.”
There’s little doubt that for any investor shopping around in the region’s F&B market, Gastronomica, with over a decade of experience, would be an exciting acquisition opportunity. Is Al Salem interested in such a move? “We are not looking for an exit at any point in the future, but we could possibly look into entering into a strategic arrangement with a partner that would enable us to achieve our goals in both the short and long-term,” he replies. Admittedly, this sort of a practical approach towards his business flows from Al Salem’s background in finance, and also tells you why, if you are a non-finance founder, you really need to get a numbers person by your side. “I had used this [financial] background to assess the viability of every opportunity we got,” Al Salem says. “I consider myself to be risk averse and would build the projections on very conservative assumptions.”
Ask him what’s the one thing he wished he’d known before he started out, and that’s when you realize how involved he’s really been in building Gastronomica. “I wish I had known that I would gain weight!” he laughs. “Making sure the food is good meant that I had to taste and sample before serving to customers, and that came at an expense. I would have forced myself to set aside time for daily exercise in my schedule to make it a habit. But I guess, it’s never too late.” Well, perhaps you can’t top an entrepreneur who gave a part of himself to make his business a success, but you sure can emulate his learning!
Gastronomica founder and CEO Basil Al Salem's tips for ‘treps
2. Never stop learning “There is nothing better than continuing to educate yourself to get better at what you do and to have a better understanding.”
3. Patience is a virtue “Good things don’t come quickly.”
4. It’s not about you “The true owner of the business is the loyal customer.”
5. Believe in your hunches “You don’t get a hunch every day, but when you do it’s usually right.”
6. Take time to day dream “It sounds absurd but dreaming about your business, whether good or bad, helps you look beyond reality and step out of the box.”
The Gastronomica portfolio
B+F Burger Boutique An upscale burger experience that takes a green approach to both food and design.
Slider Station A small bites place that’s inspired by American gas stations of the 40’s and specializes in sliders, grills, tapas and more.
B+F Open Flame Kitchen Offering a high-end dining experience, and featuring a live fire grill, the restaurant caters to the global connoisseur.
BRW Coffee An “artisanal coffee” and bakery in Kuwait that has a mission to satiate the coffee lover’s thirst for a quality brew.
Nomad Kitchen As the name suggests, the food truck concept is for nomads who can manage to chase it down.
Cocoa Room This tastefully designed place is for those who never miss a good breakfast and cocoa cup.
B+F Roadside Diner A less-fancy and more roadside diner version of the B+F Burger Boutique.
Skinny Cloud The place offers a natural twist to ice cream- made out of organic skimmed milk, agave nectar, probiotics, and other ingredients.
Sindhu Hariharan is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East. She is a financial consultant turned business journalist with a FOMO when it comes to everything technology.