The bigger picture - The Middle East Food Forum 2016 - Radisson Blu, Deira Creek, Dubai

The Middle East Forum, the brainchild of Vishal Pandey, Founder of Data On A Plate and Middle East Food Forum, had its inaugural forum recently. The idea behind the forum is to have industry leaders and influencers to get together and look at where the industry is heading, as well as to share success stories. On this occasion, some heavyweights in the industry, as well as some up-and-coming restaurateurs took to the stage to share both successes and challenges that needed to be met.

Vishal welcomed everyone and talked about his goal to establish a  forum that would meet regularly and would be designed at creating a  platform for people to exchange ideas and look at how to implement them. He also looked at the significance of using data that could be referred to by restaurants to map out their way forward. 

The keynote address was an early highlight: Stefan Breg, the Director of F&B for Starwood Middle East. It was  a meaty presentation, with stats aplenty. Stefan shared some eye-opening information with regards to where F&B was going between now and 2020. His look at malls vs hotels vs free standing restaurants was particularly fascinating. Did you know that table service in malls was growing and that malls were becoming more and more of a player as a restaurant destination?  Also, I realised thanks to his figures that Abu Dhabi is actually doing well in terms of mall space, at 2.2 million SQM compared to 2.9 million in Dubai. This is even more telling when you consider that there are some mega mall projects coming up in places like Saadiyat, Reem and Al Maryah Islands. Interesting! Finally, as to the question about which format will dominate, Stefan believes hotels and malls will share the market - the pie is big enough to be shared. 

The next two topics showed  a practical slant as well as an inspirational one. Mike Hoff, Founder & CEO of Mike Hoff Consulting FZ LLC, dealt with Managing cash flow in a business. While he looked at how we should question ourselves about where the cash is getting stuck, his talk could best be summed up in a metaphor he used during his presentation - "If you can save two seconds in the kitchen every time you cook by moving things around, you can make it more efficient". 

Finally, Bobby Krishna a Specialist in Food Inspection with the Dubai Municipality raised our awareness of how vital this behind the scenes aspect of a running a restaurant really is. I liked an initiative he mentioned that they were looking at introducing a 'Name and fame' concept as opposed to the more negative 'Name and shame'. Good stuff. 

Just before lunch,  a lively session in which an impressive group of panelists assessed the Pain Points of a restaurant - what are the challenges from location to staff hire and retention that restaurants faced? Duncan Fraser-Smith, Funding partner of Cutting Edge Agency, Ian Ohan, Founder & CEO of Freedom Pizza, Vinay Lall, MD of Baldwin Lall and Associates and the owner of Kwality Restaurants, Vinay Verma, sent us on our way to lunch with much food for thought - absolutely no pun intended. What emerged from the panelists is the value of staff as a resource, and that there is no cap one could put on training staff. 

During the tea and lunch break, it was clear that people had been looking for such a forum, as I saw business cards feverishly exchanging hands. There was a real buzz. 

After lunch, when I looked at the programme, I saw that the next item on the agenda was a Masterclass by Majdel Musa from Durkin &Co on Legal Aspects of Leasing, I was tempted to extend my lunch break. I am glad I did not. Her presentation was lively and informative and drew some genuine questions with regards to the rights of the lessor. I got the feeling that if there were time, this could have gone on for a while. Excellent.

Now, the next guest intrigued me. I had the pleasure of meeting her a few months ago when Tablez Food Company, of which she is CEO, opened its second Peppermill Restaurant in Abu Dhabi.  Of course, I am talking about the effervescent Shafeena Yusuff Ali. While she focused on Re-imagining food service in the U.A.E, I was more inspired by the story of this housewife and mother who became the CEO of  a company that oversees some of the most recognisable F&B brands in malls today. Inspiring. 

The two panel discussions which followed had something in common - they both looked at the cusotmer experience, but from different perspectives. Firstly, Gaurav Tandon, MD of the K Kompany, Chef Bobby Kapoor, Chef Partner at Cartalyst Solutions, Chef Uwe Micheel, Director of Kitchens at Radisson Blu Dubai Deira Creek, Chef Marta Yanci, Owner at Marta's Kitchen and Workshop and finally, Chef Helene Morris, a Senior Lecturer at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management expounded the importance of Innovation in creating a memorable Customer experience. It was Chef Uwe who really captured my attention when he said that as much as we innovate and break into a new direction, people wanted real food again. It is almost as if all the experimentation had run its course for some of them, and they just wanted to be comforted again. Is a return to basics the new innovation? I wondered to myself. 

In the second panel discussion to deal with the customer experience, Gaurav Tandon was joined by Prakash Menon from Stanton Chase Middle East, Sajith Ansar, Founder & CEO of Ideaspice, Kamal Bhatia, MD Wide Systems & IFH Institute Hospitality and Suraj Gill, Head of Media sales at Zomato touched on a topic close to my heart - Connecting with customers emotionally and creating brand ambassadors. It was noted that the number one gripe that guests have is poor customer service. This is a  widespread issue in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi where a lot of money is spent on impressive looking restaurants, chefs are brought in from all over the world, but service delivery often falls flat. A common message was that restaurants must remember they sell experiences. Or as I like to say, a restaurant that thinks it is in the food business should get out. It is actually in the experience business, creating memories.  

Regretfully I could not stay until the end of the forum and missed out on one more panel discussion and masterclass, but I experienced enough to feel that this inaugural forum was a huge success. As a blogger and food writer, it was a wonderful opportunity to see where F&B was going in the U.A.E. and also to hear from industry leaders in a relaxed and chilled environment. The clich√© goes that necessity is the mother of invention. Vishal Pandey saw a need and satisfied it. But this cannot be the end. I am looking forward to the next Middle East Food Forum, and while Dubai still sets the pace, I can see this forum being hosted in Abu Dhabi not far down the line. 

Brandon Stoltenkamp

Images courtesy of Vishal Pandey