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5 things I learned at Ryerson Startup School’s workshop on social media

Earlier this week, I attended a social media workshop organised by Ryerson Startup School in downtown Toronto. It was my first time at Ryerson University, and the workshop took place on the second floor of the Student Learning Centre. Our speaker was Brent Stirling, a social media strategist at Shopify who, by his own account, has worked in social for just about everyone.

His presentation was two hours long and covered social media strategy and execution, social media platforms, how best to use them and what not to do, a website audit checklist, Facebook ads, social media tools, and the importance of measuring your social media efforts. It was thorough, and what I appreciated the most was that it was up-to-date in terms of best practices for social media. Social media moves so fast that it’s a challenge and oftentimes a frustration to keep on top of it all, even for those of who use it daily for work or to grow our business.

participants at a social media workshop at Ryerson Startup School

Here are the top 5 things I learned at this workshop:

  1. Use pixels on your website for retargeting. I’m sure a lot of people out there know about this one already, but it was news to me. According to retargeter.com, retargeting “is a cookie-based technology that uses simple Javascript code to anonymously ‘follow’ your audience all over the Web.” You place code on your website that drops a cookie every time there is a new visitor to your site. Many of these visitors will leave your site without learning anything about you, so these cookies follow them as they surf the web, which then allows you to retarget them by showing them ads about your product or service. Ads are only shown to visitors who have already visited your website. In other words, even if they bounced off your website, you now have another way to try to recapture them and bring them back.
  2. Don’t use hashtags on Facebook. Not too long along, I owned my own business and was responsible for all the marketing, including digital and social media. Back then, brands were using hashtags on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. While hashtags are critical to success on the first two platforms, now they are rarely used on Facebook. Brent said they are okay to use to support an event, but not otherwise.
  3. Create a YouTube account for your business, even if you never create any video. This has to do with the way the Google algorithm works, and the fact that YouTube is a Google subsidiary. If you are not familiar with the Google algorithm, the important thing to know is the way websites are ranked in your search engine results is not random. Google pulls a whole bunch of data and indexes things like your social media platforms to measure the importance of your website. Having a Youtube account is good for your website’s or web page’s search engine rank (search engine optimisation).
  4. Use Twitter Cards. With Twitter Cards, you can attach rich photos, videos and media experiences to Tweets, helping to direct traffic to your website. According to Twitter, all you have to do is add a few lines of markup to your webpage, and users who Tweet links to your content will have a “Card” added to the Tweet that’s visible to their followers. There are 4 types of cards and each serves a different function. For example, the App Card drives downloads of mobile apps. Very cool.
  5. Pinterest users have highest intent to buy. I didn’t use Pinterest to market my business, but it looks like I should have. Pinterest has released a commissioned report of more than 1,500 users, which found that not only were Pinterest users happier using the platform over other social media platforms like Facebook, but that 1 in 2 people make a purchase after seeing a Promoted Pin. That’s huge! With 200 million active monthly users, it’s nowhere near the size of Facebook, but wields much more influence on it’s users intent to purchase.

Seven trips to Jordan, and I still can’t stop thinking about the food.

It’s been almost two decades of living and traveling in the Middle East for me. In all this time, the best Arabic food I have had is in Amman, Jordan. After making seven trips over a two year period, I am convinced this is also where you find the region’s best hummus. My Syrian friends like to point out the best food is actually in Damascus. Which could very well be true, but since travel there is severely restricted I will have to stick to reminiscing about my incredible meals in Jordan instead.

I ate at all kinds of places – dives, hole-in-the-walls, nice restaurants – and tried traditional home-cooked dishes. My mother-in-law makes excellent makloubeh, a Palestinian dish of rice, chicken, spices, and eggplant that is served upside-down (makloubeh in Arabic literally translates to ‘upside-down’). In general, Arabs rave about mansaf, a fragrant rice and meat dish served with hot dehydrated yoghurt. While tasty, it is also extremely heavy. I prefer the flavours of makloubeh much more, probably because all the ingredients are slow cooked in one pot and taste so good together.

Hummus with meat and pine nuts, baked eggs with potato, falafel, fattoush, tea with fresh mint and khubz bread. The Arabic breakfast pictured below can be found in a small unassuming restaurant called Al Usra in the trendy area of Abdoun, and is a real treat. Dishes arrive within minutes and the table set-up is simple: no plates; just a napkin, Arabic bread and a plastic spoon. Mezze, or starters, like hummus and salads are served family style, so everything is dropped in the middle of the table for sharing.

