#CEOCookBook: Decoding the secret recipe

July 2, 2024 | By Rupkatha B

#CEOCookBook session at Food Service Forum 2024

The secret to success lies in the ability to strike a balance between offering a delightful experience through good food and human connection, coupled with convenience and personalised touch by leveraging the right technology pieces.  

Opening the conversation at the recently concluded UAERG Food Service Forum in association with IMAGES RetailME, session moderator Tapan Vaidya, Chief Executive Officer, PJP Investments Group started with a story.

Back in 1980s, when Starbucks was starting out, it was run by Howard Schultz, Howard Behar and Orrin Smith. In 1988 when Starbucks had around 20 locations in the Seattle area, the trio realised that they were not in the business of serving coffee to people. It was actually a business of people serving coffee. Ever since, people always come first in Starbucks. That’s their secret recipe for success.

Sharing his experience at Papa Johns, Vaidya said, “Quite like Starbucks, our people lie at the core of our business. When we hire, we look for people with PHD (passion, hunger and drive).” He also added how at Papa Johns in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, they believe in and practice two principles – RoC (return of customer) and ABCD (above and beyond the Call of Duty). “We strongly believe that if you go ABCD, RoC will happen naturally.”

Faisal Younes, Chief Executive Officer – F&B, Cenomi Retail who spent many years working with Starbucks agreed. “We’re not in the restaurant business. We’re in the people business,” he said. “Working with one of the largest F&B operators in Saudi Arabia with more than 500 restaurants alone in the Kingdom, the principle remains the same – a people-first approach. Starting from the head office, it cascades down to the restaurants that we operate. That’s secret recipe.”

Over to much-loved flame grilled peri-peri chicken for which Nando’s is known and loved globally. Here too people play a pivotal role. “It’s actually our people – our diners – who are behind our success story since Nando’s entered the UAE in 2002,” shared George Kunnappally, Managing Director, Nando’s UAE. “Twenty-two years later, now we operate 21 restaurants and 2 dark kitchens in the UAE.”

“If we have people who are awake, passionate, love to do their job, approaches the day with kindness, awareness and meticulousness – that’s the recipe for success. If we come together while allowing each person to bring their individuality to the table, the collective creativity will be unmatchable,” added Fay Economides, Co-founder, M Management Company behind concepts including Mythos and Nola, among others.

Even for a tech-based business like Kitobi, people are a key factor for success. Offering a quick background, George Choufany, Managing Director, Kitopi shared, “We started in 2018 and our focus for the first three years was to build proper infrastructure and get the operation and financial metrics in place to deliver the best customer experience. Now we manage this complex business in five countries with 6,000+ employees. Back then and even now, at the core lies a safe workplace where our people can thrive and grow. In addition, we’ve a customer-first mindset which is driven by the obsession with quality to satisfy the world’s appetite and create joy.”

At this point, Romil Ratra, Chief Executive Officer, Graviss Good Foods UAE (The Brooklyn Creamery) shared how his family has been in the business of making ice creams since 1941. “Now in the fourth generation, like most businesses we’ve evolved too. But in everything that we do, we follow three core rules. We hire for attitude because skills can be imparted. We don’t micromanage our people after setting a framework. And we believe that taste is everything, because once you like a product you’ll order again.”

Adding on, Panchali Mahendra, Chief Executive Officer, Atelier House of Hospitality, which has a portfolio of 30-plus brands globally shared that she believes “in three non-scandalous ‘F’ words – family, faith and force of nature. They make up the foundation of our company that was established in 2017. From a 4-member team, now we’re close to 900 people, 32 restaurants across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India, with another 8 coming up soon. So far, our journey has been slow, steady and organic.”

Staying relevant amidst shifting customer preferences

Consumers dining habits are changing, especially post pandemic. During the pandemic convenience was of essence, while now experiential dining is making a comeback, Vaidya stated.

“If there’s one word to describe the shift, I’d say it’s convenience,” Younes observed. “And convenience, covers a lot of areas, including how we are adopting technology – both at the front and back of house – to drive our digital sales and enhance convenience for customers.”

