A Ramadan plan for restaurants

A strategic guide to handling F&B operations during The Holy Month

Ramadan can be a fun but challenging time for many food outlets.
Ramadan can be a fun but challenging time for many food outlets.
Sofitel's Marc Matar says while Ramadan is quieter, footfall can be boosted during Iftar and Suhour.
Sofitel's Marc Matar says while Ramadan is quieter, footfall can be boosted during Iftar and Suhour.
Silk and Spice at the Sofitel Abu Dhabi.
Silk and Spice at the Sofitel Abu Dhabi.
The Ramadan Tent, Park Hyatt Dubai.
The Ramadan Tent, Park Hyatt Dubai.
The Address Downtown Dubai
The Address Downtown Dubai

The Holy Month can be a lot to handle – for seasoned operators and new outlets alike. Here, Lucy Taylor brings you a strategic guide to handling F&B operations successfully this Ramadan

Ramadan is a time of celebration and charity in the Muslim world – but it’s also a period when food and drink have special significance.

With fasting practiced in daylight hours, and special fast-breaking meals to cater to, it can be quite an overwhelming and challenging time for those in the F&B industry; particularly for new staff and new outlets to the region.

From competing with other outlets to handling the altered logistics of the season, there are a host of Ramadan requisites to remember – as industry stalwarts are happy to explain.

The total experience
Thanks to the established international hospitality industry in the Middle East and indeed across the Islamic world, there is a wealth of F&B experience to draw on for those unfamiliar with the Holy Month.

Ritz-Carlton Doha executive chef Richard Green explains: “The first time I organised a Ramadan tent in Saudi Arabia, I had to rely on the people around me.

“Now that this is my fifth Ramadan – I know what to do and not do, and I can pass that experience on.”

The starting point for any team must be understanding both the cultural and religious significance of the holiday,” he says.

“A team needs to have a good understanding of what Ramadan is, what it stands for and the cycles of breaking the fast,” explains Green. “When dealing with the sensitivity of the season, you must truly understand it – what the Holy Month means, and the reasons behind the restrictions.”

At Roberto’s, in Dubai International Financial Centre, restaurant manager Mustafa Targal agrees the most important thing is to be “mindful and respectful of the Holy Month and the significance it has for Muslims in Dubai and around the world.”

After that essential base is covered, it’s time to consider the details that ensure operations continue to run smoothly.

Park Hyatt Dubai director of F&B Hans Gfrei notes: “The workload is concentrated in a few hours, compared to the daytime which is very quiet during Ramadan; mainly just in-house guests and tourists. It’s very important to monitor staff efficiently during this period, keeping in mind that only limited working hours are permitted,” he adds.

Sofitel Abu Dhabi director of F&B Marc Matar adds that maintaining the quality of service is another “essential ingredient in a hotel’s ability to maintain profitability and continued success,” during the Holy Month.

Josvah Rasolofonjoa, restaurant manager, Mango Tree, Qatar adds that it is equally important to cater to the tastes of the non-fasting as well as those fasting.

Cost concerns
There is no doubt that the loss of daytime business can affect an operation’s bottom line. As Sofitel’s Matar puts it, “for the hospitality industry, Ramadan is no ordinary time of year. It is a little bit quieter, there’s no doubt about that; however, for most F&B outlets, we can increase volume during Iftar time and Suhour time.”

Operators must accept it is inevitably going to be a less profitable month than usual, says Oana Rugina, director of operations from L’Hotel-Bahrain, particularly as many choose to spend time at home with family and friends.

“On top of that, as alcohol is not allowed, our bar remains closed – which obviously reduces takings,” he says.

Others note that while business may decrease, limiting or even halting service during the day does see costing balance out, to an extent. Mango Tree, Doha is one outlet that opens solely in the evening.

“This means that we are saving on electricity, gas and also on labour costs,” explains Mango Tree’s Rasolofonjoa. “But realistically, we are looking at about half the usual footfall for the month.”

He also admits for a themed independent outlet, Ramadan holds other challenges.

“It is tricky when you have a speciality such as Thai food, to make up for the business lost during the day – but with that said, we do feel that it is a great opportunity to support the culture of the country.

“This means trying to come up with new ways to ensure locals enjoy our restaurant during the Holy Month.”

Early bird
For the F&B world, Ramadan means, above all, being prepared; something that starts months ahead of the event taking place.

