Interview: Naim Maadad on the Middle East hospitality landscape

Naim Maadad talks about the regional hospitality landscape and making his London debut

Executive interviews, Restaurants

Born into a hospitality family, Naim Maadad initially rejected what was to become his career, and eventually his passion. His family owned and ran 11 restaurants in Adelaide, Australia, but he decided that he wanted to be a politician. However, two years into an economics degree at Flinders University, he decided to quit and enroll at Le Cordon Bleu hospitality school. After graduating and working with his family for a while, Maadad went on to work for international hotel chains and resorts in Australia, achieving a great deal in a short period of time: “By the time I left Conrad I was heading F&B at a very young age (26).”

Maadad’s first stint abroad was the Yokohama Bay Sheraton opening: “It was my first stint abroad; I was young, no Japanese at all, no international experience and I landed there.” Then came a call from Philippe Charraudeau, the opening general manager of the Burj Al Arab. Maadad elaborates: “We’d worked together before. He called me up and said ‘I’m doing an opening. Don’t say yes or no. Have a look at this link and tell me when you want to join.’”

In the end, the move was a short-lived one: “I did 14 months. I couldn’t hack it. Sheraton and Conrad had a lot of structure and I’m generally very disciplined. Jumeirah at the time only had Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab so they weren’t really a company. They were an aspiring company.”

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Still, the region had made an impression on him and after another stint in Japan, this time at the Hilton Tokyo where he was the hotel group’s youngest GM, Maadad joined Six Senses where he was the area GM for the Middle East and was part of the opening team at Zighy Bay: “Within a period of four years at Six Senses, I started as area GM and by the time I left I was MD of the company. So I did extremely well with them. It’s also where I met my current business partners.” Other moves with Minor Group and Rixos followed but the plan was always to come back to Dubai.

Maadad started Gates Hospitality in 2010 and launched the company’s first project in 2012 with Ultra Brasserie. In addition, Gates Hospitality is the parent company of Reform Social & Grill Dubai, Dubai’s first gastropub and home-grown brands such as Bistro Des Arts, folly by Nick and Scott and, most recently, Via Veneto in Dubai’s Downtown neighbourhood.

Explaining the thought process behind each of his concepts, he says: “I’m not selling brands. I don’t have 20 Carluccio’s. It’s not about that. The site normally dictates what the brand is going to be”.

The entrepreneur is thorough in his research and analysis of each location he considers. Maadad explains: “Before opening Bistro Des Arts, I spent days on end there trying to understand who goes to that area. I look at the location and who uses it and determine the brand that would work there. It’s homework and it’s understanding your local demographics, the spending, the audience, the parking and the competition.”

Factors such as rent and licensing make finding the appropriate location for a concept in Dubai particularly challenging, and waiting for the right one often means losing a contract. Maadad explains: “I had the rights for Beefbar for three years and I didn’t do it. Now they’re coming with someone else. I couldn’t find the right location for Beefbar. I said to the owning company of the brand ‘I could open one tomorrow but if you’re going to close in three years, who’s going to win?’”

He continues: “This is where I’ve been very successful. Don’t do it for the sake of saying we have this. Do it for the sake of the next five years and knowing that it’s going to make money.” Maadad adds: “There’s longevity and relevance to the market with all the brands. Every one of them has a story. They have depth, there’s a story behind them. It’s not just ‘let’s open a restaurant and see how it goes’.”

Story or not, no concept is immune to market forces, and Maadad hints that change could be afoot at Reform: “Watch this space. This space could be something else very soon.” He continues: “In Dubai, we’re spoilt for choice and now if you don’t bark loud and fast and support it with backbone, you lose because there are so many people barking. Reform is an institution and the institution is ready for a bit of an evolution.”

This is a town where, if a brand doesn’t evolve, it runs the risk of being forgotten: “Brand loyalty in Dubai is absolutely nothing. There is no brand loyalty. People just follow where there is value, consistency and they need to have a story because without them, people take you for granted.”