Hummus with meat and pine nuts, baked eggs with potato, falafel, fattoush, tea with fresh mint and khubz bread
Arabic breakfast in the heart of downtown Amman

Too many tasty meals to name them all, but here are a handful of highlights:

  1. Knafeh, ubiquitous and abundant in Jordan, is used to mark just about any occassion. Knafeh is a Palestinian pastry made with flakey dough and stuffed with a salty cheese which melts when baked, and is topped with rosewater, syrup, and chopped pistachio. There are a few spots popular with the locals, and some are owned and operated by newly arrived Syrian refugees escaping war in their own country. We were frequent patrons of Nafeesah, and also tried Al Quds, which I thought was better. We didn’t get to try Habibah, which many consider to be the best (in hindsight, not necessarily a bad thing because I have overdosed on knafeh on multiple occasions). Read more about this delicious dessert and the unifying cultural role it plays in Jordan in Daoud Kuttab’s piece, “Jordanians celebrate sweet success with kanafeh.”

    A man serves traditional knafeh pastry at a sweets shop in Amman, Jordan
    Platters of different kind of knafeh, a popular Palestinian pastry made with flakey dough stuffed with cheese and topped with sweet syrup, rosewater, and pistachio
  2. Lamb shawarma from Reem. My husband can’t stop talking about this shawarma. In fact, most people can’t stop talking about this shawarma. So much so that it made it to the front page of the New York Times. Read about it here.

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    People line up for shawarma at the super popular take out joint Reem
  3. Chocolate eclairs and petits fours from Fairuz Bakery. Located in the bohemian neighbourhood of Jabal Webdeh, this old school bakery makes incredible eclairs and delicious petit fours in a variety of flavours. They stick to the classics and have wisely stayed away from trendy desserts and fancy, complicated pastry. It is owner-run, and right across the street from Cafe Rumi, my favourite cafe in the world.
  4. Turkish coffee at Cafe Rumi. It’s certainly not the best Turkish coffee in Amman, and definitely overpriced. But this joint adds a lot of character to the bohemian vibe of the neighbourhood. Inspired by the Persian poet Rumi, everything from the concept to interiors and coffee cups have been created by the owner. It has indoor and outdoor seating consisting of small chairs and tiny tables low to the ground. It is wildly popular with expats and locals, and packed every day of the week.

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    Decorative cups, Turkish coffee, and Turkish delight at Cafe Rumi in Amman, Jordan

High fashion, (more) music, and coffee in Lahore. A lot can change in for 4 short years.

A man walks across the street in the scenic neighborhood of Defence, in Lahore, Pakistan
A man walks across the street in the scenic and affluent neighborhood of Defence, in Lahore, Pakistan.

One of my favourite holiday destinations is Lahore, Pakistan, where I lived and worked for a year after finishing my graduate degree.

These days, I don’t travel to Lahore as often as I would like, but had the opportunity to visit last month after more than four years. Pakistanis make up one of the largest expat communities in the U.A.E., so both Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways have daily flights to different cities across the country. Admittedly, my timing was terrible. May marks the beginning of summer and unbearable levels of humidity. The short walk from the front door to the car leaves your fresh, starched kurta a damp mess. Frequent power outages in developing countries like Pakistan makes insulation from the heat a daily challenge.

But the weather in Lahore was nothing like I remembered, and evenings were pleasant enough to sit outside or explore the city. About a decade ago when I was intern with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, my drive to work meandered past a wobbly mound of garbage and household trash. The streets are still lined with beautiful old trees Lahore is known for, but swept clean of litter. From my base in central Lahore I saw lush greenery and people of all ages pounding clean pavements for their daily errands and walks. The megacity of Karachi in the south – population 27 million –  has outsourced it’s waste management to a Chinese company, and a similar arrangement had been made for Lahore. I would soon discover that this was just one of many changes that had transpired since my last visit.

It’s easy to summon despair over Pakistan’s prospects, given the reams of negative press it receives. But alongside the very real problems of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, and water scarcity, exist communities of creators, thinkers, problem-solvers, entrepreneurs, and celebrations of sufi saints.

