Trust The Process: Claudio Leenders, Founder, Leen's
Leenders is someone who has seen his life play out in Central America, South America, Europe, Australia, and now the Middle East, and as such, he has a plethora of stories, insights, and experiences to share.
It’s when I checked the recording of my conversation with Claudio Leenders that I realized that I had spent more than two hours chatting with the founder of Leen's: Casual to Gourmet, and the duration of our chat together can be seen as a reflection of the captivating life and career that this entrepreneur has had so far. After all, Leenders is someone who has seen his life play out in Central America, South America, Europe, Australia, and now the Middle East, and as such, he has a plethora of stories, insights, and experiences to share with me, all of which seem to be somehow entwined with each other as he tells them to me over the course of a morning at the Leen’s outlet located in Bluewaters, Dubai.
This is the third of Leen’s branches in the UAE- its first location launched in 2015 on the Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai, and this was followed by its opening at The World Trade Center Mall in Abu Dhabi in 2018. Leen’s opened at Bluewaters in late 2019, and it has another location in the works currently- that one is going to be at the Emirates Towers in Dubai. Now, there can be quite a few factors one can list when considering what’s driving this restaurant’s growth over the last couple of years, but it’s safe to say that chief among them is the vision with which Leenders conceptualized Leen’s in the first place- he wanted to build a place that would offer gourmet food in a casual environment, and that’s essentially the signature experience that Leen’s professes to offer today.
In order to understand how Leen’s came to be, one must start at the very beginning of Leenders’ life- and that means we need to talk about his enterprising mother, Sinia Pasos-Thieme. The influence she has had on Leenders was easily evident in the time that he spent talking with me- be it about the entrepreneurial mindset she showcased when she was raising him as a child, or the often pointed yet always relevant feedback she gave (and continues to give!) on his career and business, his mother was a recurring topic in our chat together. “My mom never went to university, but she’s always been street smart,” Leenders says. “Like, she’d make ten Dirhams out of one Dirham- and this is what she taught me.” Indeed, his mother’s mentality can be inferred from the various business exploits she got up to when Leenders was growing up. For instance, when they lived in a small city in Paraguay, she started importing clothing, and then selling it out of the house they stayed in- this endeavor saw her becoming one of that locality’s most successful retailers.
Claudio Leenders and his mother
Another story sees her converting a farmhouse they lived in Germany into a thriving bed-and-breakfast joint, which, besides becoming a rather popular hospitality enterprise, also gave Leenders one of his first peeks into what it meant to work in his current line of business. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Leenders says, reflecting on his mother. “That’s what I learned from her.”
It is this tenacious spirit that seems to have powered Leenders on as he went about realizing his entrepreneurial dreams in the UAE. He arrived in the country in 2010 to work at the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, where he was responsible for managing various F&B establishments within the iconic property. Leenders remembers his work at the Burj Al Arab quite fondly- while he already had a couple of years of experience working with hotels and restaurants in Germany (and a bachelor’s degree in hotel management, as well as an MBA) before he arrived in Dubai, the time he spent at the award-winning hotel left him with quite a few valuable lessons on what it means to develop (and sustain) a highend, luxury offering.
Some of the early drawings Claudio Leenders made when conceptualizing Leen’s
Leenders explains them to me using the example of food. “You want to have pasta in the Burj Al Arab, or Leen’s, or the shop at the corner, you need water [to make it],” he says. “We all cook with water. So, what sets one dish apart from the others is in how you treat the process- and that includes everything from the cooking method, the temperature, the ingredients used, etc.” The idea of luxury, according to Leenders, is thus centered on one having a keen eye on detail when going about building a product- and then being consistent with this practice for as long as you’re making (and delivering) it.
These lessons on luxury were further bolstered when, in 2013, Leenders, after spending three years working at the Burj Al Arab, moved on to work with the Danish high-end consumer electronics brand, Bang & Olufsen, in Dubai for a year. He was once again treated to a crash course of sorts on positioning and branding in the luxury world, and it was also during this phase of his career that Leenders was told of a shopfront that was available for rent in the beachy environs of Dubai’s Jumeirah neighbor hood.
