x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Boutiques arrive with tea and sweets

New York stores hope to serve aspirational consumers in UAE with sophisticated taste, who are "looking for the best of the best."

New York's Chocolate Bar plans to open 30 cafes in the Middle East and North Africa.
New York's Chocolate Bar plans to open 30 cafes in the Middle East and North Africa.

The boutique cafes T Salon and Chocolate Bar may have only about five stores between them in the New York area, but that is not stopping their owners from planning to open dozens of outposts in the Middle East in the next few years to take advantage of the growing sophistication of consumers in places like Dubai.

"We have long had an abundance of American chains, the Dairy Queens and Starbucks of the world," said Mary Ghorbial, a UAE businesswoman who is going into partnership with Chocolate Bar to open 30 cafes across the region in the next decade. "But there is a clear market gap. There are not enough aspirational things, places with ambience." The UAE retail landscape is undergoing major growth with an estimated 4.2 million square metres of mall space under way in Dubai, including the giant Dubai Mall near the Burj Dubai and Mall of Arabia in Dubailand. Abu Dhabi, too, has major malls planned for Yas and Reem islands. After opening at Dubai Mall and Emaar's Old Town development, Chocolate Bar will open at the Pearl in Qatar in January and expand into Egypt and India in the coming years.

Ms Ghorbial said that these malls were interested in offering more than food courts and established chains. "We have a gap of boutique restaurants," she said. "If I want to go out with my friends after I buy a new Roberto Cavalli bag, I won't go to Starbucks. I want something different." Miriam Novalle, the founder of T Salon, is planning to open a handful of her tea-speciality shops at locations around Dubai, including the marina promenade. The New York store, located in the Chelsea Market, offers everything from green tea lattes to chrysanthemum flowers that unfurl in hot water. "I think it is the new frontier," she said of Dubai.

Ms Novalle said she made her way to the UAE after meeting a friend at a yoga retreat with Robert Thurman, the Buddhist father of Uma Thurman. "We were hiking around and she said to me that she introduces fabulous ideas to her client, who turned out to be a member of the Dubai royal family," she said. "They flew me out, wined and dined me. They told me they were looking for the best of the best." Ms Novalle, who has been in the tea business since the early 1990s - when green tea was not yet a household name - said that Dubai companies were scouring New York for restaurants, stores and cafes.

The start of Chocolate Bar's expansion into Dubai was equally fortuitous. In 2006, Ms Ghorbial had started doing research for creating her own chocolate venue. A marketing specialist by trade, she saw an opening for a high-end confectionery store that would capitalise on the gift-giving culture of the country and demand for more exclusive cafes. She came across Chocolate Bar after a Google search and made a call to New York.

There was only one problem: the founder of the cafe, Allison Nelson, had barely considered expanding within the US, much less into the Middle East. "I didn't agree at first," she said. "It was clear on the other side of the world." But after about four conversations, the two hit it off and a partnership was born. "Now, I can't get enough of it," Ms Nelson said. "I feel the world has got smaller in the last 10 years. There's this very international thing happening where people have lived in many different places. And chocolate and dessert are universal."

Still, the company has had to make several changes to fit into the local market. "We got rid of things that were too American," Ms Ghorbial said, listing the casualties: peanut butter, creme eggs, communal seating and prosciutto. They enhanced the luxury elements, as well as including chocolate-dipped dates, fondue and other local favourites. Azza Fahmy, the Egyptian jewellery designer, is creating the designs for the chocolate boxes.

"It's not a franchise," Ms Ghorbial said. "It's the same brand, but with local touches." @Email:bhope@thenational.ae