Here are some of the things I discovered during my recent trip to Lahore:

  1. Pakistan Railways. In preparation for my trip, I spotted a stunning photograph of a train at a railway station in Lahore on Instagram by Pakistani photographer Salman Alam Khan. The caption read: “Lahore Railway Junction is the central railway station of Lahore. It was built in 1860. The station served as the the headquarters for the Punjab Railway before partition.”
    A photography by Pakistani photographer Salman Alam Khan of the Pakistan Railways station in Lahore, Pakistan. Taken from Instagram @thesalmanalam
    Photo credit: Salman Alam Khan @thesalmanalam


    I took a screen shot of the image and quickly sent it to my friend; I absolutely had to check out this historical site. Further research revealed it was one of many tracks laid by the British during colonial rule of the subcontinent and stretches from Torkham in the north to southern port city of Karachi, operating both passenger and freight trains.Holding a platform ticket at Pakistan Railways station in Lahore, Pakistan.

  2. We purchased platform tickets for 10 Rs. (10 cents American) and walked around, venturing inside a dining car which had tables adorned with white linen and a single red carnation. Our arrival coincided with the departure of an overnight train to Karachi. As the horn reverberated through the still night air, throngs of last minute passengers pushed and pulled, crushed by the weight of belongings packed in rope, plastic, cardboard, unstitched cloth, and suitcases. Amid hoots and cheers, the train heaved and pulled away from the platform. My friend remarked that many were probably on their way to celebrate an urs, or the death anniversary of a South Asian Sufi saint.  In a country with a staggering gap between the very rich and the very poor, it was heartening for me to see a relic of the past working to serve the needs of so many who cannot afford air travel, or the purchase of a vehicle.
  3. Cafe culture. There has been an explosion in the number of cafes since my last trip to Lahore four years ago. Both indoor and indoor, these cafes are serving up Italian espresso, handmade pastries, and artisan pizza in cute and stylish interiors. No Starbucks, which means homegrown, independent establishments have space in the market to compete. They are popular, and none more so than Rina’s Kitchenette, which I visited three times at their new location in Gulberg for their killer banofie pie. Yum.
  4. Organic, locally made beauty products. Pakistani women are known to put natural ingredients in their hair and on their skin. While making things by hand is the norm in Pakistani culture, commercially successful organic beauty brands are popping up. Leading the charge is KishMish Organics, a line of handmade skin and hair care items that is 100% natural and organic. It is the brainchild of Mariam Omar, a fierce, multitasking entrepreneur who simultaneously manages a beauty salon and is a single mother to two young children…and 10 pets! I tried the Papaya Fruit Mask and Miracle Cream, and noticed a marked improvement in the texture and appearance of my skin within days. If you can get your hands on these awesome products, be sure to stock up.
  5. Beautiful (and very expensive) high fashion. Pakistani textiles are beautiful, and the textile industry is the largest manufacturing industry in Pakistan. In the last decade, the fashion industry has seen explosive growth. Whereas a few designers dominated the retail landscape for high end traditional wear in the past, the market today is crowded with designers big and small, comfortable designing Pakistani and western wear alike and often blending the two to stunning effect. Top tier designers produce one-of-a-kind pieces, and charge heady prices. I walked into Faraz Manan’s boutique on M.M. Alam Road to enquire about the price of an outfit. Made with beautiful hand-stitched embroidery and gold beadwork on handmade rose-colored cloth, it had already sold for an astonishing USD 10,000. (Yes, totally outrageous. In a country marred by poverty, this is a reflection of the deep divide between the very rich and the very poor). Fortunately, one can find more reasonably priced options. While the trend is one of high mark-ups, today there is more choice and creativity in textiles.

    A model walks the runway in an outfit by Pakistani designer Sania Maskatiya at Beirut Fashion Week
    Pakistani designer Sania Maskatiya showcases her collection earlier this year at Beirut Fashion Week
  6. More and more music. I always get to experience live music when I travel to Pakistan. My friend is a talented and successful musician, and through her I listen to all kinds of new Pakistani music and meet other musicians. She showed me the inside of two professionally constructed independent music studios. Like the growth in fashion, Pakistan’s music industry has grown by leaps and bounds. I can no longer keep track of all the musicians and bands that exist today, working inside and outside the country. Musicians are now making their own independent production facilities with state of the art equipment, further expanding the space for artistic expression and supporting other artists. While religious extremists in other parts of the country rant and rave about the illicit nature of music and dance, the reality is they’re up against a formidable grass roots movement of musicians, producers, and increasing musical and artistic output. In fact, they’re pretty outnumbered, a fact that mainstream news consistently misses.

