Food, the single word that unites individuals, cultures and serves as the perfect backdrop for the global social scene. We often hear of raving restaurant reviews, great dishes that delight the palette, perfect ambience and environments that jog memories, become favourite hotspots and even comfort spaces that bring friends, family and individuals together.

I am a big foodie and could spend ages chatting with chefs to understand the ultra-cool technique of bringing together a killer plate of scrumptious food (I am getting hungry already … brb, need to dive into my box of macaroons). So recently, I had the great pleasure of attending the Middle East Food Forum – Restaurant Leadership Series produced by Vishal Pandey. This event was an essential meeting ground for food service business owners and operators, also including aspiring and established entrepreneurs to engage with experts, address emerging trends and challenges within the industry.

What was the core of the event?

Value Added Tax! The focus of the event was to brace restaurant owners on the concept of VAT that will be introduced in the United Arab Emirates in 2018. The learning, presentations, panel discussions and workshops was an opportunity to share and explore ways to start, sustain, grow or transform their F&B business.

Highlight: One-on-One with Sergo Lopez

One of the highlights of the event was a one-on-one session with an industry veteran, Sergo Lopez as in Serg of Tom and Serg. Amazing, right? During my interaction with him, it soon became apparent that his love for F&B and unconventional approach to running some of the best outlets in Dubai, including Sum of Us and Common Grounds, had taken his brand to new heights. The Q&A rounds were on fire as the audience pelted him with questions from every direction and like a ninja, he managed to provide great responses from his 17 year long experience of being in the industry.

Here is a snippet from the interview:

Q: Walk us thru how you ventured into the F&B industry?

Training to be a chef is complex and I didn’t want to be forced to cook, rather, I preferred restaurant management. I previously worked with Deloitte and then went on to Starwood and post that, Jones the grocer. I helped execute the opening in Dubai and later met Tom. About 2.5 years after, Tom and Serg was born.

Q. You launched Tom & Serg at a unique time, what market gaps did you identify?

During 2008, few casual fine dining concepts existed in the UAE. Our core was to serve a great menu, offer impeccable service and have a minimalist approach on the fit-out that was chic yet trendy. We selected the Al Quoz area for our launch as we believed the place had potential to become the cultural hub of Dubai. We chose to have a standalone location due to the uniqueness of the area, as we wanted to brand ourselves as a dining destination.

Q. How do you continue to evolve and stay relevant?

Given that Dubai has more restaurants per capita than New York, the competition is fierce. We try to ensure that are menus get more specialized and there were times when we changed menu items every 3-4 weeks. Our other restaurant ‘Sum Of Us’ had over 200 specialties last year. Our focus is try and limit our menu to specific ingredients because that allows us some flexibility to play and innovate with dishes. We also actively adapt based on the produce we have available, as an example it is possible to substitute or alternate pumpkin for sweet potato in certain seasons.

Q. What impact has social media had on your business?

It has been phenomenal. We often have customers that point to an image of a dish and want to order exactly the same. In this era where technology is an integral part of our development, we do want to engage and connect with people across various social media platforms.

Q . How do you attract the right kind of talent to run your restaurants?

I invest in people and their passion for food. I have to believe in the person creating and running a project, otherwise it doesn’t work. We also actively believe that our employees are part of our family and ensure they are treated with respect – both by management and the customer. We make sure they have 2 days off in a week, which is unheard of in the hospitality industry. We offer opportunities to students to work over the weekends and peak hours as well.

According to industry sources, the UAE’s hospitality sector is on an incline and, with construction projects in the hotel industry amounting to over $4 billion in the lead up to Dubai Expo 2020. This raises the bar for restaurants to create gastronomical experiences and hence their offering in an effort to compete with their peers. Change doesn’t always mean a 360 degree shift; sometimes it requires a little tweaking to better understand what customers want – a classic example of this is McDonalds and how their menus have evolved to cater to the health conscious consumer.

Given that last year the buzz was around cold-pressed juices and chia seed pudding, I am keen to see what health fad grabs Dubai next. As Serg said, “it is hard to please everyone but if we could, all we would do is sell ice cream” … works for us, right? A few scoops of gelato works for me anytime, anyday.

As we sign off, we would like to draw your attention to another cool feature of the forum. Vishal is keen to offer a platform for young organizations to deliver an elevator pitch and get featured at their next event. So if you have what it takes, you know where to find us.

On that note, Bon Appétit! Till we rendezvous again …

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