“Made in Dubai?” Why the Next Great Foodservice Concept Could Come From the Gulf

One of the world’s most vital global trading hubs, Dubai has long been known as a place to find imported goods from across the globe, with even corner grocery stores seemingly stocking items from dozens of countries. Nowhere is this more true than in the foodservice industry, where restaurant concepts from around the world can be found in malls across Dubai and the wider UAE, serving an extraordinarily cosmopolitan population in a market where dining out and shopping are national pastimes.

In recent years, however, a number of successful homegrown concepts have emerged, led by local hospitality players such as Jumeirah Group, as well as massive property developers such as Emaar Properties. What’s more, several of these concepts, most notably Jumeirah Group’s ‘the noodle house’, have laid out ambitious international expansion plans. Long a magnet for the world’s most successful retail and foodservice concepts, Dubai appears poised to become a major incubator of new concepts, as the emirate’s vast concentration of retail, foodservice, and hospitality expertise begins to drive the next phase of innovation.

The next Emirates?

With its rapidly-expanding global presence, prominent branding, and close ties with the government of Dubai, Jumeirah Group owes much in common with Emirates Group, a global travel/leisure powerhouse which has done much to build Dubai’s “brand,” above all through its Emirates airline subsidiary. While best-known for iconic hotel properties like the Burj al-Arab in Dubai, the company also features a restaurant division, one which operates a number of in-house brands, most notably the southeast Asian casual dining chain the noodle house.

First launched in 2002, Noodle House now boasts 19 outlets across the Gulf region, as well as three in India. What’s more, the chain’s expansion is expected to accelerate dramatically in coming years, with 102 restaurants reportedly in development, including 27 in the UK. Growing awareness of Southeast Asian cuisine has provided a major boost, with the chain’s menu combining dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, among others. Likewise, noodle house’s sophisticated-yet-informal décor, often featuring communal tables, an open kitchen, and a takeout menu, represents yet another example of a chain combining a relatively innovative, upscale menu (in terms of both presentation and selection) with a more informal service model, combining elements of both full-service and even fast casual dining.

More importantly, noodle house represents a further evolution of one of Dubai’s most prominent brands. Already a global hospitality powerhouse, Jumeirah Group now aims to become a global chained foodservice player. In this respect it represents a significant leap forward for the Dubai foodservice industry, where homegrown chains remain few and far between, as well as an intriguing development in the broader hotel industry, where differentiation through in-house foodservice offerings remains a key component of strategy for every major player.

If you can make it in Dubai…

Jumeirah’s global restaurant ambitions stretch beyond the noodle house brand, with its upscale Italian concept Urbano set to expand to Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman later this year. What’s more, the appetite for global expansion extends across the Dubai restaurant scene, with Japanese fine dining player Okku announcing plans for global expansion earlier this month, while Abu Dhabi-based fast food chain Just Falafel continues to extend its reach, with plans for outlets in the UK and Saudi Arabia adding to its current presence in the Gulf region.

This new assertiveness represents a natural progression. While the UAE has long been known for trading houses and property developers able to bring in retail and foodservice franchise concepts from every corner of the globe, rising competition has fuelled a push for ever more differentiation, while years of success have fed global ambitions, leading more operators to look to create in-house, full-owned concepts. Similarly, the hyper-cosmopolitan, “work hard, play hard” culture of Dubai in particular has created one of the most demanding, jaded groups of restaurant consumers to be found anywhere on Earth. As operators look to stand out in a crowded field where preferences can change overnight, the case for wholly-owned concepts has become more compelling. As more local concepts take root, international expansion in turn becomes almost inevitable for those chains able to stand out in the emirate’s remarkably diverse restaurant scene.

Given the vast cohort of seasoned restaurant veterans to be found in Dubai, it is no surprise that more and more will turn their attentions towards creating their own concepts in coming years. Likewise, the drive for differentiation will likely lead the largest mall operators to turn their attention towards importing unique talent, rather than new franchises, with an aim towards developing all new, differentiated concepts, in much the same way luxury hotel properties have long collaborated with well-known chefs. Already a focal point for chains the world over, over the next five years Dubai and the wider UAE is expected to become a hotbed of new concept development, with its influence over global restaurant strategy likely to expand exponentially.