x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Four Qatar franchises are bucking the trend of poor service in the region. The outlets have scored the highest globally among the 2,000 branches of the United States restaurant chain Applebee’s.

Mike Archer, president of Applebee's chain of American food restaurants. Razan Alzayani / The National
Mike Archer, president of Applebee's chain of American food restaurants. Razan Alzayani / The National

It may come as a surprise to those who have encountered and been left frustrated by the mediocre levels of customer service often found in this region, but four Qatar franchises are bucking the trend.

The outlets have scored the highest globally among the 2,000 branches of the United States restaurant chain Applebee’s.

Gary Moore, Applebee’s regional general manager, attributes the accolade for Qatar’s branches to staff retention, an important quality given that the chain characterises itself as a local neighbourhood restaurant that welcomes repeat customers.

“In Qatar, there is a good team of people been who have been there for a long time,” Mr Moore says.

“The management team has been there for seven or eight years. So, yes, they should know your name [when you walk in] and they should know what you had last time; not in a mechanical way but because they’ve had a chat, because they’ve talked to you.”

Applebee’s, a chain of “casual dining” restaurants that serves up steaks, ribs and beef burgers, has been in the region since 2007 but in 2011 embarked on an expansion plan, aiming to double the number of outlets in the Middle East to 45 by 2015, adding four or five new venues a year.

The chain currently has 34 restaurants in the Middle East, including five in the UAE – one in Dubai and Al Ain and Sharjah, two in Abu Dhabi. Another one will open in Sharjah by the end of the year.

Rather than opting to locate the new restaurants in the swankiest malls, Applebee’s favours less central sites, striving to become “the pre-eminent neighbourhood restaurant”.

“In a restaurant like this we would have customers coming back several times potentially in a week and that’s really the type of customers we want,” Mr Moore says, sipping sparkling water at the Applebee’s in Mushrif Mall. “Most of our expansion is going to come outside those city centres.”

Each new restaurant generates 50 to 100 jobs. But given that the company does its best to find local suppliers, the management reckons that the financial effect on the local economy is higher. For example, the furniture in the Mushrif Mall outlet is made in Abu Dhabi, the bread is supplied by a baker in Dubai, and local architects and builders are hired to design and build every restaurant. “Indirect employment is fairly large,” Mr Moore says.

The “casual dining” concept may sit at odds with the fine dining, upmarket establishments the UAE is perhaps better known for. But there is demand for its type of food. And Applebee’s may appeal to the other categories of tourist that Dubai and Abu Dhabi want to attract as they boost visitor numbers by broadening their appeal to other categories other than luxury travellers.

“If you look like the fact we are expanding, it tells you it does” appeal to customers here, Mike Archer, Applebee’s president says. “It’s the flavour profiles, it’s the environment — there is a comfortableness to it. We’ve had a lot of success [especially regarding] how we integrate within neighbourhoods.”

Also surprising perhaps, given how Applebee’s is very American, is that Mr Archer plans to introduce some of the initiatives developed in the Middle East restaurants back in the US, such as more home delivery.

“We think that’s an opportunity in the States,” he says. “The team here has taken it pretty far.”

Second is some of the dishes on the menu here.

“As we expand our footprint multinationally, we are trying to find other concepts and enrich it in the States,” Mr Archer says. “Korean barbecue is one that as I’m tasting I’m saying, ‘I’ve no idea why we wouldn’t have this back in the States’.”

The other thing that has inspired Mr Archer is the range of juices on offer in the Middle Eastern restaurants.

“We have done a really good job with our non-alcoholic beverage programme here and I think there is a real opportunity to take the development around the fresh juices and develop that back to the States,” he says. “What we do [in the US] on a non-alcoholic basis is rather pedestrian and I think there is a real opportunity for us to be able to appeal there as well.”

lgutcher@thenational.ae