F&B Focus: Gone with the Wyndham

Prolific restaurant developer Duncan Fraser-Smith tells all on his most 'disruptive' move as he joins The First Group as director of global food and beverage

Hotelier express, Executive interviews, Restaurants, First group, Wyndham hotel group, Wyndham hotels, Wyndham hotels group

Last month, restaurateur Duncan Fraser-Smith shocked the regional F&B community by announcing that he had been appointed director of global food and beverage for The First Group. The property development firm’s new F&B arm will be tasked with developing F&B concepts for its upcoming projects as well as repositioning restaurants housed in their existing properties.

One of the imminently opening properties is Tryp by Wyndham, located in Dubai’s Barsha Heights neighbourhood. Fraser-Smith sits on one of the comfortable couches at Local, one of the hotel’s three F&B concepts that he helped develop, and speaks about how the opportunity with The First Group presented itself.

“Initially I started consulting for The First Group but when I met the team and saw the growth potential that they have, and the fact that they’re committed to growing a sustainable, feasible mid to upscale F&B division, it was a no-brainer,” he says.

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The new move is also a change in market sector for Fraser-Smith: “What I do like is that we’re playing in the mid-market which I said for many, many years is undersupplied. So there’s an opportunity to look at the existing and upcoming portfolio of hotels that The First Group has and go ‘what can I put in there that’s different, exciting and relevant to the market place without resorting to branding and franchising?’”

‘Local’ is the embodiment of this school of thought and is conceptualised to support local farmers and produce and service the local community. Fraser-Smith explains: “The food is real, there’s nothing pretentious about what we do. The price points are going to be disruptive in the industry. For instance, everywhere has a happy hour but if you come to Local, we’re happy all the time.”

Pricing was a major factor with a focus on cost-minimisation and bringing everything down from a cost perspective. “You’ve got to create that area where your price point is perceived to be value for money and then over-compensate with what you give. Where we sit here, you’ll be hard pushed to see a dish on this menu over AED100. But the quality is there and so are the stories behind where all the produce comes from.”

Being able to attract and retain a loyal following from the local residents is key, according to Fraser-Smith: “We just want to provide a place where you can come, sit with your laptop, get something to eat, have a beer, a great experience and not feel like you’ve been damaged in the pocket for coming.”

The 650-key hotel is also home to a ‘Coachella meets Ibiza’ Spanish tapas bar called LiQd which is located on the pool deck. For the hotel’s third F&B concept, The First Group is working in partnership with Fighterbrands’ Joey Ghazal. For the beverage-driven BarBary, Ghazal, the restaurateur behind The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill, will come in and oversee the management of the space on a daily basis. Talking about the venue conceived in conjunction with Ghazal, Fraser-Smith says: “When you see the space, you’ll see we even managed to incorporate what looks like a food truck on the terrace. So it’s quite an interesting space. It’s a very cool 1920s, vintage, retro Parisian style bar. What we’ve done is create three uniquely distinct venues.”

Local is set to open in mid-September and both LiQd and BarBary are set to launch in mid-October.

What the hotel doesn’t have is an all-day dining restaurant. “I have preached this for many years and it’s the first time I get to put it into practice,” says Fraser-Smith. “As The First Group, we will not be doing all-day dining restaurants. Every restaurant has to have the ability to stand on its own. It’s driven by its food and its price-point. Anyone who uses the term all-day dining, that’s money in the swear jar. It’s a dirty word.”

Fraser-Smith is keen to avoid the impersonal and wasteful nature of buffet-style concepts: “My big belief and the foundation of the food and beverage division within The First Group is concepts with soul. Which has been my mantra for many years. It’s got to have heart. Buffets these days just don’t do that for the casual diner. We want to be able to cook your food fresh and have it delivered to your table.”

This ethos is perhaps not what people would expect to find in an up-and-coming neighbourhood of Barsha Heights. The area isn’t currently on Dubai’s dining radar but a slew of hotel openings and the recent rebranding of the area is set to change all that. Just 10 minutes down the road is a perfect example. Fraser-Smith says: “Look at JLT. You provide the right concept at the right price point and people will come. The location is terrible but Alex and Fay [M Management Company’s sibling restaurateurs Alex and Fay Economides], hats off to them because that’s where we’re wanting to position ourselves. In that space where it might not be A1 premium real-estate, if the product is good, the service is good and the staff is knowledgeable, then people come back. It’s that emotional connection.”

Not content with breaking the rules with regards to concepts, pricing and location, Fraser-Smith has also turned the hotel’s F&B organisational structure on its head. “One thing I have done is I’ve removed all the F&B infrastructure. So there is no executive chef and no food and beverage manager. There will be a chef de cuisine and there will be a restaurant manager and they will be accountable for the performance of their restaurant.”

By doing this, Fraser-Smith aims to create a mentality of independence without actually operating independently, saying: “Each outlet is accountable and reportable for its performance. As a result, the talent that we’ve been able to attract in  key positions has been phenomenal.”

Wyndham Hotel Group has appointed Esmeralda Van Wyck as cluster director of restaurants and bars with each outlet reporting directly to her. Fraser-Smith elaborates: “Each outlet will be responsible for the promotions they want to run, how they want to run the business, it’s set against metrics and we will incentivise them openly to perform. So we’re disrupting the market.”

“What I enjoy and what I look forward to enjoying more is being challenged. We did this fairly quickly but now, we’ve got a team in place with the Wyndham Hotel Group so I can throw an idea at them and say ‘What about this?’ They can say ‘No, I don’t like that.’ And that’s good. It’s checks and balances along the way.”

Despite his impressive track record, Fraser-Smith concedes that he isn’t infallible: “I cannot say that everything that I put forward is going to be right. If I came up with a concept and went to The First Group and said this is going to cost AED 8 million. I think it’s going to work but it’s going to be a huge risk. I would probably talk myself out of it because that’s not where we play. Give me a room with no marble flooring, give me a space with no false ceilings. That excites me now and that’s where I think we can go.”

According to Euromonitor data in KPMG’s ‘Hungry for More?’ 2016 UAE Food & Beverage Report, the country’s F&B industry will be worth AED 82 billion (US$ 2.2 billion) by 2020, up from AED 52 billion ($1.4 billion) in 2015. The figure is no doubt bolstered by projected spending from an influx of tourists expected for Expo 2020 Dubai.

Fraser-Smith says: “In the next three years, we’ll open 35 more outlets. Some we will look to franchise off as concepts and then there’s something very big in the future that I can’t talk about right now.”

Apparently something else he can’t talk about is The One Dubai Marina. Opening in Q2 of 2018, the property is set to wow the market with a global first, according to The First Group. All Fraser-Smith is at liberty to say is, “It’s worth the wait.”

Still, it’s no good having groundbreaking concepts and industry-disrupting operational structures if customer-facing staff fail at the final hurdle. The property has an informal approach to hospitality and Fraser-Smith has placed a particular importance on training and education: “I need to get the team on the ground to engage. If they’re not engaged, it’s never going to work. I’m actually training the staff on my hospitality vs service theory. We’re engaged in the act of communication with our guests, not in the act of serving them. That will be the difference.”

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