“Our menu is done three months in advance – and one of the most important aspects is speaking to your suppliers, as they are also fasting and working reduced hours,” says Ritz-Carlton’s Green.

“Getting the stock in hand and confirmed in advance is vital for smooth operations during Ramadan,” he says.

The other side of the coin is promoting those plans.

Sofitel’s Matar says as soon as the property’s F&B set-up for the season was confirmed, the next step was to send the Ramadan promotion details to their main corporate and business contacts.

“After that, we focus our attention on decoration – following a contemporary theme to complement the new property.”

New to the game
For some, 2012 marks their first year of Ramadan operations. This year, the Park Hyatt Dubai’s French restaurant Traiteur will be opening during the final three weeks of the Holy Month for the first time explains Gfrei, and it will aim to offer a similar set up to its regular brunch, but with a Middle Eastern twist.

“We are targeting a different clientele with Western, Indian and Arabic dishes,” he says. Roberto’s at DIFC is another first-timer to the Ramadan experience but it is different in that it is a stand-alone rather than hotel-based outlet.

However, that does not mean it is lacking in support, says Targal.

“We are communicating with the DIFC authority for their guidance with respect to rules and regulations during the Holy month. We have also spoken to our peers in the area for advice on their experience during the season.”

Play it safe or experiment?
There are a lot of outlets offering traditional buffets with fresh ingredients and great entertainment; so when it’s time for outlets to put their Ramadan plans into action, there’s pressure on managers to make sure their offering stands out from the crowd.

According to L’Hotel-Bahrain’s Rugina, the key to success is to play to one’s strengths – using “the outlet’s own trademarks to add a unique touch to traditional Ramadan celebration.” This comprises different elements in different outlets. Iftars and Suhours are integral parts of the season’s service; but at Park Hyatt Dubai, corporate and large private events play a big part in celebrations.

Ritz-Carlton Doha, on the other hand, is jazzing up its outlets with live cooking stations, which range from traditional Arabic creations to Asian and Western cuisine.

A big part of deciding what an outlet’s Ramadan offering should comprise depends on the demographic it is targeting.

Mango Tree, Qatar will be offering promotions geared towards families – both local and expat, while Park Hyatt will promote Traiteur for GCC visitors with high-end tastes, and use Thai Kitchen to accommodate predominantly non-fasting guests.

Whatever the target market, operators agree it’s vital an outlet stays true to its identity even whilst changing to fit with the requirements of the season.

“You need to play to your strengths,” says Roberto’s Targal. “Too often, restaurants in Dubai try to be everything to everyone – but if the strength of your kitchen is something other than Arabic cuisine, for example Italian, your seasonal deals should be Italian.”

Park Hyatt’s Gfrei believes “traditional Arabic restaurant is preferred”, but adds there are many tastes to accommodate.

“Restaurants with other themes could try a selection of Western as well as traditional Middle Eastern dishes, and keep the focus on non-Arab fasters as well as non-Muslims who wish to experience the authenticity and traditional flavours of Ramadan, but also have a variety of dishes to choose from,” he suggests.

But L’Hotel-Bahrain’s Rugina argues that the majority offering “really needs to be Arabic.”
Any restaurant that cannot meet such requirements should not advertise Iftar per se, he recommends, but rather opt for a late dinner service.

Once Ramadan offerings have been narrowed down, the issue of the competition arises.

Standing out
Post-sunset is a busy time and with so many outlets offering similar set-ups, it’s not easy to stand out from the crowd. From this perspective, outlets that are not trying to compete in the Arabic arena arguably have it easier. Roberto’s Targal sums it up best saying: “We are going to do what we do best, which is be ourselves.”

However, Mango Tree’s Rasolofonjoa, says it is necessary to offer variety: “Although a lot of people enjoy a traditional Arabic buffet, they also like variety over the course of the month – so it works well to offer something different.”

But how should the numerous outlets going down the traditional route compete?
Park Hyatt’s Gfrei says the answer lies with food “variety, quality and abundance.” When it comes to the late-night Suhour, traditional events can be given a twist via the extras available: “At Suhour, the guests are mainly there for entertainment and shisha,” Gfrei says.

Sofitel’s Matar says Arabic sweets are a highly anticipated element of the menu, while L’Hotel-Bahrain’s Rugina advises chefs to be bold and try out new recipes.

