F&B INTERVIEW: Shabby Chic's Zaher Ammar

The Abu Dhabi cafe owner explains the concept behind his new venture

Zaher Ammar
Zaher Ammar
The popular Poppy wallpaper by Sanderson and a fireplace obtained from Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea.
The popular Poppy wallpaper by Sanderson and a fireplace obtained from Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea.
A mix of lampshades gives a quirky feel.
A mix of lampshades gives a quirky feel.

Old is gold, believes Zaher Ammar, owner of bric-a-brac inspired Abu Dhabi café Shabby Chic which uses a range of second hand valuables in its design

It’s quite rare to step into a café in the UAE today and find yourself transported back to the 1920s, surrounded by floral lampshades, a fireplace and wooden rocking chairs; so I was – for want of a better word – stunned when I stepped into Shabby Chic.

Project of Lebanese native, Zaher Ammar and his Abu Dhabi-born wife Rouba Hammad, Shabby Chic was brought to life with the help of Tribe Restaurant Creators.

Located on Al Muroor Road and set within government offices, the café’s main clientele is corporate and its busiest period is during lunch. I wonder what many of them think when they step through the doors and find themselves back in their Nan’s living room...

“Their initial reaction is always ‘wow’,” says restaurant owner Ammar. “They’ll walk over to one of the objects or artefacts and try to identify where they have seen it before – this is especially true of the Western expats who find it quite familiar but are surprised to see it in the UAE.”

The bric-a-brac inspired café opened up in September 2012 in place of a franchised café run by Ammar and his wife.

After spending a year operating the original café and with previous experience of working with the Sheraton Kuwait and with Rotana as director of events and catering for six years, Ammar decided it was time to go solo, finding that though the previous outlet “worked fine, it lacked something special.”

Creating that something special
The couple approached Stefan Breg and the team from Tribe to develop the concept for the new restaurant.

Being more accustomed to straight lines, white walls and the new and shiny, Ammar says he was shocked when he saw plans involving wood, red brick and Sanderson’s infamous Poppy wallpaper – not to mention roller blades, record players, a bath tub turned sofa and some other artefacts which are older than the UAE itself.

“The bathtub sofa was typical of Tribe’s Andrew Shippey’s out-of-the-box ideas.
During the initial discussions, we were so enthusiastic about it but at the same time so afraid of what it would turn out like. No two pieces in the café are the same – there is no colour scheme and every chair is different to the next.”

But the “homely” feel that Ammar, Hammad and the team were trying to create could only be achieved by recreating what people were used to seeing in their homes with what they associated with the word “home”.

For this the team had to look outside of the UAE. All items are second-hand sourced from various areas in Wales.

Shabby facts
1- Old timber cladding and roofing slates were reclaimed from an old warehouse in Swansea docks.
2- The bath, door and fire place were from the Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea
3- One guitar belonged to the guitarist of Welsh band Catatonia.
4- Milking stool and buckets from Raglan Castle farm in Monmouthshire.
5- One of the tankards came from the much loved author Dylan Thomas so Dylan himself is there in spirit!

One man’s trash...
“In the UK second-hand furniture and items are available in abundance. One of the advantages has been that the capital expenditure was low. The vinyl records for example cost almost nothing and we will be using them to print menus on soon,” says Ammar, adding that it was important for him to demonstrate that a project today could be just as successful and as attractive without having millions of dirhams poured into it.

“You don’t need to have millions and trillions to do this kind of thing. However, it is still important to maintain the quality. People won’t necessarily come for the decor – they will come for the food.”

The menu at Shabby Chic comprises 66 items including beverages. As mentioned previously, the customer is mainly from a business background and the café finds it is busiest during lunch breaks. For this reason it has adapted its menu to feature items that are readily-available or that can be prepared reasonably quickly.

“Many customers have restrictions such as a 35-45 minute lunch break. Our menu – which focuses on both healthy and classic options – features sandwiches, soups and salads available for those in a hurry.

We bake our bread in house and prepare the items fresh daily. Of course we offer main courses including curries, many of which are based on Rouba’s own recipes to maintain that homely feel.”

Embracing competition
But competition is tough. In such a small area, there are some major players including Jones the Grocer which operates next door and Bloomsbury’s opening up round the corner.

At the moment, Shabby Chic is managing 70 covers a day excluding weekends, when it meets about 40 covers a day and attracts families for afternoon tea.

“It is challenging but at the same time I look at it in a very positive way,” says Ammar. “We’re not competitors, we do not compete directly.

We’re not going to turn this into a ‘bloody-market’ with copy/paste concepts and price wars where we start to bring down prices or do the same thing as someone else under a different umbrella,” says Ammar.

However it is this competition that inspired him to offer something different.
“It was a café before, a typically corporate café which was common. I kept the same team but a lot of people saw this as a new place.

My aim is that it becomes a social hub. We are competitively priced compared to other businesses in the area. We’re not cheap, but we are not pricey either. We want people to be able to afford it – we want people to come back.”

For this reason, Ammar is incorporating a number of elements which he hopes will draw people back. There are a couple of guitars situated around the café and he is encouraging artists or customers who know how to play to use them and create some entertainment for diners.

The future looks tatty
He insists the café is still a work in progress and is hoping to increase his team of 10 staff fairly soon. He has already recruited a further two in the last month which includes a pastry chef.

While he is happy with the café’s gradual progress, he is keen to boost awareness of it over the next few months before he rolls out plans to open a second one. But his initial priority is getting this one firmly on the map and asserts he will “be happy for this location” if the café achieves 100 covers a day.

But his dream is to see more home-grown, even family-owned businesses pop up on the F&B scene in the UAE.

“Family businesses and home-grown businesses, all come under what we call small to medium enterprises. Any economy in the world is based on those people, the people who have limited resources but want to do something. The UAE definitely needs more of these people and I think it is being encouraged.”

What he is interested to see is whether the “tatty” concept which re-uses waste furniture and accessories will be replicated and how it will be done
“This kind of concept I’ve not seen much of so far – I’ve not seen any similar to our concept yet. I like to compare it to my jeans. I’ve been wearing them for six years. They’re not torn, they’re comfortable. They work.”


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