Dubai headquartered artisan café, bakery, patisserie, gourmet grocer, deli and cheese monger Jones the Grocer has announced global expansion into the UK. The plan is to open two venues including Jones the Grocer and Jones the Grocer Express at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2023. The brand also plans to enter Saudi Arabia this year.
Even as Jones the Grocer is preparing for expansion in the Middle East and beyond, CEO & Owner Yunib Siddiqui emphatically said, “We don’t want to open 100 stores in a year. We are looking at slow yet steady and well-thought-out growth.”
A quick look at the backstory
Making an incredible mark on Sydney, Australia’s culinary scene Jones the Grocer was founded in 1996 by Lindsay Jones-Evans. It became a very popular suburban neighbourhood destination with a cheese room, café and the option to do groceries. Within three years or so Evans sold the business to another Australian from Melbourne.
That’s when the brand opened outlets in New Zealand, Singapore and finally came to the Middle East in 2008-09 when Siddiqui opened Jones the Grocer in the UAE. The brand grew very quickly in the region and “became bigger than the mothership in size and revenues”. At a certain point the former owner sold a majority stake to private equity firm L Capital, part of LVMH. And by 2019 Siddiqui acquired 100% of Jones the Grocer’s intellectual property and “rather fortuitously” closed the outlets in Australia and Singapore.
“We were fortunate in not acquiring those businesses because when the pandemic hit, both Australia and Singapore witnessed prolonged periods of lockdowns. So, we ended up with a fairly clean business in the Middle East.”
So, what’s next?
“We will enter Saudi Arabia with three confirmed outlets set to open between the first and second quarter of 2023,” Siddiqui responded.
Currently Jones the Grocer has 33 locations in the Middle East (the UAE and Qatar) and India (Bengaluru). With several outlets in the pipeline in various stages of development the count will go up to 41 by the end of 2023 showcasing the brand’s steady regional and global expansion.
Alongside community and airport-based locations, mall-based locations are also on the brand’s radar. Historically, Jones the Grocer hasn’t been a mall-based concept, as Siddiqui confirmed, preferring to be located in the heart of communities. However, the brand can now be found in mall-based locations such as Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates in the UAE.
In terms of revenues, Jones the Grocer is looking at a 20-25% growth this year. “Inflation, rise in cost globally and increase in asset prices are some concerning factors. While I’m optimistic about the next 24 months, there will be headwinds,” Siddiqui added.
How to maintain strong brand identity while pursuing growth via franchising
Of the current Jones the Grocer locations around nine stores are company owned [at the time of the interview] and the rest are franchised. This raises a question around how Jones the Grocer is maintaining a strong brand identity while pursuing growth via franchising?
“Franchising is all about control in terms of standards and maintaining consistency. That’s why we invest heavily in 3Ts – technology, tools and training. In addition, we have an audit function that audits all our partner stores alongside conducting mystery shopping. We leverage everything at our disposal to maintain a strong brand identity,” Siddiqui said.
“While all our franchised stores are performing well, there will be certain inconsistencies not only in partner but also our own operated stores. That’s the nature of food business highly reliant on disparate pool of labour force where often inconsistencies arise on the service side. Foodwise we’ve been very consistent but service-wise it could be a challenge sometimes, although we do a fairly good job.”
A part of the [labour] problem can be attributed to the high attrition rate within the food service industry owing to a rather transient population and low pay structure at the entry level.
“That reality is unlikely to change, and it’s not a problem in our region only. Even in the American and European markets the F&B sector sees significant movement for different reasons. For instance, in other markets it could be students taking up short term jobs in restaurants. While in our market people at the entry level change jobs even for a minimal increase in their monthly salary, which makes a huge difference to them. We can offer training and wellbeing but it’s hard to stave off staff movement at the entry level. From the mid-to-senior levels the staff movement isn’t that significant,” Siddiqui elaborated.
Talking about F&B can menu be far away?
Jones the Grocer introduces changes to its menu annually while throwing in quarterly specials. However, due to supply chain challenges since the pandemic with rise in prices among others Siddiqui might consider reducing the menu.
“There is a tendency in this region to have an extensive menu to cater for every taste profile. But that creates a lot of pressure for supply chain and storage. Sometimes items can go out of stock. So, our goal in 2023 is to reduce our menu down to items that we feel our guests might want as opposed to trying to be something for everyone,” he shared. But menu curation is nothing short of science!
“The first level is to consider the usual factors such as trends, what’s selling and importantly looking at what’s not selling. Then we’ve to go through the process of costing out the dishes and seeing how it can fit into our menu cycle. We must also bear in mind specific customer preferences such as vegan items on the menu,” Siddiqui explained.
“My biggest joy will be to simplify the menu,” he continued, while adding how of late there’s been a clear narrowing of choice on menus. “Currently numerous restaurants in Dubai are offering similar items such as ceviche, sushi, tuna tarter making their menu predictable. There are many restaurants to choose from, but the menu offer hasn’t widened and isn’t quite exciting. With investors looking for returns, rents being quite high make certain restaurant businesses risk averse. Resultantly it leads to less diversity and innovation, although there are some innovative businesses too.”
Asked if he sees this changing, Siddiqui said, “A lot depends on asset prices. The harder it is for someone who genuinely loves food – basically a chef driven outlet – to come into the business it will be difficult for this current model to change.”
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