Now, at the time, Leenders had already been thinking about opening a restaurant of his own, and while he had sent out feelers among his contacts about this dream of his, he hadn’t really thought the UAE would be where he would realize this ambition of his. But, at the same time, Dubai was the right place for the restaurant Leenders had in mind, whose ethos was based off a question found himself asking when he visited places to eat in the UAE: “Why can’t you have gourmet food in a casual environment?” While the norm in Dubai at the time was that one would have to make an effort and dress up if one wanted to visit a restaurant that offered five-star-quality food and service, Leenders envisioned a place where you’d get all that, but in a setting that didn’t have any of the usual trappings one would associate with such an establishment. And that’s exactly the mindset with which Leenders went about launching Leen’s, which, at the time, was called The Surf Café.
Now, you’ll see that here, it took me just one line to state the opening of a F&B concept in Dubai- but do not, for a moment, that it was that easy for Leenders to bring The Surf Café to life. “There was a lot of struggle there,” he says, as he remembers that first outlet he brought to life. Be it with securing funds as a sole owner (his mother and stepfather, while reluctant at first, pitched in to help him out on this front), or even getting the restaurant fitted out and ready for business (he had a hand in everything from sourcing ingredients, to getting the air-conditioning working), Leenders has no shortage of struggles to share when talking about how he got his first entrepreneurial venture to open and run.
It was definitely not a walk in the park, but the process taught Leenders to be resourceful and make the best of the cards he wa decided to source them by himself- and that meant waking up at dawn to get to the fruit and vegetable market in Dubai, so as to not just get the freshest of produce, but to also score good prices on them. Leenders counts the experience as being instrumental in his understanding of how supply chains work in the UAE, with him being on the ground then als dealt with. For instance, Leenders remembers how he struggled with getting fresh produce from suppliers, because they weren’t keen on working with him at that early stage of the business. So, helowing him to have made strong relationships and partnerships that continue to support him to this day.
Leen’s Casual to Gourmet staff
Once The Surf Café opened, it didn’t take long for it to become a hit on Dubai’s F&B scene- as Leenders had predicted, people in the Emirate loved being able to go to a no-frills restaurant that served them top-notch food, which run the gamut from sandwiches and smoothies, to sushi and steak. “We didn’t really market ourselves so much, a lot of it was word-of-mouth,” Leenders remembers. “That’s how we actually grew, organically, and I still believe that that is the best way to grow in Dubai- through loyalty and community engagement.” With its open, welcoming atmosphere, The Surf Café found itself becoming one of the most popular spots in Dubai, and so, it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Abu Dhabi decided it wanted to get in on the action- Leenders had his enterprise’s second branch open in the UAE capital in 2018.
It was around this time that Leenders began thinking about rebranding The Surf Café- he had noticed a recurring theme of people entering the restaurant thinking it was a place to get quick bites, but then being pleasantly surprised at the range of gourmet treats on offer there. As such, Leenders thus decided to rename The Surf Café to Leen’s (the new name is a play on his own last name), with the rebranding aimed at suggesting a more refined version of the original concept. “Leen’s is the mature adult version of The Surf Café,” Leenders smiles.
With three branches of Leen’s now open in the UAE, and a fourth one on its way soon, it’s safe to say that Leenders has his hands full right now, at least with respect to his business. But Leenders hasn’t stopped dreaming big when it comes to developing and growing the Leen’s concept- he says that further expansion is definitely on the cards, with his sights set on not just the UAE and the Middle East, but Europe and the US as well. But that’s not all he has in mind for Leen’s. “When it comes to expansion, I think we’ve established ourselves as a great owner and operator,” Leenders says. “The next step that I would love to do is to expand the Leen’s portfolio. For instance, a Leen’s Lounge, it could be more relaxed, like, tapas, a DJ, you know… Maybe a Leen’s Leisure too, like boutique hotels… So, I have ideas. I strongly believe the name, the brand, has a lot of potential, and bringing it together from different angles would be promising.” And if Leenders’ accomplishments with Leen’s are seen as a taste of things to come, then this future he sees for his concept cannot come soon enough. We’ll be waiting!
Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.
Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.