x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

WIth the launch of UAE sushi restaurant Chez Sushi, is the era of the Dubai or Abu Dhabi-born restaurant franchise upon us?

The restaurateur Raed Dabbous at one of his Chez Sushi outlets in Dubai. Mona Al Marzooqi/ The National
The restaurateur Raed Dabbous at one of his Chez Sushi outlets in Dubai. Mona Al Marzooqi/ The National

The UAE dining scene has long been about bringing in well-known restaurants from abroad. So is the era of the Dubai or Abu Dhabi-born restaurant franchise now upon us?

Raed Dabbous thinks so. Over the past year, he and his business partner Hiba Kosta have been developing Chez Sushi, a UAE sushi restaurant with a twist he hopes will spread across the Middle East via franchising.

This is not Mr Dabbous’s first foray into the restaurant business. In 2000 he set up the first trendy Sho Cho restaurant and lounge, which is now in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. He is also behind Flooka seafood restaurant in Dubai and opening soon in Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s Loca Mexican.

“It’s been a very, very difficult mould to break,” he concedes, explaining that Sho Cho had to compete with the well-known Nobu and Zuma brands.

“For people like us, local entrepreneurs, we really believed we were as good as if not better than a lot of major franchises,” he says.

Now, with established brands across Dubai, people are looking beyond names to what is good, he believes. Moreover, Dubai is now producing its own marques that are not only sought after among other Gulf states but, in the case of Just Falafel, in Europe and the US too.

“In the past year or so, there is much more acceptance,” Mr Dabbous says. “Now as long as people hear good things about a place we have a chance. Before we never had a chance.”

Because Sho Cho is licensed, it is hard to grow rapidly. So Mr Dabbous and his partner took all the franchisable elements of that business and transferred them to Chez Sushi.

The added twist is the “make your own” roll element – inspired by the US Chipotle chain – where you build your own meal. At Chez Sushi you choose your own combination of rice (brown or white), vegetables and protein (fish, meat), which the chef then pops into a US$25,000 machine to be rolled and another machine to cut into slices. There are a variety of dressings. “Who wants soya all the time?” he asks.

Mr Dabbous wanted to keep things simple with just a sushi bar, but Ms Kosta made the case for installing kitchens. She won the argument, tripling costs, but Mr Dabbous admits she was right: the menu items such as rock shrimp tempura are selling well and boosting revenue.

On their working partnership Mr Dabbous says he comes from the business side – thinking dollars and cents – whereas she provides the culinary flair and creativity. She sourced the very cute sushi and edamame bean cushions that adorn Chez Sushi’s benches, and vetoed the food images Mr Dabbous wanted to put on the menu, saying they were “tacky.” The unusual brown rice is also her concoction.

Mr Dabbous has limited his creativity to his wasabi-flavoured ice-cream invention and the procurement of “chorks” – chopstick forks – a device he disappointedly reports has not caught on. He is, though, an avid fisherman with the fish he catches often ending up in his restaurants.

“It’s so fresh I have to go and catch it myself,” he jokes.

Chez Sushi’s UAE growth will be organically funded by their own cash, Mr Dabbous says. This will allow them to cement the brand’s reputation. There are currently two Dubai branches with plans for six more this year. The concept will also arrive in Abu Dhabi.

Instead of going to a company that specialises in producing franchise models, the Chez Sushi system was created in-house, offering fully-fledged restaurants complete with kitchens, local outlets with sushi counters only, and delivery options. The first franchise deal has just been signed for Bahrain.

However, Mr Dabbous is cautious about proliferating too quickly. “The way the dynamics of this market are, if you don’t open 20 [outlets] in the first three months you are a loser,” he explains.” You have to expand quickly yet at the same time I really believe there will be a bubble that will burst. There was a real estate boom, now there is a restaurant boom; everybody wants to have a restaurant. I think there will be a lot of people who will fall flat on their faces.”

This confidence comes partly from Ms Kosta’s flair, and having weathered the financial downturn.

“Revenues declined tremendously but we were never about hype,” says Mr Dabbous. “Our customers have always been the locals [and expats] who live here – not the tourists. And we have never outpriced ourselves. We are a business that has proved that it can go through [an economic] cycle and that’s really important. A lot of people were wiped out but we were still profitable in the worst days.”