The key to Utopia: Team behind Pacha Ibiza Dubai
Club and restaurant joined by Frioul Bistro de Luxe at Souk Madinat Jumeirah
Caterer Middle East speaks to the dream team from Utopia working on home-grown concept Frioul Bistro de Luxe and the much anticipated Pacha Ibiza Dubai in a series of no-holds-barred interviews on the strategy to make their mark on the F&B scene in the UAE
Walking into Pacha Ibiza Dubai for the first time will be something you won’t forget — dimmed lights, splashes of red, white and black, and the ubiquitous cherries synonymous with the party destination that is Ibiza stare back at you.
Caterer Middle East is inside the venue before its opening, and while we’re there, the DJ tests the music, and aerial performers iron out their mesmerising act that works to the beat of the pulsing beats.
Housed in Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, where nightclub Trilogy used to be, Pacha Ibiza Dubai is just one of two projects going live this year from owner-operator firm, Utopia (which is a Viva Entertainment company). The other is Frioul Bistro de Luxe, which can be found in the same building on the ground floor — in the space that earlier held Jambase.
The size of the project is massive – the entire building spans an area of 2973m2, with 2787m2 making up Pacha Ibiza Dubai alone. The nightclub can hold a little under 2000 people — a mixture of standing and seating.
Umesh Amarnani, the chief executive officer of Utopia, a quiet man, is confident about the business strategy behind his ventures. The company was established in Dubai in 2008, owned by Viva Entertainment. He says: “When I joined the family business in 2005, I found technology was changing the way content was being consumed.
There’s more content being consumed than ever before, but the reality is that our generation really doesn’t want to pay for it. They are happy to pay US $200 to watch a live concert, say Eric Clapton or David Guetta, but they don’t want to spend $10 to buy a CD.
“So when we looked at the future of the music business, we realised that the largest revenue share in the industry was for live acts. We decided to build venues to showcase creativity, and monetise that creativity through food and beverage. We invest in great sound, great lights, great infrastructure, and keep changing the programme.”
Utopia has the exclusive franchise of Pacha for the UAE — what convinced the Pacha Group that the UAE-based firm was up to the task? Amarnani says he first approached the firm in 2006, but they needed a sign of commitment on his part.
He started with distribution of records, holding events, and started building the brand awareness in the UAE. He smiles and adds: “A franchise is like a marriage, and doing distribution of records and events is like going on a date and then getting engaged.
It’s true though because it’s a very tough decision as a principal and a brand owner as to who do you decide as your partner.” Amarnani demonstrated that the revenue was going up, and he thought what also swung it in his favour was that Pacha preferred working with a family business like Utopia as opposed to a corporate group.
Each floor in the building, which is on a long-lease contract, offers different culinary experiences, as well as entertainment. Frioul Bistro de Luxe is an all-day French Mediterranean brand. With Pacha, the ground floor serves Pan-Asian food, a club atmosphere on the second, and then the rooftop serves Spanish food with Arabic influences.
Amarnani expands: “Pacha is all about different rooms with different musical experiences — it’s like an amusement park for adults. Frioul will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and is a child friendly venue. We’re bringing Vegas to Dubai — a combination of shows and dinner.
And that’s where we looked to for a lot of our top management, because we don’t believe the talent exists to run such a large venue here. If you look at Vegas, the venues are 40,000-60,000ft2 (3716-5574m2) with some of the highest grossing revenue in the world.”
It’s been of interest to note that Utopia has decided to open both a franchise — Pacha Ibiza Dubai – and a home-grown brand — Frioul Bistro de Luxe — within months of each other, in the same location.
Why did Amarnani decide to work on this strategy of entering the F&B market in the region? He reveals that the timing and, to a certain extent, the location was by default.
He explains: “The building has a common back-of-house and X amount of power for the building, Y amount of chilled water. Jumeirah said we can have Trilogy but we have to take Jambase with it. We turned Trilogy into Pacha and Jambase into Frioul.”
Amarnani admits that location is always challenging so the company was “lucky to get this piece of real estate” for his brands.
He adds: “I did a lot of homework on opportunities of restaurants and bars and what I realised is that the biggest beneficiary of putting any brand on real estate is the landlord and then of course, the brand owner.
