Dining wars: 5 Ramadan business strategies by UAE restaurants that work

Traditionally a strong season for restaurants, the Holy Month has certainly seen a change of pace for businesses since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Thankfully, new strategies are proving effective for local restauranteurs during the pandemic's second Ramadan

  
Top view of food table of friends. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Top view of food table of friends. Image used for illustrative purpose.

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Ramadan is a challenging time for the faithful and for business owners alike, though for entirely different reasons. While Muslims prepare to fast from dawn to dusk, businesses brace for increased consumer spending over the Holy Month. Unsurprisingly for a season when food is on everyone’s minds, restaurants and grocery stores traditionally report brisk business over Ramadan.

Market and consumer data company Statista has found that consumers in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt increase their spending during Ramadan, especially on food and groceries. In 2019, these consumers raised their spending by 53 percent. The trend held through last year’s lockdown, when the coronavirus pandemic rerouted consumption to online avenues. Data from Think With Google, the tech giant’s insights division, indicates that online shopping was bigger in Ramadan than during any other period in the MENA region last year, accounting for 2020’s highest search volumes for grocery and food delivery apps.

Business numbers are encouraging so far this Ramadan for restaurants across the UAE, with some homegrown eateries reporting increased business of up to 80 percent, while others are booked days in advance. As with other brick-and-mortar businesses adjusting to the post-pandemic business environment, creative business strategies have played their part. Here’s how homegrown UAE restaurants are innovating this season.

PIVOTING TO DELIVERY

Rohith Muralya, Director, Concept Cuisine

For over two decades, 75 percent of Ramadan business at the restaurant chain India Palace has come from dine-in customers lining up at the buffet to break their fast for the iftar meal, according to Rohith Muralya, Director, Concept Cuisine.

“However, this year, India Palace has changed the business strategy to focus predominantly on delivery and takeaways to adjust revenue streams against new safety rules which prohibit buffets and Iftar gatherings,” he said.

The 13-outlet chain has focused its efforts on biryani, creating a menu of Ramadan Special Pot Dum Biryanis for iftar delivery. Packages are sized to serve families of four to ten who are breaking their fast together. Muralya said that the home-delivery strategy has had “satisfying results” and that India Palace is “looking at a 50 percent increase in overall sales this Ramadan”.

PLACING SHOWSTOPPING DISHES FRONT AND CENTRE

The iftar menu at Dubai startup Reif Japanese Kushiyaki is intriguing on its own: for Dhs 220, either dine-in or delivery, two can tuck into an iftar spread featuring dishes such as miso lentil soup, kibbeh nayyeh with miso hummus and flatbread, and desserts such as matcha Umm Ali and yuzu mouhalabiya. Chef and owner Reif Othman has a reputation for food that entertains, and the awards to prove it.

“This year for Ramadan so far, we have [seen] an 80 percent year-on-year increase in revenue since our first Ramadan last year, and that’s despite the dining restrictions of reduced covers,” Othman says. The brand, which only launched in August 2019, has announced six new restaurants across the Middle East, beginning with an expansion into Riyadh, Cairo and further across the UAE as of this month.

Meanwhile, over at Bella, which opened last year in Dubai Business Bay, Chef Alessandro Miceli is disrupting common perceptions of iftar menus and Italian food.

“We are still a new restaurant on the Dubai scene, so this is our first Ramadan. But we’re an Italian restaurant, so wanted to keep our authentic Italian cuisine, but fuse it with Arabic flavours and use local ingredients to create dishes that are both traditional yet contemporary. Our menu achieves the perfect balance, and we’ve had great feedback from guests,” he says.

Think chickpea and peanut hummus, sourdough bread with dry fruit and date butter, camel milk gelato, and what appears to be an Italian take on ouzi: pilaf with confit lamb leg.

PROMOTING VIRTUAL IFTARS

Ramadan is a time for family and friends, but COVID-19 restrictions have limited iftar gatherings to members of the same households. Online videoconferencing programs have become the default for birthday parties and festivals; why not Zoom iftars too?

Moreish by K

Kunwal Safdar, Head Chef and Creator at cloud kitchen and supper club pop-up brand Moreish by K, is focusing her efforts on marketing the same iftar menu to extended families. She hopes the strategy will deliver a 50 percent increase in business this Ramadan.

“Big gatherings around iftar are limited now, but the sentiment of togetherness remains intact this Ramadan,” she says. “Instead of focusing on the absence of that familiarity, why not make sure the same meal is shared together by getting food delivered to the people who would otherwise have been at your table? It’s still a conversation factor over WhatsApp groups and Zoom calls and serves as a binding force.”

GETTING REALISTIC ABOUT BUDGETS

As residents reckon with reduced spending power, Bol Gappa, a Bollywood-themed casual dining restaurant in Dubai, has put the focus firmly on price. For AED 59 per person, both for dine-in and delivery, UAE residents can choose one starter (including chicken tikka and soya Khurana), four mains (including butter chicken, biryani, dal tadka and paneer khurchan) and one dessert from the restaurant’s iftar menu. Each meal comes with bread, dates and beverages, says Managing Partner Hricha Saraf.

Bol Gappa, a Bollywood-themed casual dining restaurant in Dubai

Bol Gappa is also offering virtual iftars, with special packages for offices.

“With companies, the sense of collaboration has grown even stronger as people seek out ways to connect. We have created food hampers where the employees come together through virtual meetings and enjoy food during iftar and suhoor,” Saraf says.

CREATING AN UNMISSABLE EXPERIENCE

Bringing cautious patrons back to restaurants during a pandemic is a hard ask, but Omar Shihab believes offering a memorable experience can help.

BOCA, the Mediterranean casual fine-dining restaurant in the Dubai International Financial Centre, partnered with the local tour guides at Frying Pan Adventures for an iftar that highlights the emirate’s entrepreneurial spirit by reinterpreting favourite dishes from Dubai food tours.

Sweet Potato Hummus at BOCA

Featured items include chilli- and sumac-stuffed felafel from a Palestinian tour, torched mackerel and date dibs from the Iraqi Masgouf, Moroccan-style 12-hour braised lamb with lemon preserve, and the classic at every Arabic sweetshop, cheese kunafa. The eight-dish sharing menu for two costs AED160 per person.

“The team behind Frying Pan Adventures, Arva Ahmed and Farida Ahmed, worked with BOCA’s Chef Matthijs Stinnissen to curate a menu that pays tribute to dishes and flavours from the most popular restaurants in Old Dubai,” Shihab, founder and General Manager at BOCA said.

“The response from the community has been tremendous and overwhelming. We have sold out every night since the beginning of Ramadan, and seats are currently selling out five days in advance,” he added.

(Reporting by Keith J Fernandez; editing by Seban Scaria)

seban.scaria@refinitiv.com

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