Bateel is now one of the four most recognizable brand names in the UAE alongside Emirates, Emaar, and Jumeirah. Over a delicious complimentary meal of wild mushroom risotto and lemongrass tea, café GM Spencer Ayers talked about the value of the brand's GCC roots, its growth and expansion in both retail and gastronomy, and coming changes in the F&B sector.
Are you primarily a restaurant brand or a retail brand?
I would say we're neither. Our history means that we've been brought up on dates but over the years we've diversified. We're pretty staunch on the fact that we're not a restaurant but a premium café. I think Bateel café pays homage to its origin with dates and the boutiques without getting pigeonholed in any way. In fact, there are no other known boutique/café/bakery hybrids within the UAE. We're not a type that came before us, we're just Bateel.
What was the inspiration behind founding a restaurant? Why Mediterranean food? How much thought went into selecting the menu?
The inspiration came about chance actually. We started off as a boutique and our founder and CEO Dr. Ata Atmar felt that we needed to enhance the guest experience of a boutique. It started with serving coffee and went on to include pastry and viennoiserie, and from there onwards it just grew organically. It was an attempt to expand but it mainly happened through coincidence.
With the café, we really wanted a gourmet experience that was also healthy, which is how the choice of Mediterranean food came about. We came across an executive chef named Jean-Luc Vila who worked on the menu with us and we chose the finest ingredients. If you ask someone from Europe what they think Mediterranean food is, they will say it's Italian, whereas if the same question is posed to someone from the GCC, they will say it's Levantine food. So we also geared it towards the people here, giving them a broad range of food that was also health-conscious.
Massive thought went into selecting the menu. There is nothing that we introduce to the menu that isn't tried first. We are relentless in innovating through our specials menu which we change each quarter, and if something resonates really well with the customers, we incorporate it into our main menu. We embrace what we believe to be a future trend, we don't look at our competition when deciding our items because you cannot be a leader when you are copying someone.
You're known for some of your gourmet options. What makes something like dates and chocolates gourmet? What goes into their cultivation that gives them that title?
If you were to relate the term 'gourmet' to any product, it would mean it's in the top 10%. With our chocolates, it's only the finest ingredients from Belgium, Madagascar, and South America. What makes our dates gourmet is the fact that honestly, nobody in the world can do dates like us. We have 10 farms in Saudi Arabia with Al Ghat being our home. It has a microclimate with sweet water and artesian wells, it's below sea level with a very fertile soil. These conditions are simply perfect for high quality date growth and no other place in the world can match those conditions. We do 20 different types of dates but we will tend to the date palm branch even before it grows. We take off 80% of the fruit to allow the remaining 20% to grow into what we feel is an exceptional product. They are also organic and pesticide free. We actually only use the top 10% of the top 10% of those dates in Bateel. The rest goes to our partners in places such airport duty frees and airlines. For instance, if you eat a date on an Emirates flight, it tends to be Bateel.
What is the experience you aspire to give a Bateel customer?
The Bateel experience resounds with the local guests because this was a brand created in the GCC and is exported quite well. The people here see Bateel as their own, a symbol of Arabian heritage.
In our Dubai branches, you a see a good mix of those raised in the region as well as expatriates. They all see it as a healthy and reasonably priced option. One thing that is common to all our guests is that they never leave feeling heavy or bloated which is rare for Mediterranean food. This isn't about a transaction; this is about our team being able to recognize the needs of every single individual who sits down here.
Dubai has no shortage of eateries. What is Bateel doing to set itself apart?
We're not a high-end eatery, instead I would say we are a more premium casual experience. We cater to the masses but we do it very well. We feel that gives us headroom to explore the market and we're well-positioned going forward. There is nowhere else that you can find pasta, salad, or pastry of our quality at the same or lesser price and I am adamant about that.
The F&B industry is now facing taxation in the UAE. Do you think that's bad for business?
I think we all know it's coming; we just don't know when. If it's VAT, then it will be common to all of us. I think in the short-medium term we won't fully pass on whatever percentage it is to our guests. Yes, they may feel the pinch for a short while but after that the market will catch on. Salaries and remuneration will reflect the effect of taxation as well but I think we're well-positioned. We will stand by our guests and listen to their needs.
How does the burgeoning F&B sphere in this part of the world compare to more established places like London where you've also worked?
I recently read somewhere that 98% of the major international food brands are now available in the UAE. This is a very brand-savvy place.
London on the other hand, where a lot of those brands are still not present, is where you look at to see potential and witness what might happen within the next decade. Some great brands and trends are still emerging in London and they will most likely make their way to the UAE in the future. But London still does not have certain power-brands like The Cheesecake Factory or Texas Roadhouse that are already here.
In the GCC, if there is anyone who is truly pioneering homegrown brands in the food sector, it's Kuwait which has some great concepts coming up. That progress makes us feel very well-represented in the GCC because we're welcomed as one of their own and they feel proud of us.
Are there any further expansion plans? Perhaps international ones?
Absolutely. We are headed towards Kuwait within the next month, Oman the month after that, and then Qatar at the mid-point of the year. Turkey is on our radar right now and perhaps after that we will look into the Far East. Beyond that, there will also be further expansion in KSA, and while we're already present in London, we may expand there as well.
*Interview by Behzad Sandila, editor
Spencer Ayers Bio:
Spencer Ayers has been the General Manager of Bateel Café since June 2015. Prior to that, he worked with AlShaya Group International and helped in the expansion of Pizza Express and Le Pain Quotidien across the Middle East. His experience in the F&B sector started in his hometown of London, England where he worked as Area and General Manager for brands such as Bella Pasta and Caffé Uno and operated across Oxford, Rugby, and Glasgow among other places. In 2004, he joined The Restaurant Group, a British chain of popular restaurants and public houses, and worked on numerous leisure and 'high street' brands before heading towards the Middle East.
© Capital Business 2016