Earlier today, I had lunch at Burger Joint, and coffee and dessert at Sarabeth’s. If you are familiar with these names, you might assume I’m on vacation in New York.
In the last five years there has been explosive growth in Dubai’s food and beverage industry. International chains have proliferated, and many use Dubai as a launch pad to test the waters before expanding to other markets in the GCC, like Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Shake Shack, The Cheesecake Factory, and Canadian coffee behemoth Tim Horton’s all followed this strategy.
It’s not surprising that brands are eager to enter the market. After all, consumers here wield enormous purchasing power. Nike, for example, has created the Pro Hijab to target female athletes in the GCC specifically. Disposable income is high and Emiratis travel abroad frequently throughout the year. This means exposure to the latest in luxury goods, food, beauty, and fashion. Multinational companies in the region are turning profits by capitalising on strong recognition of and demand for international brands.
What is surprising is seeing small boutique American eateries, wildly popular in their hometowns and many owner-run, spring up halfway across the world in Dubai. Burger Joint is an unassuming, low-key hotspot tucked behind a curtain in downtown New York. Tell a New Yorker the only other Burger Joint in the world is near downtown Dubai and they will probably balk in disbelief.
It’s not the only one. Neighborhood favorite Clinton Street Baking Company, famous for their fluffy and buttery pancakes, have one location in New York City – the only one in the U.S. – and two locations and a foodtruck in Dubai. Cupcake giant Magnolia Bakery has two spots in the Big Apple, and selected Dubai for expansion. Now, it’s popping up outside the Gulf. On a recent trip to Amman, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw hoarding for Magnolia on a shop front in the centre of town. In Jordan, well beyond the confines of Dubai’s glittering malls.
Why is this? Sometimes, restaurants like Sarabeth’s, who saw their heyday in the 90’s, arrive in emerging markets to resuscitate their ailing brand and bottomline.
Secondly, wealthy investors are always on the lookout for money making opportunities. For some reason, there is a widely held belief that opening a restaurant in Dubai is a good investment. Anything that generates buzz abroad, the theory goes, will also be popular here, even the smaller independent brands.
The range of dining options is indeed impressive. Visitors are always shocked to see just how many restaurants exist, and keep opening, in Dubai.
But there is a cost. Dubai now faces a conundrum: an ambitious city attracting the world, and in doing so, pushing out homegrown talent.
In a saturated marketplace, local restauranteurs face an uphill battle. In order to be truly successful in the food and beverage space, Dubai needs to stop importing brands, both known and unknown, and start supporting and creating more of their own. They do exist, but not nearly at the level needed to compete globally.