Rest Easy, Dubai. The Writer from The New Yorker Really Wanted To Go Shopping.

I love a thoughtful, well-written article that presents an original point-of-view and makes me think.

Andrew Marantz is a writer for The New Yorker who stopped in Dubai on a 12-hour layover on his way from New York to Sri Lanka with his wife a few years ago. Recently, he wrote an article about his time in Dubai titled “Dubai, the World’s Vegas.” He describes visits to two malls, Ski Dubai, and the top of Burj Khalifa. The essay is supplemented with photographs by a photographer named Ben Thomas.

Yikes. After all these years, was Dubai still being compared to Las Vegas? It was a cultural time warp of an essay. It reminded me almost immediately of another widely circulated article on Dubai from many years ago. Originality, it appeared, was not Mr. Marantz’s objective.

I pulled up A.A. Gill’s now infamous piece for Vanity Fair Magazine from 2011 called “Dubai on Empty.” The similarity between the two articles is uncanny. In his opening lines, Gill references a legendary fable as a lens for understanding Dubai. “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s a fable, a fairy tale, like The Arabian Nights.” Marantz also makes a reference to fiction. Specifically, the fictitious life of Walter Mitty. “We passed the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, which boasts “the world’s largest collection of sand tiger sharks!,” and a multiplex, where we considered seeing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” before deciding that our current experience was already Mitty-esque enough.”

When Gill describes Dubai’s skyline as “the cover of a dystopian science-fiction novella,” Marantz proceeds to reprise the sentiment, adding, “The skyline, if that’s the right word for it, was garishly, unapologetically artificial. The city almost appeared to be a non-place in the literal sense, not just the anthropological sense—more like an architect’s rendering than an actual built environment.”

No article in Dubai is complete without mentioning the construction workers who have built this city. Gill describes the workers as Asian drones, who have “… the tough, downtrodden look of Communist posters from the 30s—they are both the slaves of capital and the heroes of labor.” Marantz concurs, albeit with less flair. He says, “We knew that, for many of the non-Emirati laborers who are largely invisible to the casual tourist, Dubai is worse than a non-place, closer to a dystopia.”

The collective use of identical words and ideas extends beyond publications like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. While observations about constructions workers are legitimate, accurate, and require urgent attention and immediate rectification by authorities, it is the reduction of a dynamic and rapidly changing city to a tyrannical wonderland that peddles a “harsh form of commerce” that is so pervasive it is now officially cheesy.

Photograph of man with camels in the dessert.
Stereotypical photographs of desert dunes and camels accompanied the writer’s article for The New Yorker Magazine. Photo credit: Ben Thomas

And a cover for ulterior motives. Emirati columnist Sultan Al Qassemi wrote a thoughtful reply which he broadcast to his half-a-million strong following on Twitter. He points out, “It’s not the city’s fault that this person chose to visit two malls and a skyscraper in his multi-hour layover.” Right on. That he chose to do so is a reflection of who he is. What I got was a glimpse of a man who really, really wanted to go shopping with his wife. I have no reason to believe he is particularly cultured, or remotely interested in anything like art, history, or even Arabic food.

As a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College many years ago, I learned that Orientalism, or representations of the ‘other’ in stereotypical ways, teaches us more about the cultures that produce it than about ourselves. It is the freezing of this frame, and the multiplication of it, that underpins the success of orientalist discourse and thought. It’s objective is to validate. In this case, it was a deliberate attempt to withhold validation of what Dubai has achieved in such a short period of time. Dubai is no where near perfect, of course. That is hardly relevant. How else do you explain that most of these articles are written by people who have never stepped foot in the country, or are passing through, like Marantz?

Marantz did not bother to experience anything outside the malls because he didn’t want to. While he was successful in recycling stereotypes about Dubai, he inadvertently also reinforced a stereotype about Americans: uncomfortable venturing outside their own comfort zone and confronting the unfamiliar.

Deborah Williams, a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, wrote an opinion piece for The National called Dubai, New York and lazy cultural stereotypes in response to his article. I would go one step further and argue it’s the continued use of cultural stereotypes that produces lazy journalism. Which makes Marantz a writer of questionable ability. His article is practically a succinct version of Gill’s, structured around the same ideas in a shockingly similar way.

So rest easy, Dubai. It’s not about you. Next time you come across an article like this – by now, you should know there will be plenty more – consider the context of the writer. Start by asking yourself what it says about them, rather than focusing on what it says about you.

