Debonair shares a table with the restaurateur who spearheads modernist Indian cuisine with his father Jiggs Kalra through celebrated concepts such as Masala Library, Pa Pa Ya and Farzi Café
The man behind The Maine and Barbary has achieved success with unlikely concepts in unlikely locations. And he’s ready to open two new restaurants in 2019
Eduan R. Maggo
Entrepreneurship isn’t easy, but it’s a pursuit that’s changed business models worldwide over the past few decades. Globally there’s been a move towards supporting SMEs, and the UAE in an attempt to diversify its economy from a reliance on oil has implemented various measures to make self- managed businesses a more attractive proposition, especially in the technology sector.
In hospitality, however, operators still face a significant barrier to entry — especially financial — despite many new F&B ventures springing up in the last few years. sadly, they tend to also close at a significant rate. Of the ones that survive, most are cookie-cutter models introduced by big groups; there are scant owner-operators or restaurateurs driving the market.
Joey Ghazal, founder and managing partner of The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill and Barbary Deli + Cocktail Club, bucks this trend. Raised in Dubai, he entered the industry at the age of 17, working as a busboy at a steakhouse in Montreal. He worked his way up into management and eventually the company’s marketing and development department.
It was here that he cut his teeth, developing concepts and marketing for the group’s 80 restaurants. “I had a great school, actually,” he tells Debonair of personally developing 16 outlets between 2004 and 2010, when he set off to do his own thing. “We were opening something like three or four restaurants a year.
“And we would do everything in house. All the planning, all the designs, marketing, launching, menu development, wine list development, hiring, training...”
The experience taught him not only what to do but also what not to do, “which is sometimes more important”.
“When I decided to go off on my own and I moved to Beirut, where I opened five of my own restaurants, I feel like I was quite well equipped.”
As successful as those concepts were, opening Maine required a lofty investment that highlights this barrier to entry. “Every single penny that I had made in Beirut, I invested in this one gamble.
“I spent more than a year without making a penny — you have to pay your apartment in advance, put deposits on spaces, get lawyers, set up companies... you have to do so many different things that cost a lot of money.”
Ghazal says opening a restaurant “takes a lot of courage, obviously, and risk — but it has to be calculated”.
But with great risk comes great reward — Ghazal is opening two new Maine venues in 2019. He says the key is genuineness and originality. “It’s all part of remaining authentic to your idea and in your proposition. And I think that this authenticity is what comes through when people walk into these spaces.”
Ghazal created the right concept at the right time, when people were becoming more sensitive to the costs associated with dining in Dubai. He positioned The Maine consciously, offering great value and ambience and good food at an affordable price. But the location isn’t an obvious choice. Back in 2015, Jumeirah Beach Residences didn’t have many licensed options for the big community within walking distance.
Plus, The Maine is located in the basement of the Doubletree by Hilton JBR. “I saw the potential in creating a space that had a little bit of cache, and I loved the feeling that people would have being led here and wondering if it’s the right place. You know, sort of creating this false expectation.
“And then they walk through the doors and go, “Oh!” so just kind of disarming them, a little bit.”
The venue was a surprise hit.
“We did a similar thing with Barbary. It’s this idea that you’re sort of walking into this very dark, kind of slightly eerie staircase. And you arrive into this quite lush opulence of space. I like playing with that customer journey.”
Ghazal thrives on spotting gaps in the market, as he did with opening Barbary in Al Barsha Heights despite — or maybe because of — the stigma attached to the neighbourhood. He turned it to his advantage: “I love the idea of playing on that, including something a little bit hidden, a little bit naughty — something with a lot of attitude. And I think that that’s really what’s missing — the idea that you can create something with a lot of personality that is not shy about what it is.
“People say the Dubai market is quite saturated, but the actual truth is that there’s still a lot of opportunities to create little subcultures. And subculture comes from people taking risks, being creative and having something to say.”
For the two new Maine outlets, he stuck to his ethos of creating “safe spaces” that are also multifaceted while giving them their own identity. The one in Studio City he says has a catchment area of around 80,000 residents and caters more to families, while the Business Bay outlet is one of the anchor tenants in the new Zaha Hadid-designed Opus building and takes a hipper approach.
“We want to create outlets that are more cousins rather than twins.”
Scaling up also presents him the opportunity to “put the human capital we’ve developed and the talent we’ve nurtured over the last three years to good use”.
Ghazal ascribes part of their success to keeping their staff happy, motivated and empowered, leading to higher than average retention rates. “I think we’re quite generous, and we have an American-style tip system. I encourage people to give the best service possible, and to make the most tips possible. That makes a big difference.
“We also help our staff become more independent — we don’t coddle them like babies, even down to providing accommodation or transport. And when you’re empowering them and you’re teaching them, they constantly feel like they’re learning and progressing.
“That’s why we don’t have a temporary mindset. We’d rather invest a lot more in retention. It’s actually one of our strongest assets.”
Ghazal subscribes to the principle of le patron mange ici, or the owner eats here, meaning he’s a familiar face in his restaurants — it allows him to keep his pulse on what’s happening and course-correct on the fly. “You can learn a lot by sitting in your restaurant and having dinner and watching what’s happening and looking at people’s faces,” he says.
“I can’t even switch off in other people’s venues. Because I’m always kind of watching what they’re doing and looking at details and I think about why I like them, or don’t like them. Or why it works or doesn’t work.”
Asked about venues he wishes were his, Ghazal lists Pier Chic (“a severely underutilised location”), XVA Gallery (“it’s rare to have a space that’s authentic and so beautiful; I always guests there”), and Gaia (“I’ve always wanted to do a Greek restaurant, so that’s something that I wish I would have done”).
“I have huge respect for people that open up places that change even slightly the DNA of the city. They create more underground spaces, and I love the underdogs. I root for the little guy. Even though I’m growing, I still think I’m the little guy.”
The prospect of opening two more outlets in a tough economic climate isn’t too daunting, he says. “I’ve never been the type of person that’s created spaces that are fad based, or concept based.
“I like creating timeless spaces that have a sense of nostalgia and a sense of timelessness to them in the way that they’re designed. it’s food that people always want to eat. It’s an environment that people always feel comfortable in. it’s not pretentious, and it doesn’t alienate anyone. it makes everybody feel welcome. It’s cross-generational, so it accepts people of all different ages.”
Equally important is that they cater to any occasion — from business meetings to dates, family gatherings and celebrations. “I’ve taken a lot of risks in my life,” says Ghazal. “I’ve moved countries, taken risks on locations that other people might have thought were not worthwhile or were crazy.
“I’ve been lucky enough to take massive bets. But essentially, it’s betting on yourself, isn’t it?”
And it’s one that’s paying off.
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