He adds: “Value, variety, efficiency and recognition are the pillars of my brand. We always say innovate, belong, enrich engage. That’s what we’re about.”

A Gates concept that ticks all of those boxes is folly, headed by chefs Nick Alvis and Scott Price and sommelier Viktorija Paplauskiene. Maadad says: “When we opened folly, I said folly would change the food scene in Dubai and I’m very proud to say that from a food perspective, we’re there. There are very few people who can compete with us. I can name them and I don’t need a full hand.”

Though he admires what Dubai has achieved, Maadad doesn’t feel enough support is being given to entrepreneurs. He goes on to say: “The way the business model is built is not supporting the industry because unless I have part-timers, my payroll cannot be sustainable throughout the week and the weekend. During the weekend I have this many covers and during the week I have this many covers. So you cater for in between and you get hit.”

As well as being beneficial for independent entrepreneurs like himself, allowing restaurants to hire casual staff during busy periods would also benefit customers: “It would be a great help for us because on the weekend I can employ another 10 people who will actually deliver a better service for the brand here and Dubai, and they have another life. So when they’re working at university or in the office, they’re talking about my venues and the experience.”

Maadad is also cognisant of the fact that 80% of the people on his payroll don’t have the luxury of experiencing hospitality in Dubai: “Growing up in the industry with my family, after service I used to go somewhere for a pizza or a pasta or a drink. That’s how we lived the experience. We were also customers. We had service but these guys here don’t have it. The cost of living here prohibits them.”

The entrepreneur is also frustrated at the lack of a level playing field when it comes to certain competitors in the market. He says: “We shouldn’t be competing with government. We shouldn’t have to compete with a government entity on a restaurant front or a spa front. They shouldn’t be allowed to do these businesses. Stay the landlord, stay the owner, but don’t compete with me on a chocolate shop because when you compare their P/L and mine, mine is a lot longer.”

This year, Maadad has his sights set further afield — London’s Covent Garden to be exact — where he will open Red Farm. The New York-based concept is the brainchild of Ed Schoenfeld and Joe Ng. The restaurant serving playful Chinese cuisine, popular with New York’s social set, will be housed in a multi-storey venue next door to Balthazar, another NY import, on Russell Street.

Explaining the thought process behind his new project, Maadad says: “I think diversifying the portfolios is really what I’m trying to do. It’s not about closing Dubai down. I think Dubai will come back strong. But in the interim, you need to service your accounts, your payroll, so what I’m trying to do is balance our portfolio with locations that operate year round.”

As always, Maadad has done his homework and made decisions with the aim of minimising the possibility of a negative outcome: “If you have the right location, the right plan, the right team players, wait for what? I’m entering a new market and I’m taking with me all the big pushes that I can. I didn’t go through a secondary location. I went to the heart. The same goes fro the brand; it’s a very successful brand in New York. So I’m controlling the risks.”

Maadad says that the next project in London will be one of Gates Hospitality’s concepts from Dubai and it seems there are more international projects on the cards. He reveals: “London is only the beginning. By 2018/2019 I’d like to have five concepts in London. Exactly the same philosophy as I’m doing here, it’s not about growing anything in particular. It’s about finding the vacuum and plugging in the solution for it. Australia will be the market we will enter. This is all within 2020.”

Despite his success, there’s something one of the city’s most successful entrepreneurs wishes he had done differently: “I should have started on my own when I was younger. There’s only so much learning you can do in organisations and the learning that you do on your own is not only expensive but it keeps you up at night and you’re not worried about your boss, you’re worried about your business.”

Maadad’s outlook is positive ahead of this year that, if he has his way, will be full of bold moves. He notes: “I’m blessed because I have people who believe in me. Do I always achieve what I want? No. Do I endeavour? Absolutely. It’s about pushing yourself to the max, and not forgetting that you have obligations with your employees and your family.”

Speaking of family, did any of Maadad’s siblings also end up in hospitality? “No, they’re all wise,” he laughs.

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