The Middle East has a sweet tooth. Its people love consuming and gifting sweets. It could be chocolate, a mood elevator that brings a smile to most faces, irrespective of age. Or cakes, cupcakes, cheesecakes and macaroons. Or traditional Arabic sweets and dessert spreads. The region is emerging among the top ten confectionery markets in the world. Rupkatha Bhowmick takes a look at the confectionery scene in Dubai – a melting pot of cultures where people from different parts of the world reside, people with their own unique preferences for sweets.
Classic-style confectionery in a neighbourhood café ambience
“People in the region like to add a sweet element in their lives. In Dubai, with its great mix of nationalities, each person has a preferred sweet variant but is keen to try different things. Westerners experiment with Arabic sweets, while Arabs and people from the sub-continent are developing a taste for European pastries and macaroons. That’s why Shakespeare and Co caters for a diverse audience. We have people of every nationality visiting our stores to enjoy our French-style pastries, cakes and coffee,” says Gaetan Herve, general manager of UAE-based gourmet confectionery concept Shakespeare and Co.
“We first started the café side of the restaurant but as we grew, we realised there’s a growing demand for high quality confectionery items – pastries, cakes, macaroons and so on. So we added patisseries to our repertoire in 2007. Since then, all our restaurants in the UAE have adopted the café/restaurant model to offer a wide confectionery spread,” he shares.
Shakespeare and Co sticks to classics in its menu. “Classic never goes out of cycle. All our classic items have been on the menu since the time the concept was born and continue to witness high demand. We feel these items will always have an appeal. We want people visiting us to be transported back to their childhood when their mothers and grandmothers made delicious, classic sweets for them. When our customers order a chocolate éclair they can rest assured that it’ll be exactly what they are looking for,” Herve asserts.
“Cakes and pastries are the two main categories on the confectionery side of our business. The creamier the cake, the more desirable it is. So our creamy cakes do better than tarts. We also do phenomenally well with our handmade chocolates. Among other items, vienoisserie, petit fours, macaroons and marshmallows witness good demand,” he adds.
As Herve puts it, “People like good quality comfort food, and that’s what we offer at Shakespeare and Co coupled with great service.”
When asked if people are gradually moving towards healthy and gluten-free sweet variants, Herve says, “Yes, people are trying to eat healthy and they have several healthy sweet options to choose from. But we don’t dabble in this category. We believe if you have a pastry it’s a bit of an indulgence. It’s done once in a while, so it really doesn’t hurt. For those who prefer gluten-free we have other options, including a few desserts. But we don’t reshape cakes – sponge, mousse or any other variety – to make them gluten-free.”
“Similarly, we don’t do menu engineering when entering a new region. Yes, we twist and tweak some items, depending on cultural nuances, but most items remain the same. We don’t drop items; rather we add items to the menu. That’s why our menu gets bigger with each passing year,” he continues.
The UAE-born brand is very particular about its menu since every item is made in-house. “That’s why we always look for slightly bigger spaces for our newer stores, typically around 3,500 sqft, although we do have our centralised kitchen in Dubai Investments Park where we usually do our pre-preparation activities,” he states.
“As a UAE brand we’re proud to have established a presence not just in Dubai but across Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Al Ain, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. We launched the concept way back in 2001 with a single store and currently have 20 stores, the last one recently opened in Al Ruwais. Beyond the UAE, we have two stores in the US. All these are company-owned stores. We also have a presence through master franchises in Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and Jordan, while new partnerships are in the development stage in Kuwait and Egypt. We aim to establish a presence across the GCC by next year and are currently looking for the right partner in Saudi Arabia. We are also scouting opportunities in Asia and preparing to venture into the European market,” Herve elaborates.
“We feel there are several neighbourhood locations that may be looking for a concept like Shakespeare and Co; hence, we are constantly scouting for locations in the UAE and beyond. Our endeavour is to achieve the status of the preferred neighbourhood café people would love to come to for their morning cup of coffee or a late breakfast, a place where they would like to schedule meetings and socialise. Any time of the day should be a good excuse to visit Shakespeare and Co,” he concludes.
Offering best-in-class confectionery products without customising
“One of our core values at Gourmet Gulf is ‘best-in-class’ so we endeavour to bring brands that meet this criterion. We also look closely at market needs before adding brands to our expanding portfolio. Consider our current clutch of confectionary brands – Morelli’s, Hummingbird Bakery and Dalloyau. We brought these brands to the UAE after studying the growing demand for confectionery concepts,” says Sami K Daud, executive chairman, Gourmet Gulf.
“There’s a lot of momentum behind healthy foods these days but people still like to indulge themselves once in a while, which is perfectly okay. In Dubai, we’ve seen huge growth in expatriate and tourist numbers. Most are young people with young kids who are fond of sweets – the parents as well, at least once in a while. These factors are driving growth of the confectionery market in the region,” he observes.
