x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Cupcake craze prompts bake-off between UAE cafes

The Life: Faiza Taha, owner of Mama's Cupcakes in Abu Dhabi, competes with larger chains in an increasingly competitive market.

Faiza Taha, the proprietor of Mama's Cupcakes, advocates the personal touch when dealing with customers. Razan Alzayani / The National
Faiza Taha, the proprietor of Mama's Cupcakes, advocates the personal touch when dealing with customers. Razan Alzayani / The National

Faiza Taha, a retired school administrator, likes to give her new customers freebies.

A few weeks ago, she offered a small ginger cookie to a visitor at her Mama's Cupcakes cafe in Abu Dhabi, but it didn't have the right crunch. She was not pleased.

"I know why," says Ms Taha, 62. "The jar lid was not shut tightly."

So she dug out another cookie and offered it to the visitor. It was definitely crunchy. And Ms Taha was relieved.

It is the personal touch that distinguishes small cafes such as Ms Taha's from bigger chains, even as the cupcake craze picks up in the UAE. The sector has a relatively low barrier for entry, especially for people who like to bake sweet treats.

But running a restaurant or cafe is not easy. Keeping up with the likes and dislikes of customers, bringing to the shelves unusual offerings and adding value to the food without losing sight of the core business are among the ways that can help a business stand out from the crowd.

"Themed cupcake shops are particularly popular in the UAE as consumers seek out a new experience combined with the indulgence of a cupcake," says Sana Toukan, a research manager at Euromonitor International, in Dubai.

There has been a surge in the number of cafes and cupcake shops around the country over the past few years, driven by high demand.

The market size for cafes in the UAE is forecast to reach US$498.6 million (Dh1.83 billion) in total sales by 2016, Ms Toukan says.

Despite the growing competition, Ms Taha is unfazed.

A couple of months after she opened, the upmarket cupcake chain Bloomsbury's unveiled its facade on the next block.

Slotted as the chain's fifth store in the UAE, it is expected to open in a month.

"People will buy what they like," says Ms Taha, a Palestinian-Lebanese.

Bloomsbury's was in the news a few months ago for creating the world's costliest cupcake with gold foil and other exotic ingredients.

Freshness, quality of ingredients, size and taste of the cupcakes, along with "customer services, our customisation, ability to change and adapt our menu is an advantage [over] an independent cafe brand", says Shafeena Yusuf Ali, the creator of Bloomsbury's.

From cupcakes and coffee, the chain has expanded to breakfast, along with sit-down nouveau English afternoon tea, she says.

On a much smaller scale, Ms Taha tries to match her competitor in quality, quantity and ambience at Mama's Cupcakes.

On any given day, it has at least 12 types of cupcake, including her special salty one with pepper and walnut, others with pink, green and blue swirls of cream, and three kinds of biscuits.

"I try them at home; if I like it, I make them here," she says.

Growing up by the sea in Tyre, in southern Lebanon, she remembers the long nights during Ramadan when, as an adolescent, she was allowed to spend time with neighbours making special Eid sweets. Since then, she has experimented with numerous recipes.

Mama's Cupcakes is not the first restaurant that Ms Taha has operated. From 2001 to 2006, she ran La Quebrada, a restaurant in Khalidiyah Mall, until the landlord asked her to vacate the space to give way to another business.

In her new venture, Ms Taha has been particular about the pink-and-white striped interiors and pale-green cabinets at the tiny shop, in which she has invested Dh100,000 on fittings alone.

Located in an office block off Muroor Road, her cafe is already attracting about 30 visitors a day. She employs one chef and will add one more employee in a few months. She is also scouting for a location for a second branch.

Her confidence stems from her understanding of her core business, and she will not diversify into sandwiches despite customers asking for them.

What she wants are pumpkin and grape jams on the shelves.

"The challenge is to keep up the good taste and good service and add things to change the menu," Ms Taha says.