We were looking for a large enough space which was easily accessible. It was pure luck, we had a well-wisher who wanted to see me progress. I was given a ‘take it or leave it’ offer, and when I signed this two years ago everyone thought we were crazy.
“It’s one of the most expensive, and, I think for a fact, it’s the largest F&B space in the region; it’s 32,000ft2 (2973m2) spread over four floors. If you look at Zuma it’s 17,000ft2 (1579m2) so it’s nearly double.”
During the conversation, Amarnani says the Frioul brand is owned by Utopia on a global level, but as of now it is staying put in Dubai. He says: “Everything is built to exit — that’s sensible business. Whether you choose to exit or not is your decision but the value that you create — we are creating a cool place.
“I’m not looking beyond Dubai right now because at the moment everyone wants to be here and our vision for the next five years is to do a bunch of projects, whether it’s six or eight projects in the city.
We’re taking it one step at a time, but people are seeing that we have had the courage to do this, and now it’s about successfully operating it. There is a lot of land here, there are a lot of builders here, but they need successful concepts working in them. I don’t believe there are many successful operators in this market.”
Amarnani is loath to say more about the new projects, but confirms there will be a third concept from the Utopia stable live by the end of 2015. He adds: “With Frioul we have gained the confidence to do our own [concepts].
Brands improve the value of real estate. So the biggest beneficiary of what we’re doing here is actually Jumeirah. We have invested a lot of money into this estate and we are expecting more than 10,000 visitors per week in Frioul and Pacha together. So if you look at that purely in terms of footfall and traffic, there’s a massive increase in novelty value to the customer.
“The idea is that you truly engage the customer so obviously the next step would be to do F&B with hotels.” I immediately ask whether that’s on his radar.
He says: “When the time is right. Right now I think we have our hands full. It’s a work in progress; we should have another concept by the end of next year. I don’t believe in speaking before the work happens. A lot of people talk here but ultimately only if people can experience and feel the brand and the product will it mean anything. But you need to plan in advance. I got in touch with Pacha in 2006 and we are in 2014.”
Amarnani’s family has been in the UAE since the 1960s, and he has had the rare privilege as an expat to see the F&B scene evolve over the decades. “Dubai, as a city, is on everyone’s radar,” he says.
“Every single person wants to enter this market. It’s great from the customer’s point of view — they have more choice, it increases efficiency, there’s no room for mediocrity anymore. And with that, you get the best talent in the city.”
Because, as Amarnani rightly says, everyone wants to enter the Middle East market, the F&B sector in the region is competitive, with many concerned with the number of outlets opening. In the UAE alone, 213 concepts have applied to open within the next 12-18 months — a hefty number, one which new entrants would do well to plan for.
Amarnani says: “What we’re doing though is absolutely unique. I don’t think the hospitality industry understands entertainment. The hotels here don’t get it, they don’t get the entertainment aspect. We have a very unique positioning in that we understand entertainment and all our concepts are entertainment-based so we’re not competing with the conventional F&B outlet. It’s all about the guest experience, so how you can enhance that further.”
He muses: “We have realised the hard way you have to do everything yourself if you want it done right but that’s why we are owning and operating ourselves. Because F&B is a service industry, you need to be able to take a call on the spot. We’ve taken on this asset and we believe with this comes a responsibility of not compromising on anything. We’ve foreseen all the revenue streams possible and got the best in the business.
“We were lucky — with a brand like Pacha, with a venue like Souk Madinat, and no compromise on the team. You’ve got all the three critical factors. It’s been an exciting journey.”
Meet the team
Todd Lunger, general manager, Pacha Ibiza Dubai
What’s your history before coming to Pacha Ibiza Dubai?
I’ve been in the F&B industry since I was 15 years old, coming on 17 years. I’ve most recently come from the One Group — I was the corporate general manager for STK Bagatelle and a couple of other new properties that were developed in Las Vegas. Prior to that I was at Wynn, and Tao Group before that.
What can the country expect from the latest addition to the nightlife scene and what do you contribute to the venue?