“We opened our first Hummingbird Bakery outlet in The Dubai Mall in September 2012. Our second location in Citywalk came up in October 2013 and the third started this year in Mall of the Emirates. While we’ve been cautious in selecting locations for the brand, we’ve been successful in bringing Hummingbird Bakery closer to our consumers. They’ve instantly taken to the brand’s offerings of cupcakes, coffee and more. We will continue to expand – opening one-or-two units a year and move beyond the UAE to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar,” Daud reveals.
It isn’t only the cupcakes that make the brand famous. Whole cakes are also doing well while some of the best-selling items in its product range include the usual suspects – chocolate and red velvet cakes. Complementing them are surprises such as rainbow cake, its layered colours appealing to kids and adults alike. Plus the menu sports special items every month.
“Our forthcoming premium confectionary concept Dalloyau is a brand with a huge legacy. Founded in France in 1682, it invented the opera cake, infusing chocolate and coffee in a lip-smacking mix. The brand’s cakes, chocolates, croissants, macaroons, tarts and desserts are highly addictive. That’s why we wanted to introduce the concept in the region – we feel it will click really well with our audience,” asserts Daud.
The first Dalloyau outlet is scheduled to open in January 2015 at Mall of the Emirates after which a couple of units will be set up in the UAE every year for the next two years. Only after gaining a strong foothold here will the brand be taken beyond the UAE. “We’ve been getting enquiries from landlords keen to house Dalloyau even before we’ve launched the concept. It’s definitely a fantastic brand but this kind of response has overwhelmed us,” Daud admits.
“One important consideration before acquiring franchise rights to any brand is the performance of the concept in the home country. If it’s liked there, I’d like to bring the same experience to Dubai. The next question is whether the brand’s offerings need to be tailored to suit regional market needs. I feel that’s not necessary, apart from adding slight twists. You don’t really need to localise or customise the menu in this region because people here are extremely aware, well-travelled and cosmopolitan. They prefer the brand’s original offerings to products customised to suit local tastes. That, in fact, is our selling point when we get new F&B brands to the region,” observes Daud.
“It’s true that there’s tremendous competition here but if you have a great proposition offering high quality products, you’re here to stay,” he concludes.
More than just confectionery – a destination store
Candelite was launched as a confectionery store but incorporated gifting elements along the way, says Manish Jeswani, business head of the multi-brand confectionery concept that stocks over 2,000 products from 19 countries and is part of the Dubai-based Landmark Group. “This region is equally known for its sweet tooth as for its strong gifting culture. People like to socialise and when meeting friends and family even casually they like to carry gifts – it could be chocolates, candies, gourmet snacks and so much more. We widened our offerings when we saw so many customers visiting us to purchase anything ranging from a birthday cake to gourmet popcorn,” he elaborates.
Candelite has acquired franchise rights for several world-class brands to support its gifting range. “We’ve included ‘Candy Cakes’ from the UK in our brand portfolio, offering their products in all our stores. Another new brand that’s clicked for us is ‘Love Confectionary’, which has some very exciting products for children such as a chocolate tool set for boys and a chocolate handbag for girls. We’ve got some products from ‘Barbie’ too such as make-up kits, which happen to be among our top-sellers. On the savoury side, we have launched a US-based gourmet popcorn brand ‘Poparazzi’ offering popcorn in 13 flavours ranging from cheese to chocolate, caramel to cookie and cream and vanilla to red velvet. Our gelato range featuring a line-up of handmade desserts in a host of flavours is also doing well,” states Jeswani, who says new brands will continue to be added in the days to come to excite visitors walking into any Candelite store.
That isn’t all. Besides retail, Candelite is also into distribution, registering double-digit growth in this segment over the past year. “Our distribution arm has exclusive distribution rights to brands such as Pop across the MENA region. We are also the GCC distributor for the Korean jelly pop concept Decoria and we hold the distribution rights for Kids mania candy toys, Candyrific and Tootsie in the UAE. The retail partners of our distribution arm include ENOC, EPPCO, Emarat, Emirates Cooperative Society, Union Coop and other supermarkets,” he observes.
“We are also into corporate gifting. Plus customers can purchase supplies for occasions like birthdays instead of hopping from one shop to another looking for their requirements. We help them to choose whatever they like – from chocolates to candies, biscuits to jelly pops, popcorns to ice creams and even gift items – so they can customise their gift sets. This has helped us emerge as a destination store as opposed to being just a confectionery concept,” asserts Jeswani.
Covering over 20,000 sqft, Candelite has grown to 22 locations spread across the UAE. “We’re looking to spread across the GCC and then gradually beyond. Our next step is Qatar where we’ve already signed three locations – Doha City Centre, Rayan Mall and Gulf Mall. In the UAE new Candy Cakes concept stores will come up at Ibn Battuta Mall and Yas Mall in addition to Poparazzi gourmet popcorn stores at Deira City Centre and Ibn Battuta Mall. In terms of organised confectionery retail, our aim is to emerge as the single largest player and we’re extremely excited to achieve this goal,” Jeswani concludes.