x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dubai restaurateurs plan expansion in London

The co-founders of the Dubai-based luxury Japanese eatery Okku want to open a restaurant in London later this year.

Markus Thesleff (left) and Ramzy Abdul Majeed (right) co-founder of the luxury OKKU restaurant at the Monarch hotel in Dubai.
Markus Thesleff (left) and Ramzy Abdul Majeed (right) co-founder of the luxury OKKU restaurant at the Monarch hotel in Dubai.

The founders of Okku, a luxury Japanese restaurant based in Dubai, aim to open an outlet in London this year. The move would be a departure from the typical retail model in the Emirates, where local retailers link up with big brands from the US and Europe and bring the concept to the Middle East.

"Dubai is a brand. Why not start a brand within a brand?," said Markus Thesleff, the co-founder of Okku, which opened in the Monarch Dubai hotel in February last year. Mr Thesleff and his fellow founder Ramzy Abdul Majeed are aiming to open the first London outlet by the end of this year, and one in Abu Dhabi next year. Retailers have had much success in the UAE, with double-digit annual sales growth prior to the economic downturn last year. International brands continue to look to it as well, and Dubai was rated the fourth most attractive destination for international brands, just behind London, Paris and New York.

Still, it is rare for a home-grown retail brand from the emirate to branch out, said Laurent-Patrick Gally, a retail analyst at Shuaa Capital. One example is the Japengo Cafe chain by BinHendi Enterprises, which is expanding across the GCC and plans to open in the Far East and the US. Mr Gally said the Okku brand had a good chance of success, based on the nature of the restaurant business. "When it is about entertainment, replicating these business concepts is easier than with other businesses. When you go to other urbanised areas, there is mix of population that is similar to the population melting-pot here. What people like in Dubai can be moved to New York and find people who like it, too."

New York is not on their radar yet, but other potential spots include Mumbai, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Zurich, and Sao Paolo, said Mr Thesleff. The pair plan to open three outlets each year over the next two or three years, said Mr Abdul Majeed. But London was the current priority, he said. "For us, to create a brand, it is important for us to have international exposure. That is why London is a natural extension for us. We know the market, we know the place and we know the customer base."

Mr Abdul Majeed and Mr Thesleff met in 1995, playing rugby in the UK. Mr Abdul Majeed came to Dubai about five years ago and first discussed a possible venture in the Emirates with Mr Thesleff in 2006. Mr Thesleff, who is originally from Finland, was no stranger to the luxury food and beverage industry. He opened Pangaea, a private members club and lounge in New York City in 2001. He later launched two other clubs in London, AvivA and Maya.

The pair looked at the booming economy in Dubai and thought it would be the ideal breeding ground for a global brand, Mr Abdul Majeed said. "From the beginning, it was designed to be a brand launched in Dubai, nurtured in Dubai, and taken worldwide from Dubai. For us it was leveraging riding on the back of the Dubai brand, and then taking that story around the world. "For us, [the brand] is a powerful asset," he said.

The pair spent about US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to build the first Okku restaurant and hired 80 employees from 22 countries. The restaurant serves its high-end cuisine to between 7,000 and 9,000 diners a month, said Mr Abdul Majeed. The pair would not discuss revenues but said the operation became profitable this year. They are also introducing new restaurant concepts this year in the UAE: a contemporary Chinese restaurant, called Chinoize; a sports bar, a steak and seafood restaurant; and two or three beach clubs. They hope those chains, if launched and successful, might spread beyond the UAE, too.

"And why shouldn't they?" Mr Thesleff said. "You've got brands like Emirates, Etihad and Jumeirah. Why can't you do that with a restaurant?" aligaya@thenational.ae