The restrictions and different requirements of the month mean significant changes. When it comes to suppliers, bar orders certainly take a big hit – with opening hours limited and many operations closing for the duration.

The other issue outlets must adapt to is food wastage, a standard element of buffets, which are the most common form of F&B offering during the Holy Month.

Ritz-Carlton’s Green points out that live stations reduce the usual buffet wastage and simultaneously, they help to add a sense of drama to the proceedings overall.  Others suggest closely monitoring consumption and gradually reducing the buffet refill during the evening.

But Rugina from L’Hotel-Bahrain says simply that “you can’t reduce this wastage.”  “You can try to serve food on the buffet in small quantities and refill it as and when required; and you can assess daily reservations and prepare the quantity of food as required,” he says.

“But at the same time, it’s your responsibility to ensure there is enough food for any additional walk-ins.

“It’s not easy to predict – and there will always be waste at a buffet.”

The eid boom
As the Holy Month draws to a close, there are still more plans to be made.

“The last days of Ramadan are very quiet, as most people spend that time with their family at home,” says Park Hyatt’s Gfrei. “Then at Eid, it suddenly gets very busy again,” he adds.
But there are benefits to this particularly busy period. The build-up to the final busy weekend actually helps with the transition back to standard operating hours, says Mango Tree Qatar’s Rasolofonjoa.

“The rush during Eid puts the whole team back on track,” he asserts.

Make people happy
The key thing to remember, for Ramadan first-timers, is to be prepared.
“Be patient, flexible and prepared to listen to people who have been through Ramadan before and take their advice,” says Ritz-Carlton’s Green.

“More importantly, do your own research on Ramadan to understand it. Understanding and appreciating just 10% more about Ramadan will help you do 10% better,” adds Green.
L’Hotel-Bahrain’s Rugina says that studying the local market – and competition – can also give operators an edge.

“Take a good look at the competition and aim to create something unique,” she suggests. “And of course, make sure your budget covers not only your Ramadan plans but also the appropriate promotional measures,” she says.

Whatever an outlet’s plan ends up being, whether it’s to excel in the traditional Middle Eastern arena or make the most of its own particular international forte, the secret to Ramadan is to be ready; and of course to remember it is, above all, a season of celebration.
As Ritz-Carlton’s Green puts it so aptly: “Ramadan is less a money-making opportunity and more a time to make people happy.

“If I spend the whole Ramadan just breaking even but every guest is happy, then I consider it a successful event.”

Marketing Magic
Laura Perez, director of communications – Middle East for Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts, shares her tips for seasonal success.

“Ramadan is a month of blessing and it is a special time to strengthen family and community bonds. As family and friends gather for Iftar, hotels should focus on providing the right atmosphere and setting, to foster and complement the spirit of this holy period. Besides the setting, it’s key to offer authentic dishes and beverages, ideally a different variety each day.

“In my opinion, those who truly understand the meaning of Ramadan have more opportunities to stand out.”

Top 5 regional ramadan deals
Coral Hotel Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
The Al Nafoora Restaurant is serving up a special menu of traditional Ramadan Arabic dishes and sweets for iftar and suhour buffets.
Price: Iftar – SAR140 ($37) per person. Suhour – SAR 75 ($19)per person.

Ramadan Specials at Grand Millennium Dubai
The Iftar menu at the Grand Millennium Dubai is bursting with Arabic culinary delights and suhours feature a delicious starter buffet with main course served at your table.
Price: Iftar – AED 145 (US $39) per person. Suhour – AED 95 ($25) per person.

The Address Downtown Dubai
Fazaris, is offering a blend of Japanese, Asian, Indian, Arabian, and Mediterranean cuisine, and combines splendid food, unique décor, and timeless ambience this Ramadan.
Price: Iftar – AED 180 ($49). Different menu option – Up to AED 210 ($57).

Ramadan at Le Royal Meridién Abu Dhabi
Layali el Hilmiya is a tent built expecially for Ramadan, bringing together centrury-long traditions with table games and shisha. Food includes falafel, foul, fateer and shawarma.
Price: Suhour Package– AED 190 ($51) for unlimited food, drink and shisha.

Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club
On offer at the QD’s tent is an authentic Iftar with a range of hot and cold Arabic mezzeh, a changing menu of mains including Daoud Basha, Shish Taouk and Biryani. Gourmet desserts including classics such as Um Ali.
Price: AED120 ($32) per person; AED 60 ($16) per child.

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