Starting A Business During A Downturn: The Stories Behind Two Dubai Ventures That Launched Amid The COVID-19 Crisis
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February 2020 was supposed to be like any other month in any other year, although a little bit more special for Neha and Vinay Mehta, the mother-son enterprising duo behind Pav Gully Restaurant and Bakery, because it was then that they finally realized a dream to launch a family-friendly eatery that would serve simple, tasty and authentic Indian fast food.
Expectations in terms of business output, operational challenges, and footfall were their basic concerns, as would be for any other restaurant owner, but then, the COVID-19 crisis spread the globe, and the UAE government implemented a 24-hour lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.
Neha and Vinay Mehta, founders of Pav Gully Restaurant and Bakery. Source: Pav Gully Restaurant and Bakery
“Our restaurant caters to a family-oriented community, and the common consensus we have gathered is that people are scared and skeptical of eating outside,” says Neha Mehta. “There are general concerns surrounding cleanliness, sanitation, quality and freshness of food. However, even though our customers have been very skeptical about eating out, we’ve noticed that there is a high demand for basic essentials from our bakery, such as the Mumbai Pav and flavored Khari biscuit, an Indian puff pastry. Our products are eggless, and thus cater to a large audience in the neighboring community.”
For this reason, since the outbreak of the crisis, the Mehta family has been focused on meeting the requirements of their daily anticipated footfall, ensuring that there is not a lot of wastage, as most of the baked items tend to lose its freshness if left overnight.
However, that has not been the only change of their plans. “When we first launched, tying up with online delivery partners was scheduled approximately six to eight months into operations, and also with the price point that we are offering, it was not very feasible,” says Vinay Mehta. “However, we have now had to revisit our third-party investment plans to expedite these partnerships due to the demand brought in by this pandemic.”
Another not anticipated item on their to-do lists was that in the use of social media presence and digital influencers, which proved to be extremely important for their new venture very quickly. “We are both traditionalists, and for a long time have relied on more traditional means of marketing and communications,” adds Vinay. “Since the lockdown and social distancing regulations have been implemented, we have had to reach out to social and digital marketing experts to understand how we can leverage these channels to amplify our presence.”
Going forward, the Mehta team will be focused on maintaining the restaurant’s product quality and standards, introducing promotional offers for special occasions, and preparing for an influx of dine-in customers who will be looking to break the monotony of the months spent indoors once the crisis has settled.
“A contactless dining experience is something that we anticipate post COVID-19, and so we’re working on implementing that into practice,” concludes Vinay.
Dominic-Nowel Barnes, founder of The Giving Movement, a UAE-made sustainable unisex street wear and sportswear brand, has a somewhat similar story as well. “My biggest challenge was feeling some guilt for launching in this period,” he says. “It was a hard decision whereby we had delayed our launch because of the crisis in the hope it would end quickly, but eventually, we were in a position where we needed to launch to survive. It was tough.”
Rather quickly, his brand gained a lot of traction and promising sales results, both regionally and globally, leading Barnes to anticipate donating US$100,000 to the Dubai Cares by end of the year. “I think this crisis will show what we are made of both individually and collectively,” Barnes says. “It will show who has the resilience and wherewithal to make it through these times. I think anyone who has been through the entrepreneurial journey will be familiar with firefighting, pressure, and those times of self-doubt. Adding in an external event like a global pandemic is just another challenge to overcome that has been added to the list. I saw an opportunity in the market for the demand for loungewear apparel, especially during the time of quarantine, so I had to make the strategic decision to launch immediately.”
Dominic-Nowel Barnes, founder of The Giving Movement. Source: The Giving Movement
As in the case of the Mehtas, Barnes also stresses the importance of digital presence for any businesses. However, his observations bring to light one more interesting and quite important angle to be taken into account when analyzing the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on businesses.
“I think that the importance of having an online presence has proven key in this environment,” he explains. “That decision could make or break a business right now, especially with the restrictions seen around the world with COVID and the retail sector. At the same time, imagine an adverse and equally unimaginable situation to the one we are in today where the internet crashes and the coin is flipped. Then, bricks and mortar would be the thriver. I think it shows the importance of spreading risk and operating a multi-channel business.”
As long as it will be needed, Barnes says, he will be prioritizing the health of his team and customers, from social distancing to sanitization, since customer-facing will remain their biggest challenge. “Numerous movements are out of our control,” he says. “Therefore, we are committed from our end to deliver world-class customer service and to be as transparent as we can with the consumer during their journey.”
In the post-COVID era, he says, the retail sector should start listening to the consumers and present more adaptability to cater to their needs. “I think it is clear to see the consumer is becoming more conscious of the rise of anything from self-help and personal development to meditation to veganism,” Barnes concludes. “I believe this conscious awakening and journey of self-discovery will continue and will be amplified by the current crisis, and as a brand, we envision that the consumer will want to associate more with purposeful brands and things that align with their values as humans, whether that be caring about the planet or the people.”