I’m looking to bring a newer edge and bring what Dubai needs. We’re bringing a multi-faceted venue that offers not only an amazing nightclub but also an amazing restaurant experience — we have Pan-Asian cuisine on the ground floor and Moorish cuisine on the rooftop. I’m overseeing all aspects of the venue as far as menu development, financials, and completion of the construction.
You said you’re bringing what Dubai needs — what is that exactly?
It needs and deserves something that its residents want to go to every night, not just because they want to be seen there or it’s fancy. They want to go because they know every time that they go there, they will have a good time and be treated as they should. I want whoever comes here to have a good-spirited time, similar to if you were in Ibiza.
What’s your opinion of the nightlife scene in Dubai?
The first couple of times I came here, I was out every night seeing what the market was producing and it seemed like the US or Las Vegas five years ago. I know it has potential, but people aren’t stepping out of their boundaries.
With our team, we like to think outside the box, have fun, and we also like to work together with other venues because it’s easier to work together than it is to work against each other. If XL Beach Club is pushing some of their day parties, we’ll work together to make sure they’re having a good party there and support them.
The same that they would do for our night time. It seems that people fight against each other here. It’s always worked well for me in the past to work together. At the end of the day we want more guests to come to Dubai.
How is this Pacha different from the others around the world?
This one is the new generation of Pachas. Pacha has always been well-known for its nightlife but the culture, of not only Dubai, but of the world is evolving. They need something with a little more substance; we’re creating some really amazing dining experiences, and we also have a really cool show that we’ve developed. You come in here for an overall night of entertainment as opposed to a typical Pacha where you just go to party at night and then move on.
Describe the service ethos of the venue?
We have recruited people from all over the world — not only for the staff but management. We wanted people with really positive energy, good attitudes, focused on guest service and overall having that genuine spirit about them. As opposed to just hiring someone based on a pay rate, we have adjusted and bought amazing people in.
Can you describe your working relationship with the Pacha group?
We work together on our entertainment. There are certain DJs that I like to have that do work across the Pacha brand, but they understand there are certain DJs I don’t want because we’re looking to develop local talent in Dubai to add that second coming of what Ibiza did for so many great DJs that are out now.
So we bounce stuff off each other in the way that chef Brian and I bounce stuff off each other. We do work a lot with Ibiza, because we want to have that sense of spirit here but at the end of the day I am responsible for the revenue of the venue.
Do you have any concerns with filling up three floors worth of space?
I’ve worked in very large venues; the most recent nightclub I’ve worked in was over 60,000ft2 (5574m2). We’re at 30,000ft2 (2787m2) here but we have the ability to close off certain areas. The energy levels are contained, we work with our music, our lighting, where it doesn’t seem like a giant, vast space. I’ve seen some larger venues here which are quiet on weekends or something and you walk through, and think you should go someplace else. Even though it would be a cool experience, people attract people.
How do you think people are going to respond once it opens?
Since we’re expanding on the original Ibiza concept so much and we have such a cool offering, as far as the dining and entertainment, people are going to love it. I’m not trying to be biased. Some of the show aspects that we’ve put into place, the closest comparison would be a Cirque de Soleil type aerial act. Dubai is going to love it.
Eric Handtschoewercker, assistant general manager, Frioul Bistro de Luxe
How would you describe the atmosphere of Frioul Bistro de Luxe?
It’s very relaxed; we don’t want the stiffness that you find in many places when it comes to service. For example, we don’t have any sommeliers. The training we give to the staff is such that they are able to take care of the food and wine order. We train our team to know about everything, it’s not just about service, it’s about entertaining the customers as well. People ask when the bands are playing and who did the painting on the wall… they have to know, it’s interacting with the customer which is important.
Can you elaborate on the training and briefing process you undergo?
We set down SOPs and every night during briefing we talk about those. An opening is hard enough, but some places, they open and that’s it. We don’t want that. We do everything as a team. If one commis has an idea, we pass it on to management if it’s good. We are not the boss, we are a team. Every night during briefing, the chef comes with two dishes to try so they know what’s on the plate. It’s the best way to sell a dish because they try and recommend it better.
How do you work with the back-of-house?
We work as a team; it’s very important especially with an open kitchen as customers can see what’s going on. The team we have on-board is good. We debrief at the end of the evening, and we talk about any issues and then see if we need to do anything else from our side, if the kitchen needs extra support. It’s all about communication, but I’ve worked with Brian [Hughson] before so I know what helps. It all comes back to training, we try to tell the new kids who come in that service is service.
