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Building A Business: Starting And Expanding An F&B Enterprise Having the right team and operations from the get-go simplifies matters.

By Hisham Samawi

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Clinton Street Baking Company

For us at Clinton St. Baking Company, as nascent restaurateurs within the UAE, it certainly took us time to hone our instinct in the food and beverage (F&B) business. Having assumed control of a master license for the entire Middle East, geographical expansion was always a key component of our long-term objectives for the enterprise. Yet, despite our ever-present desire for expansion, we wanted to take our time to not only build our brand, but to also reinforce our corporate infrastructure, so as to attain sustainable growth.

When establishing our first outlet, our foremost challenge was to not only find, but more importantly, secure a suitable spot for the business- the reason being that there was an undersupply at that time, and as we were a relatively unknown brand, we didn't have access to prime locations. Even though our first location was at Burj Views in Downtown Dubai, our choice was a risk at the time, since the location was set back from the boulevard, thus passerby visibility was minimal. Furthermore, the entire subdevelopment was relatively new; so, we were unable to draw upon historical records to understand customer traffic to pre-existing F&B outlets.

In hindsight, we were quite fortunate in terms of having successfully launched with a bang; we've been busy from the day that we opened. But when considering the longterm viability of our brand, coupled with the aforementioned challenges of establishing ourselves in a relatively new sub-development, I realized that it would be difficult to replicate the level of traffic we saw at Burj Views, without the benefit of casual footfall. I had always hoped to secure a location that would deliver incidental footfall in a more tourist-friendly development, especially when considering that tourism accounts for a relatively substantial portion of Dubai's population at any given time.

Two years on from launching our Burj Views outlet saw us in discussions with master developer Meraas. We were eventually offered a location in City Walk; a location we believed would offer us access into another market on the other side of Sheikh Zayed Road. Incidentally, establishing our second location gave us the valuable experience of managing multiple locations, an experience that has become invaluable as we take Clinton Street Baking Company through the motions of geographical expansion through sub-licensing.

Related: Learning The Ropes: Hisham Samawi Talks Enterprise Proficiency, Profits, And Progressing As A Brand

Another revenue stream we explored as part of our expansion efforts was the use of food trucks. Just a few months after we opened, we were invited to launch a popup at the very first edition of the Sole DXB event. This was well before Dubai's food truck boom, and we subsequently leased a container, and fitted it out with the necessary equipment. Fortunately, we discovered that our food travelled very well. Admittedly, we made it up as we went along, but ultimately found the entire project to be a phenomenal exercise in marketing. Since then, we initiated many more of these pop-ups, but never made substantial returns, since our revenues simply paid for the rental of our equipment. Having successfully completed enough pop-up food truck events and seen enough light at the end of the proverbial "financial tunnel," we then chose to move forward with a substantial investment in our food truck. The mobile food truck market has since exploded in Dubai, and Clinton Street's truck has now evolved into a very convenient channel of reaching our intended target market.

Clinton St. Baking Company's food truck.
Source: Clinton St. Baking Company.
We also moved into the catering market, which we found to be massive in Dubai. We are still quite new to it, and are constantly developing our offerings. We originally began with a Thanksgiving promotion- given that Dubai's culinary jet set is always on the hunt for a traditional taste of Americana, we delivered it in the form of a wholesome turkey meal. As for the road ahead, the third and fourth quarters of the year are when Dubai's social calendar typically comes alive. We do quite a bit of catering during this time of the year, which is why we hope to leverage off of this experience by promoting our catering services well into the slower months of the year. During the slower months of the year, catering helps make the most of what would otherwise be underutilized resources. F&B is always an attractive business for anyone from the outside looking in. It may look like a simple process when one witnesses a well-oiled restaurant running smoothly, but there is so much planning and training that goes into it. What is more, Dubai's F&B space is hyper competitive in all aspects, which is why we believe that given the sheer level of F&B options the city offers, we foresee an inevitable reduction in supply coupled with a reduction in mainstream F&B investors as they pivot into more niche markets. We have already seen a shift from luxury dining to venues packing more punch, in terms of price, quality, and value.

My biggest piece of advice for entrepreneurs wanting to get into this sector would be to make sure you have the right team and systems in place before you get started. As people who delved into this business without prior experience, we initially focused all our energy on merely opening on time, given the innumerable challenges that arrive hand in hand with the design and fit-out of a restaurant. Yet, once the doors actually open, work progresses so fast that it is often difficult to quickly get things done. Having the right team and operations from the get-go thereby simplifies matters.

At the end of the day, if you hope to be involved in the F&B space, be ready to go all in. I recall launching deliveries without having enough drivers to meet our initial demand. In those cases, I would often have to leave the restaurant to deliver food myself. I even had situations wherein I would knock on a door to deliver food, and the customer would turn out to be a friend of mine. When it comes to the service business, one must always be humble and willing to get down and dirty; it shows that your team cares, and is dedicated to their goals.

Related: Learning On The Job: My Key Takeaways As An Entrepreneur In Dubai's F&B Sector

Hisham Samawi

Co-owner, Clinton Street Baking Company & Restaurant and Ayyam Gallery in Dubai

With business degrees from Georgetown University and Columbia University, Hisham Samawi moved to Dubai in 2006 and spent two years working in business development and strategy for Tatweer, a member of Dubai Holdings.

In 2008, Hisham recognized an opportunity to develop the art scene in the region and left Tatweer to partner with his cousin, Khaled Samawi, to establish Ayyam Gallery, one of the region’s leading art institutions. Opening their first space in Damascus the gallery has grown steadily over the years to include two spaces in Dubai, a gallery in Beirut as well as its newest gallery on New Bond Street in London. The gallery now represents many of the leading artists from around the Arab world and Iran. In addition to hosting exhibitions for its artists, Ayyam Gallery also hosts its own series of auctions called ‘The Young Collectors Auction’, and has a publishing house that publishes a wide range of artists’ books and catalogs.

Recognizing another opportunity and gap in the regional landscape Hisham Samawi brought over the famous New York restaurant, Clinton Street Baking Company and opened it’s first location in the region at Burj Views in Downtown Dubai in 2014. His first endeavor into the food and beverage industry, the restaurant has quickly established itself as Dubai’s go to place for all day breakfast and high quality casual dining. Signing the master franchise for the MENA region, Hisham is looking to grow and develop the brand across the region.

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