The #Saltbae Phenomenon: What We Can Learn About Content Marketing From Dubai’s Social Media Sensation

If you haven’t heard of SaltBae by now, you are officially living under a rock.

Nusret Gocke, otherwise known as SaltBae on social media, is a Turkish butcher at the helm of wildly popular steakhouse Nusr-et. Reportedly born into poverty, he worked his way up in the restaurant world in pursuit of a single goal: to open and operate his own restaurant, which he achieved at the age of twenty seven.

Today, Nusr-et has five locations in Turkey, one in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi, and soon, one in New York City, the most competitive city for food and beverage operators in the world. If he succeeds in the Big Apple, then this rags-to-riches story is one for the history books.

Not because he has consistently persevered against the odds, but because his unique social media presence helped him do so. Frankly, I can’t think of another Internet celebrity who has managed to leverage social media so successfully and capture the world’s imagination the way he has.

It started with a short video posted to Nusr-et’s Instagram page (the restaurant is spelled Nusr-et, and is a play on words: ‘et’ in Turkish means meat). It shows him slicing and salting a tender slab of meat at his restaurant in Dubai. Unsmiling and wielding a big knife, he cuts with steely precision and delicately sprinkles a handful of salt that sparkles as it cascades down his arm, some of it getting caught in his arm hair.

It has over 13.6 million views.

Ottoman steak 🔪

A post shared by Nusr_et#Saltbae (@nusr_et) on

It is food porn with all the finer points of story telling: dramatic tension, visceral resolution, and a whimsical finale. Nusret has subdued this rather large piece of meat, and if there is still any question about his ability, he reveals slick salt moves that affirm only he can do what he does. Nusret the humble Butcher is now Nusret the Boss, the undisputed scion of cool (an image he cultivates with relish).

Graphic of Nusret as The Godfather

The video went viral almost instantly and gave rise to the hashtag #Saltbae. Everyone from college students to NFL and Premier League players were copying his signature salt move in video, photo, and meme format. King Abdullah of Jordan invited Nusret to barbecue with him. A quick search on Instagram reveals more than 220,000 posts, and almost all from people who have never dined at Nusr-et. News outlets caught wind of the story, street artists painted murals, and at least one clever developer created an iPhone app with an emoji of Nusret sprinkling salt. It was all about that salt life.

Premier League player Danny Welbeck copies #Saltbae on the field

A mural of saltbae in Australia

The restaurant’s Instagram following is currently at a staggering 5.5 million and growing. That is double the combined Instagram following of celebrity chefs Mario Batali (456k) and Anthony Bourdain (2.2 million). In less than a month, #Saltbae became a household name.

I’m not a leading expert on social media strategy, but I have created and managed the marketing and digital communications for two restaurants, both my own, and learned a few things along the way. Well before Mr. Gocke became the celebrity he is today, I can tell you he was doing a lot of things right.

An active Instagram user, he had already accumulated over 100,000 followers, a large chunk after opening in Dubai. That’s a pretty big number. True, he was already a success in his native Turkey. But restaurants can have a hard time growing their following. Beautiful food photography always gets a lot of likes and eyeballs, but if that’s all you are posting it gets old pretty fast. In Dubai, the challenge is two-fold: in a market saturated with food and beverage concepts, finding a voice that resonates and rises above the noise is that much harder.

Here are the top eight ways Nusret is consistently striking social media gold:

1. He lets his personality shine on social media. One look at his Instagram page and you know you’re dealing with one flamboyant dude. He is sassy and funny, and he knows it. His social media voice is strong, unique, and confident. The best part: no other brand will be able to replicate it without looking like an obvious rip off.

Saltbae poses with a cigar in front of a photo of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar

2. He is serious about his product and shows you how. His images display the beautiful marbling and colour of his meats. Furthermore, he goes to great lengths to ensure consistency and quality by controlling the entire process. His meat is literally farm-to-table. Videos of him massaging cows may be funny, but also convey a key brand message: Nusr-et is serious about the meat it serves.

Saltbae faces a cow at his cattle farm

3. He uses the medium of video. Cisco projects that by 2019, 86% of global consumer traffic will be video, including TV, video-on-demand, and peer-to-peer networks. Internet video has an engaged and growing audience and companies not following this marketing trend will not be able to connect with audiences or expand their reach.

