Case Study: Slow Food and Time Hotels

How the hotel brand incorporated the ethos of slow food in its properties

Dubai-headquartered Time Hotels is the first hospitality group in the region to partner with the Slow Food initiative. The sustainable agenda involved an extensive thought process, which converted methods of working and increased cost of F&B operations.

Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1989, and its members commit to sourcing and using produce that is prepared as per local culinary tradition, and using high quality locally-sourced ingredients.

The Dubai chapter or was launched in 2013, and Time Hotels is the first hotel group in the GCC to introduce the concept in its mainstream food and beverage offering.

Caterer Middle East sits down with Time Hotels director of food & beverage Bernard Fantoli and Slow Food — Dubai Convivium leader Laura Allais-Maré to find out the objectives and rationale, the process and experience of converting to slow food, and how it affects the bottom line.

Objectives & rationale
Fantoli came across Slow Food Dubai at a culinary event, and was instantly intrigued. It was equal parts sustainability and social responsibility, fuelled by the passion to bring back healthy ways of eating, which propelled Fantoli to approach his boss and convince him to consider introducing slow food at Time Hotels.

Fantoli champions the cause of healthy, wholesome eating, and wants to steer the region in that direction; he believes adapting to slow food will aid the cause.

Elaborating on the reasons for liaising with Slow Food Dubai, he says: “It was partly personal interest and partly because it is the right thing to do. We are already Green Globe-certified, which is all about sustainability. We were looking for programmes that could support our initiatives in the food and beverage arena as well.”

Allais-Maré adds to the conversation and comments on how Slow Food has a different agenda in Dubai than its international counterparts. “It is different because in most countries in Europe you are dealing with a certain group of people — for instance, in Italy, you are dealing with Italians and ethics of Italian cuisine. But in Dubai, you have so many different nationalities.

“We are in the Emirates, but there are so few people who have tasted Emirati food. So what is local? What is traditional? And then, how many people know about slow food? In Europe, a lot of people know about this. Their lifestyle is intertwined with slow food. The job is much bigger here.”

She further adds that according to the slow food ethos, everything within a 3000km radius of Dubai can be considered local. In practice, the demarcated area includes Turkey, Africa, India, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria, amongst others.

However, having been a chef for more than 22 years, she understands chefs’ concerns about the quality of local produce. “I know what the chefs are saying, that the quality is not good enough. But if we don’t start telling local producers that they need to supply better quality products, nothing is going to change in the region.”

A hotel or F&B outlet can become part of the slow food movement in a number of ways, on the basis of their level of commitment and resources available to them. Moreover, Slow Food can award the ‘Snail of Approval’ to certain items on the menu, to a restaurant or a group, depending on how far the slow food ethos is implemented.

Allais-Maré elaborates on the requirements, and says: “We don’t dictate. When Bernard (Fantoli) first contacted me and asked how they can get involved, I said that the first thing we have to do is training. Also, no matter how fantastic your food is, if half of your staff are not registered Slow Food members, you are not considered. And then you commit your staff to attend two training sessions a year.”

For Time Hotels, Fantoli says that while the company as a whole has adapted to the initiative, it wouldn’t be possible to get a Snail of Approval for an entire restaurant at this early stage of implementation, and therefore it has joined the Slow Food Chefs Alliance — where a chef commits to serve slow food dishes to customers, and have at least a few items on the menu that comply with the Slow Food criteria.

Time Hotel and Slow Food Dubai started discussing possibilities nine months ago, and the collaboration was finalised in December 2014.

Fantoli says: “We realised that it’s a journey that requires change, and change is always painful. So we decided to do it in phases. So phase number one was education — and it is key. This is where people realise that what we do is wrong.

“After training, I requested the F&B managers and chefs from the hotels to come up with their action plan; to look into how they operate today and where they can apply slow food. Action plans were made, presented, and discussed. Then they started the research because they need to check every ingredient in each recipe for origin and quality.”

It wasn’t easy, he states. “There is obviously a big difference, and that’s a challenge. But chefs have always been challenged — and they are incredible people who adapt. We need to help them and I am sure they will find ways.”

Moreover, sourcing also posed a challenge. It becomes difficult when imports are curbed and restricted to 3000km only, while insisting on the same quality.

Fantoli adds: “The hotel and catering industry has taken on a habit of buying products, not knowing where it comes from. There is no time to research the right product, or to know where it comes from. So it is a huge change, and a lot of people are involved, like the purchasing department. Now we need to know where every ingredient in a recipe is coming from. If we can’t find something right now, it doesn’t mean we can’t ever. There is a lot of hope.”

And then there are costs to be considered. “We have to be financially careful. We cannot buy an ingredient for triple the price, because nobody would accept this. And the price difference between better products and otherwise ranges from 15-20% to 80%.”

Commenting on who pays for the increase, Fantoli says: “Everybody will feel it a little bit. We as operators will take the biggest chunk, but it’s a complicated calculation.”

It is important to note that Slow Food membership is not a one-off activity; control and audit is an important part of the process.

Fantoli says: “We are now nearing the stage when menus will be done, supported by recipes, and the recipes will be supported by suppliers for ingredients. Traceability will be clear, and invoices will be kept to ensure that. The chef and the hotel’s general manager are held accountable for it all. And once this is done, and we get an approval from Slow Food, we will start.”

Feedback & Results
“I think it’s huge for a hotel chain to take something like that on. We are not talking about making every restaurant and every dish slow food-aligned, but we are talking about putting on four to five dishes on the menu that meet slow food criteria, which is huge. The repercussions are huge, to the public, to the staff, and that’s what we want — we want more and more people asking what slow food is,” says Allais-Maré.

The new menus roll out this month at Time Oak Hotel & Suites and Time Grand Plaza Hotel, and Fantoli says he is very hopeful. He comments: “It’s a different approach, and a different way of calculating as well, but I am totally convinced that by giving the right products, the right quality, and healthier food, we will get a favourable response. I do hope that people will be able to taste the difference.”

Fantoli confirms that the buffet will possibly have 50% slow food dishes, and the à la carte would have a few slow food options in every section (salads, appetisers, mains and dessert).

The team is now also working on incorporating slow food in its banquet section, combined with Green Globe-certified practices, such as paperless meetings and reduced lighting. Fantoli says that the cold section of the menu is comparatively easier; the hot sections use sophisticated techniques and the pastry section includes a lot of speciality products, which are a little more challenging to source.

Fantoli’s commitment to slow food is not restricted to this project. He says that he is considering implementation of the slow ethos at any new F&B outlets as well.

“We have signed a massive franchise with O’Leary’s — a Swedish sports restaurant — which will be located in Fujairah. It is a typical Bostonian sports café where you have beers, et cetera, but we will replace it with healthy drinks, made from excellent soft drinks and organic juices. When we approached them, I said I would like to inject a little slow food here.”

In addition, Time’s first five-star property, slated to open in 2016 in Dubai Healthcare City, might house the group’s first slow food restaurant with the Snail of Approval. However, all plans will be finalised after the response at Time Oak Hotel & Suites and Time Grand Plaza Hotel is gauged. “We take this as a pilot project. The roll out will depend on how successful it is,” he says.

When asked about his expectations and returns, Fantoli says: “In terms of returns, it is difficult to say anything right now. But I think I will be very happy if we have managed to change the mind-set of our chefs and F&B people — it’s a long-term process and if we manage to change habits, then slow food will become a norm. And this is a priority.”

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