Can you share any feedback you’ve received so far?
The Madinat is quite well-known by tourists, expats and locals. You have a mix of customers coming here. Frioul will bring as much to Madinat as Madinat will bring to Frioul. The customer feedback is good. As an example, there are a few people who come for dinner and then they come back with friends.
Where do you see the future of this brand?
Being in the business for years and years, I think this place is going to be the next spot in Dubai. Knowing there are other high-end French places here, we cannot compare ourselves to them. We want the team to have fun.
Brian Hughson, head of culinary, Utopia
What’s your background?
I wasn’t always a chef, I started working at Rolls Royce Motor Cars in Chesire in England and then I was a caster. I put myself through catering college by working regular nights and two days a week. And then I took the plunge and went straight into full time.
I have worked with Jason Atherton, Gary Rhodes, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, and Richard Corrigan. Then I worked at the Dorchester Collection for five years. That’s where I met Umesh; he told me about the project, flew me over. I had a little look around and I took the plunge and said yes. It’s one of the biggest openings I’ve been involved in.
How empowered do you see your team?
Fresh eyes — it’s an open kitchen, it’s not just ‘do what I say’. We don’t work like that. We are lucky in that we’ve had great experiences and we have worked with some of the best chefs; it all channels into who you are individually.
We give the kitchen and the front the autonomy to make decisions, whether the right or wrong ones, but you have that opportunity to explain to them where they went wrong. It’s a hotel without rooms here; it’s a 24 hour operation. I want everyone to be doing everything — right from here all the way up to the rooftop. You’ve got to open that up a bit and it keeps the chefs fresh and asking questions.
What has the experience of opening Frioul Bistro de Luxe been like?
We are a young company and we’re definitely going in the right way. We get compared to different places, but all we have to do is focus on here. It’s really difficult — there are so many discerning customers in Dubai with opinions. It’s like being in London… but not in London. There are challenges in a place where the food culture has gone through the roof; that’s exciting because it keeps everyone on their toes.
How do you work with the front-of-house at Frioul?
We’ve got that kind of relationship where we can speak frankly. We always sit down and say this could’ve been different and vice versa. We then tell the teams what’s happening. It works, and if they have something to say we listen. It’s not about one person in the front or another person at the back.
Tell us more about the culinary directions you’ve taken with both Frioul and Pacha Ibiza Dubai?
We touch on Spain, France and Italy — so the Mediterranean in Frioul. Pacha has its own complete identity; our offering for Pacha in Dubai is completely different from Ibiza. We’ve got a Pan-Asian offering in The Main Room and then a Spanish-Moorish offering on the rooftop, which fits in with the culture that we live in here.
Having worked in England for a long time, what would you say are the challenges you’ve faced here?
Trying to build relationships with suppliers. We’re using a lot of local stuff — the chicken’s organic from Al Ain. We work hard to source nice stuff — for example, we get snails and frog legs from France. It’s important that we build a relationship with a supplier. It’s different here, you can’t just pick up the phone and start a conversation. They want to see your business is successful first. In England it’s a little different and you get to know people, and I could call them and get a box of cabbages delivered tonight if I wanted them to because I had that relationship with them. I’m finding that that’s been my hardest challenge.
What has the overall experience been like so far?
I’ve only been here seven months, I’ve met so many people and made so many friends. It’s a great place to be. I made the right decision to leave the Dorchester Collection. It had to be something big and special to take me away from that because the Dorchester was amazing and had a massive Middle Eastern following. When I first saw the project here it was a shell and I have a lot of time for people like Umesh who believe in that. This is my business, I look at it like that.
Specifically with Pacha — how has the process been for you?
Pacha started in 1967 and I was born then. If you’re still going after 47 years, you’re doing something right. To be a part of that and trying to take something to the next level, I feel privileged to be involved in it and feel lucky to be asked to do it. Frioul is our own brand and if we make it successful, who knows where it will go. As for Pacha, to be cooking in one of the best nightclubs there’s got to be around the world, I’m going to enjoy the ride.