4. He uses the right platform for the region. Instagram is popular in the U.A.E., and king with one demographic in particular: locals, or the small Emirati population with mighty purchasing power. The UAE also has 78% smartphone penetration, the highest in the world. That means lots of well-off people taking photos and videos of products and experiences and sharing on social media. What more could a brand ask for?

Instagram has been critical to Nusret’s success online and as a business. He has succeeded in attracting locals as regular customers, so much so that he counts both the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai as frequent patrons. Anyone who has lived here long enough knows there is no higher stamp of approval than a visit from a member of the ruling royal family. And, the fastest route to Instagram engagement and follows in the region.

5. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. As a former restaurant owner, I can tell you this is a rare quality in a chef. Especially a famous one. As much as I love food and appreciate the passion and drive of talented chefs, there is an annoying tendency to install them on a pedestal and give them other-worldly qualities. It’s food, guys. Not a cure for cancer. Nusret is relatable, human, and approachable, and very different from someone like chef Mario Batali who has a reputation for being arrogant. In marketing terms, there is no better strategy. Every brand strives to make a connection with their target audience on a human level.

6. He delivers on his promise. If you have the chance to dine at Nusr-et, you should. It is the best meat I have ever had. Hands down.

7. He is genuine. I was invited to dine at Nusr-et a few days after it opened. I saw the man himself, on the grill and approached cautiously to have a look. He was wearing a tight white t-shirt, a perfect tan, and a slicked back pony tail. He gave me a big smile and insisted I try a piece of his “spaghetti” – thinly sliced pieces of steak that are quickly seared on the grill. Later in the evening, he served us at our table, like he did every other guest, and insisted the ladies take photos with him. He is quirky and fun, and salts everyone’s steak table-side. You can find him at his restaurant everyday, working hard and putting in long hours. He doesn’t speak any English. But his big personality and passion for what he does breaks through the communication barrier.

8. He posts plenty of photos of smiling customers. If your product or service makes people happy, you should share that on social media. In his case, it helps that celebrities like Leonardo di Caprio enjoy his food. If you too have a celebrity clientele, that should be shared where possible.

Nusret is a big hit with locals and tourists in Dubai
How will he do in New York? Given his drive, unrelenting ambition, and ability to connect with people with such ease, I think he will take the city by storm. I for one will be following his social media closely to learn further best practices on brand content and engagement.

All images courtesy Nusr-et’s ridiculously good Instagram page

No Culture in Dubai? Why UNESCO Might Think Otherwise

Dubai has a reputation for being a fake city. A city known for the tallest building, the fastest cars, endless construction, oil riches, and fast living. A concrete jungle devoid of culture and flush with cash. Expats are quick to tell you nothing is authentic here, that the real world exists outside the country.

Could these ideas be misplaced? The UAE is in it’s infancy as a nation, but the area is not. In fact, the Arabian peninsula is home to a number of relics of the ancient world.

Which is why The National Council of Tourism and Antiquities has been busy compiling an inventory list of heritage sites for UNESCO. Included on the list is Ed-Dur, a large archeological site in the Emirate of Umm Al Quwain that predates the arrival of Islam.

Also listed is my childhood haunt and personal favourite, Khor Dubai, or Dubai Creek, and the commercial markets in it’s immediate vicinity. Dubai Creek is a natural seawater inlet of the Arabian Gulf in the heart of old Dubai. It has played a major role in the economic development of the region throughout history, and is a flourishing port of trade where the city of Dubai emerged.

Old wooden dhows, or ships, docking at Dubai Creek
Old wooden dhows, or ships, dock at Dubai Creek to offload goods
Trips to the Creek are incomplete without a jaunt through Dubai’s “City of Gold,” a historic gold market located right along the waterway. My first visit to the Gold Souk was at the age of four. While my brother and I happily ate ice cream, my grandmother, an expert haggler, carefully inspected chains of braided gold pulled from spotless glass cases. While certainly not as old as Ed-Dur, the souk has been around since the 1930’s. Many of it’s merchants have been selling gold for generations.

Emiratis make up a measly 6% of Dubai’s population. Despite tumultuous change, they celebrate deep ties to this part of the world and have a vibrant, fluid culture influenced by traders from Iran, India, and Pakistan, who still dock at the Creek. You must be willing to make the effort, once in a while, to leave the malls and look for it.

Famed New York Brunch Spot Sarabeth’s Opens in Dubai. Is This A Good Thing? 

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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.