Strategy: Doha's F&B Juggernaut

The F&B team at W Doha has set the bar high to a position that's almost aspirational for other operators in the Qatari capital

W Doha executive chef Kim Hyung Gyu along with B&F director Arun Narayanan.
W Doha executive chef Kim Hyung Gyu along with B&F director Arun Narayanan.

There has been a general sense of unease within Qatar’s economy, mainly due to the dwindling oil and gas prices. Food and beverage revenues have taken a slight dip, given the redundancies in the private sector, which has impacted spending power at restaurants.

However, for W Doha, the story is quite different; its four F&B outlets and two bars/lounges have reported consistently high footfall. Spice Market, the hotel’s largest F&B outlet, for example, located on the mezzanine floor, has seen strong numbers. “We can seat up to 200 guests at a time at Spice Market and, in all honesty, it’s full every night,” says W Doha’s B&F director, Arun Narayanan, as he replies to Whatsapp messages and takes calls to confirm bookings across all of the hotel’s outlets.

Narayanan confirms reservations for more than 20 guests in the short time we spend with him. “I am in touch with our regular guests and patrons, sometimes even taking their messages on other social media channels.” The process is seamless, as Narayanan, who has been with the property for five years, passes the reservations on to the relevant outlet managers.

The hotel’s executive chef, Kim Hyung Gyu, joins us at Market by Jean-Georges, and the two explain how operations have gone well-beyond the hotel premises.

Gyu, who was promoted to his current role from executive sous chef last year, says: “In January and February this year we had the Moto GP, for which we were doing 1,000-1,500 covers per day. That’s just [outdoor] catering; at the same time, all the restaurants [in the hotel] were fully booked. Then, after the last day of the Moto GP, we had the W World Summit happening in the hotel.”

Narayanan adds that during this time, three F&B outlets in the hotel — Market by Jean-Georges, Spice Market and La Spiga — averaged 750 covers every night between them. He says: “We did the Jewellery Show thereafter, in which we were averaging about 1,000 covers daily, both lunch and dinner. At the same time, we catered to each exhibitor’s requirements. All of them had their own menus, and they could order and we would deliver to their individual requirements.”

As if all of this wasn’t enough, in March this year, the F&B team took on the task of transforming the Emir’s Palace into a hotel “complete with housekeeping, check-in, concierge, F&B services and operations”, Narayanan says.

The challenges were abundant for this type of project. Gyu says: “I’ve never had a busier time than I did for those few months, and I’ve worked in some of the busiest places in the world. [Here] it’s not just busy at the restaurants; we also have logistical challenges. We have to transport food, and satisfy all the organisers.”

Another feather in the team’s cap was opening and successfully running standalone outlets in two separate locations in Doha. One is La Spiga by Paper Moon located in Umm Ghuwailina, an outlet that also has a presence in the hotel. Initially, the restaurant within the hotel was managed by a third-party company. “We asked them to leave because we were capable of managing it, and brought in the Italian concept,” Narayanan says. The success prompted the management to open the standalone outlet in 2014.

The second standalone outlet is a café that W Doha manages and operates at Hamad International Airport. In operation for nearly a year, Narayanan says: “In the entire airport, we are the only outsourced café, and probably with the best location. That’s definitely an indication of the hard work we have put in.”

“And, we are not done yet,” Gyu laughs as he reminds Narayanan about another operation the team is involved in. “We started doing in-flight caterings for the Emir’s flight – the royal jets,” he says.

They also reveal to Hotelier Qatar that 45 butlers from W Doha work at the Emir’s royal airport. “This is a different unit, and a different approach, which is seen as a different business unit altogether,” Narayanan says.

Narayanan says diversification of operations was the way forward for the hotel. “Qatar went through difficult times with the oil prices. I think what kept us as industry leaders were all the things we started,” he says. “All our partnerships and growth plans — the airport café, the standalone La Spiga restaurant we opened outside the hotel in 2014, events and so on .”

He adds: “Everything has started from the hotel; the restaurants, about six to seven years ago, started getting famous for their delivery and consistency in terms of the food, product and service. That was like the incubator for the entire F&B scene that we see today in Qatar.”

Narayanan, who joined the W Doha in 2012, reveals what the team did during difficult times to ensure people kept coming back. “We were the first to introduce ‘Supper Club’ — an early-evening dinner priced at US $33 (QAR 120) for a three course menu, which still runs,” he says. “But the menu is à la carte and the portions remain the same.”

Gyu adds: “Guests are getting à la carte dishes from the menu at nearly half the price. This was innovative, [and worked so well that] we were discussing how to manage the flow of guests.”

“But then again, you have to remember it was not that deal that saved us; if we left it to that offer alone we would have [made] a loss,” Narayanan says. “So, we have to look at it from a holistic perspective – guests will spend at other outlets as well. Sometimes you have discount menus, which give you half the portions of the dish, but that does not bring the people back.”

Another campaign that spelled success for the duo was the introduction of ‘Gin ‘O’ Tonic’. “It was our take on the happy hour, which was quite — and still is — very famous, amongst the expats in Doha,” Narayanan says.

Allocation of finances was a key driver behind all the elements to come together successfully. And both Narayanan and Gyu say the owners have been instrumental in the success. “When we needed investments, our owners have always supported us. Obviously none of this would have been possible without their investment. The owners are not just open-minded but are also business-minded ,which works well together,” Gyu says.

Narayanan adds: “Proper planning has gone into everything. When we looked at event and exhibition catering, we sat down to see what the requirements were and what budgets we needed. The DECC has no on-site kitchen, for instance. So, we then had to study how to transport the food from the hotel to the site.” He also tells Hotelier Qatar that the W Doha owns its own trucks for food transportation. “Our return on investment [on the events and catering] was within the first few months. There is nothing more to come —whatever we invested we have got back. In terms of food and beverage revenues, we are one of the best; if we only talked about the hotel, we would not have been where we are,” says Narayanan.

He says a lot of effort and finance has gone into ensuring the upkeep of the F&B outlets in the hotel. “When you talk about investments, a significant amount has gone into our existing F&B outlets. If you look at this restaurant [Market by Jean Georges], it has been open for eight years, but it does not look more than six months old. Every year we invest an amount to maintain the look and feel of our restaurants.”

The two nightlife venues at the hotel — Crystal Lounge and Wahm — have also undergone refurbishments, with the latter undergoing a restructuring from the ground up. “Wahm has undergone a complete revamp, and we are opening up ahead of our schedule,” Narayanan says with confidence.

He adds: “Market by Jean-Georges does 250 covers every night and, if you add breakfast and lunch, it surpasses the 1,000 cover mark; Spice Market does about 300 covers every night.”

The high numbers are due to the relationship each restaurant general manager has carved out with its loyalists. “Sustainability comes from the involvement of the restaurant general managers. They are well-known in the market – guests call and text them directly to make reservations. They take more reservations than the reservation agents,” Narayanan claims.

Gyu checks his smartphone and adds to the discussion stating: “My sous chef in Market by Jean Georges spoke to 10 tables last night. We always do this, and then they share their feedback with me, and that isn’t even a front office staff. Over here, we have a culture where everybody is encouraged to speak to the clients. Ask them what’s good and, more importantly, what’s not good, and why. Then we make sure to make the changes; our reaction is instant.”

Looking forward, the F&B team is weighing up its options for 2017, bidding for new events and business. “We are looking toward next year, new partnerships and a few new projects in the pipeline. It is going to grow, there is no going backwards or sideways, that’s for sure,” Narayanan concludes.

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