Spero Panagakis' BB Social Dining Is Bringing A Sense Of Community To Dubai's F&B Scene

Much like the Arabic word its name is derived from ("habibi"), the restaurant wants to embody harmony and love in its community, which is why BB brands its style of food as "social dining."
Spero Panagakis' BB Social Dining Is Bringing A Sense Of Community To Dubai's F&B Scene
Image credit: BB Social Dining
Spero Panagakis, co-founder, BB Social Dining

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Startup Section Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East
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Tucked amidst lush foliage and rather discreet signage, BB Social Dining is a three-story restaurant located in Gate Village at Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC). The homegrown concept is set in a space that was once previously an art gallery, which has resulted in an intimate, quirky atmosphere, with its spiraling staircase, black and white floor tiles, mustard upholstery, cozy booths and tables, and an al fresco dining terrace. Much like the Arabic word its name is derived from (“habibi”), the restaurant wants to embody harmony and love in its community, which is why BB brands its style of food as “social dining.”

Fusing culinary inspirations from the East, West, and Middle East, BB encourages its diners to design and share their dishes that consist of baos, bowls, bites, BBQ specialties, and, yes, distinctive desserts too. And in order to cater to a variety of preferences, the restaurant promises an inclusive approach for all kinds of diners, with its offering including vegan, vegetarian, and meat-based dishes.

BB is the brainchild of a founding team bringing six decades of hospitality: chef Alex Stumpf at the kitchen’s helm (who was the previous head chef of Peyote), while Shabnum Stumpf and Spero Panagakis (both formerly of Zuma) manage everything else relating to the business. As co-founders with diverse fields of expertise, the trio note that they prioritized setting distinct roles for themselves within the F&B brand very early on so as to avoid any conflict in responsibilities. “We are strong believers that as owner-operators, we have to appreciate all developments when creating homegrown brands in order to stand behind it 100%,” says Panagakis, who has been positioned as the front-of-the-business man.

Co-founders Spero Panagakis, Alex Stumpf and Shabnum Stumpf
Source: BB Social Dining
 
“Each one of us has their talent, and we thrive on driving the different teams, so they appreciate that. Each department has a certain skillset that impacts the business just as much as the next department.” The co-founders are also keen to develop their team’s skillsets, saying, “It is important that you cross train your employees in every department. This way, you create cultural teamwork and understanding, so the brand is always at the forefront, and not just a per team department only.”

This is clearly an aspect that the co-owners regard highly, with Panagakis pointing out that BB is a result of teamwork, dedication, and inclusivity. “We’re not a single-bodied operation, we all work together, and we have created something unique that our patrons love.” The business also prides itself on avoiding a silo mentality, with each member of the team knowing the business inside out to ensure operations run efficiently.

“It also means that whenever there is an area for growth, it’s immediately recognized and acted upon.” This strategy also explains the management’s modus operandi. “A good leader always recognizes that they’re only as good as their team!” Panagakis declares. “Our leadership strategy is reflective of our brand strategy: we want to create a community for our team, where they have the ability to be creative and playful, whilst working too.”

Having an innate sense for community is also what the co-founders state makes BB stand out amongst the crowded F&B space in the UAE. “We are always of the belief that within every community, there is a place for everyone. By design and concept, BB fits in at a price point that was new to the market, and supported a wider reach on a demographic that had not yet been tapped into.”


Source: BB Social Dining
 
As a social eatery and bar located within the bustling DIFC community (which houses a variety of high-end licensed restaurants, midmarkets and casual dining options), the BB team sought to build its reputation based on its noteworthy menu and charming ambience: “Our principal was to offer an all-inclusive, not exclusive menu that supported the polished midmarket category, and one that supports all occasions- from a formal dining experience, through to your everyday business lunch or afternoon break… It was a matter of creating something that was ‘needed’ in the market, and that we knew customers would appreciate.”

