#LocalBitesBigDelights: Local flavours global appeal

July 3, 2024 | By Rupkatha B

#LocalBitesBigDelights session at Food Service Forum 2024

The food service segment is a crucial contributor to the growth of the overall retail industry. In the MENA region particularly, the F&B landscape has become significantly more diverse and dynamic over the last decade or so. In a region that used to be heavily dominated by global chains, there came a time when homegrown brands started making their presence felt. These brands not only proudly upheld the local culture, traditions and practices but also created job opportunities. Today these brands are slowly starting to reverse the trend by exporting homegrown concepts to different parts of the world.

In his opening remarks, Mohammed Dhedhi, Partner, MEA F&B Lead, Kearney said, local food brands are important to the economy. They generate jobs, keep income from leaving the country. Importantly, they drive what’s probably becoming one of the most important trends in F&B – sustainability. Not just sustainability of practices, but sustainability in what and how they source. Sustainability in who they employ and sustainability of the overall environment. Local food brands also preserve local culture and traditions, elevating them to meet a diverse set of preferences of people living in this part of the world.

Setting the tone for the panel discussion, Dhedhi asked about market trends that excite local F&B brands while also keeping them awake at night. 

“I strongly feel that it’s not about a specific trend, but how fast it will trend. When we set up Sumo Sushi & Bento in the region 24 years ago, people weren’t familiar with sushi. It took a lot of time to educate customers, so they understand the cuisine. Compare that with now when a TikTok video can turn a cuisine to ‘trending’ literally overnight. And that keeps me up at night,” responded Julianne Holt-Kailihiwa, Chief Executive Officer, Sumo Sushi & Bento.

A consumer sees something on Instagram or TikTok and wants to implement it without going into details, agreed Preet Vasudev, Co-Founder, Varak. The challenge is to educate customers about what they think is good versus what is actually good. “At Varak, we’ve cakes which are pure indulgence. But then we’ve customers walking in asking for gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free cake. That became a big challenge. So, we launched a site that offers gluten-free, refined sugar-free, dairy-free desserts.”

“One of our strongest pillars is community that played a big role in establishing us as a brand compared to other bigger chains, especially in the burger space. There has also been a huge shift of focus towards local, homegrown brands, which has worked in our favour. Sustainability is another key focus area for us, which goes beyond being eco-friendly to creating a strong brand recall by connecting with our audience. What also keeps me up at night is if I can grow my own food and use ingredients responsibly to make our offerings more unique,” added Nadia Shah, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Drip Burgers.

“In a market that’s quite health conscious, we are an indulgence brand focused on celebrations. Having said that, when compared to our European operations where there are many more health-conscious consumers, we don’t charge extra for things like oat milk; it hasn’t quite reached critical mass here. I think there are players in the market that can address it. We’re not ready to invest in it yet, but we are keeping an eye on it and in the future when it does hit critical mass, we’ll be on top of it,” observed Tushar Fotedar, Director, Mister Baker.

Customers always want something new. But how important is it to maintain a balance between authenticity and adding new elements, Dhedhi asked.

“Our company started 20 years ago. Understanding consumer behaviour and bringing new trends to the market has been the DNA of the company. We always follow customer journeys and conduct focus groups to understand if they are satisfied with our offerings. Importantly, if there are red flags within any of our restaurants, we always act immediately,” shared Louay Moursel, Regional Director of Operations, Gastronomica.

“When we started Roasting House around 11 years ago, we had a vision to spread the specialty coffee culture in the Kingdom, acting as a bridge between farmers and consumers. For us to do this, we had to create content to showcase our authenticity. Over the years, we’ve learned that content is imperative to selling coffee. We’ve also learnt that experience often precedes the coffee itself. The experience could be the packaging, design, logos or the story itself. Each of our coffee is designed locally highlighting culturally important aspects. Today, we grow around 1,000 tons of coffee annually in Saudi Arabia. Most of them are grown in organic coffee farms that gives us an edge. In fact, our Saudi grown coffee is registered in the United Nations as an intangible asset. And we’ve taken this to another level with our new range of fruit-infused coffee,” shared Osamah Alawwam, Co-Founder, Roasting House.

Balancing origin story with evolution

“From a branding perspective, the origin story is absolutely key. There are a few legacy brands in the UAE that have a story, a strong brand equity which is important to keep sharing because then we can connect with people from across generations. And that leads to brand longevity,” Fotedar added.

In the context of desserts, Vasudev observed, “The biggest thing that we realised when we started making cake is its ceremonial nature. But we wanted cake to be more than just ceremonial and started baking them fresh for every order using the highest-grade ingredients. Following this approach even if scaling takes time, we are okay with that because we’d have built a strong base.”

“When our founder returned from the US 20 years ago, he missed having a nice burger in Kuwait City. So, he thought of starting a local burger brand. When he pitched the concept to malls, at that time they didn’t quite understand what it meant. Today our company owns 15 homegrown brands across formats including QSR to casual upscale casual and fine dining spread over 45 locations in 6 regions. Regarding scalability, in the first 17 years, we opened only 26 locations. While in the last two years, we’ve opened 21 locations. We’ve built the infrastructure and systems to maintain consistency that will also support our growth,” Moursel shared.

Staying with burgers, Shah shared how she felt that there was lack of different flavours in the market in the burger space. “It was all quite American, and I wanted to change that with Drip Burgers.”

“Around 25 years ago, a couple of Hawaiians came to the Middle East to make sushi for Arabs. Our origin story is a dream like Dubai. We built it, grew it, changed it while navigating the challenges, and we are still here,” Kailihiwa stated.

“It’s crucial to build relationships with consumers. We want to grow, but we want to maintain the authenticity. We want to meet staff and customers, understand their problems to come up with better solutions to resolve their coffee requirements. That’s why we evolved to become an ‘experience house’ not just a café. As for growth, we’ve been able to move from a 1K roaster to a capacity of 10,000 kilos a day while maintaining artisanal production through automation as well as constant quality checks. We want to scale our production while maintaining the authenticity of our product,” Alawwam concluded.

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