“In such a fast-paced market and a complex business that we manage moving fast and learning from the mistakes is something that we really embed in our culture. We are all for quick ideation, implementation, assessment and if needed, we also kill ideas fast. We capture the learnings and move on. That’s our way of keeping pace with shifting customer preferences and build longevity for the business,” Choufany admitted.

In the era of delivery, is brick-and-mortar here to stay?

The Brooklyn Creamery was born with a single store in New York just before the pandemic. Overnight, their plans to open an X number of stores changed. “We pivoted to being a delivery-first brand and started in India, where we were the first brand to deliver ice creams,” Ratra shared. While that’s a reality, people will always need people is also a reality. “You can have as much tech as you want. But human connection and the kind of service that you’d get at a brick-and-mortar restaurant will never change. While delivery and virtual kitchens will always exist in a post pandemic world because convenience is the key, I think brick-and-mortar is here to stay, the occupancy costs notwithstanding.”

Staying with occupation cost, which is rising, Vaidya asked how Nando’s UAE is dealing with it.

“There are costs that we as a business house can manage and there are costs that we need help from external stakeholders. We work on razor thin margins and as investors we look at every element of cost to see where we can rationalise and optimise. We would be far more competitive and be able to support the growth of the economy if there is further relaxation as the tax code takes complete effect. As for occupancy cost, some clarity on renewal of lease would be helpful for us to project the business case over 5-7 years,” Kunnappally responded.

“Indeed, everyone would like to see equitable relationship between landlords and tenants. We should strive to reach a point where there’s enough food in everyone’s plate,” Vaidya agreed.

Circling back to the online-offline debate, Economides said, “Since brick-and-mortar survived the pandemic, it’s here to stay. A lot of creativity and energy is being invested to build brick-and-mortar restaurants, especially in the premium casual, making it a very exciting space.”

“I believe the brick-and-mortar is here to stay. In hospitality business, no matter how much you try on the delivery business, you can’t create the connection,” Choufany added.

Innovation can’t be one size fits all

“With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) based tools and automation, are these being leveraged by F&B businesses,” Vaidya asked.

“At Nando’s, we don’t incorporate tech for the sake of it, Kunnappally responded. “Every time we’ve introduced a tech stack, it has been based on customer feedback or a genuine need for the business to improve operating efficiencies. For instance, we introduced the ‘pay at the table’ option to reduce queue time at our restaurants in Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates where we’ve a seating limitation. It saves us 9 minutes on a transaction. We also introduced handheld terminals for order management to ensure speed of service and improve our service efficiency levels.”

“When it comes to tech, AI, automation, I think it’s a mixed bag because it’s a great enabler and there are certain things that it allows us to do faster. But I don’t think it will replace people in the kind of business that we are in,” Ratra added.

AI is going to be an amazing tool in combination with the human factor, Economides agreed. If they work together across industries – from healthcare to hospitality – the future will look completely different. “I also think that we’re in a transition phase where tools exist, but we don’t know what to do with them.”

“The way we use AI is to identify patterns to react to situations and challenges quickly. I think AI is an enabler for better customer interactions,” Choufany observed.

“We’ve over 500 restaurants in Saudi Arabia, with more than 100K customers visiting our locations annually. So, we sit on a pile of data that is completely unexploited,” Younes admitted. “Yet, we say we’re data-driven, which means there’s a big gap to plug. Hence, recently we’ve partnered with an Austrian AI company that will create dashboards for us. These dashboards will be placed start at the restaurants/stores to equip our restaurant/store managers with data to take their decisions.”

Without making it too “gimmicky,” one of Mahendra’s restaurants in Bengaluru, India will have humanoids at the bar, which will be able to gauge motions, emotion, offer suggestions and company to guests – including people on the spectrum, introverts and others. “At the same time, going beyond tech, we’ve also collaborated with Tashkeel for our new restaurant Gerbou in Dubai, which pays homage to the Emirati cuisine, culture and heritage. From farm-to-table local ingredients to plateware and furniture designed in-house as well as architectural elements, every aspect showcases innovation from a sustainability point of view,” Mahendra shared.

In summation, Vaidya shared how Papa Johns is starting to trial robots to deliver pizzas in certain communities in Dubai.

The key takeaway being that for every business, based on their needs, the use of tech tools differ and there is no one size fits all approach to innovation.

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