Of course, as with any business, the journey wasn’t without hindrances. One of the team’s biggest hurdles came during the restaurant’s construction stage. “We are built over three floors, and there is extension civil work that needed to be done in a specific way to comply with regulations,” Panagakis explains. Eventually, it delayed the project by six months. “This hurdle and delay had a knock-on effect, as rents are still payable even though we were not trading.”

The silver lining? The co-founders took it as an opportunity to learn the importance of performing proper due diligence, no matter what they’ve seen, heard, or are recommended with. And that’s the advice Panagakis wants to share with his fellow upstarts in the market: “Always make sure you do your homework thoroughly on all suppliers, landlords, and research every dotted line on every offer to ensure you are protected in the process to avoid penalties or fees that fall out of your control.”

This outlook to continuously learn whilst facing difficulties has proved useful as the brand faced the impact of the COVID-19 crisis of 2020. According to research data by EatApp, in March 2020 alone, restaurants across the region saw an overall 60% decrease in customers. “With constant fluctuations in numbers, restrictions, and this pandemic being wholly unprecedented, we’ve had to learn as we go along. It’s been a learning curve for us all.”

Source: BB Social Dining
 
It’s worth noting that it was amidst the UAE lockdown mandate that the brand diversified its revenue by launching a delivery and takeaway service utilizing a cloud kitchen space. With food delivery as an option, the brand managed to reach out to a wider audience and introduce the restaurant to prospective customers that would usually only be achieved through word-of-mouth. “Through our partners at Deliveroo, we managed not only to open two other satellite brands -Soule Soups and The Little Katsu Shop- as well as expand these three brands to our new satellite kitchen on Hessa Street.”

The brand’s new kitchen-to-delivery approach has thus not only strengthened BB’s presence, but also ensured sufficient cash flow to survive under the strict restrictions that comes with having dine-in guests. Panagakis adds that being in the UAE has proved to advantageous, with the country’s government being quick to handle the situation from the onset. This meant that BB was able to open its doors again sooner than most- which has had its advantages and disadvantages. “As a business, whilst we want to come out of this situation as quickly as possible, as a community-driven restaurant, we also have a social responsibility to our customers to do the best we can. We want BB to be a safe space for those who come to us.”

Given the current environment, it can be easy for entrepreneurs to feel overwhelmed by the challenges one can face in this domain, but Panagakis still commends the MENA region’s market for its F&B scene. “It’s constantly growing, there’s so much diversity, and a sense of community you don’t find in other places around the world.” Though, of course, as with anywhere in the world, the region comes with its own set of issues. To this, Panagakis advises, “You have to really learn about all the regulations and rules beforehand to avoid any delays or penalties that can arise from mistakes, or a seemingly minor detail being overlooked. Other than that, people here are helpful and there’s always someone willing to lend a helping hand.”

With that in mind, is now still a good time to start a business in the MENA region? Panagakis responds with an affirmative. “I think now is as good a time as ever to start a business here. Obviously, with precaution though. It’s important for new, homegrown businesses to identify where there is a gap in the market, and to capitalize on that.”

Source: BB Social Dining

Related: From Japan To Dubai: Founder Ahmed Tahnoon On Creating Spheerz To Serve Japanese Takoyaki

'TREP TALK ME: TIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS FROM SPERO PANAGAKIS, CO-OWNER AND CO-FOUNDER, BB SOCIAL DINING

1/ Find a niche, and stick to it “This should be true to you, and something you know the customer will enjoy.”

2/ Divide and rule “When co-founding a business, create clear boundaries and separate roles. This will lead to smoother operations and no crossovers.”

3/ Listen to your customer “What does your clientele want? How can you give them what they want? Answering these kinds of questions leads to customer loyalty.”

4/ Your team is your backbone “It’s impossible for a business to function well without a good team in place. Choose people who are reflective of your values, and who really understand the message you are trying to send.”

5/ Push boundaries “Whether it’s building a three-story restaurant in DIFC, or starting a business at home, being creative and taking a calculated risk can lead to a great outcome.”

Related: With The Creation Of The Restaurants Business Group, Dubai Chamber Steps Up Its Support Of The City's Restaurateurs

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