x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

At long last, Mr Jones

From cracked floors to melted ice cream, it has taken 18 months of hard work and investment for Yunib Siddiqui to launch his high-end supermarket in Abu Dhabi.

Yunib Siddiqui, front, owner of the Abu Dhabi boutique food store Jones the Grocer.
Above, The store has a full-service restaurant that offers a menu of imported recipes, including one of Abu Dhabi's few English breakfasts.
Yunib Siddiqui, front, owner of the Abu Dhabi boutique food store Jones the Grocer. Above, The store has a full-service restaurant that offers a menu of imported recipes, including one of Abu Dhabi's few English breakfasts.

It is 9:37am. Behind a stainless steel counter, five workers in crisp white shirts and black aprons are scurrying back and forth. Sandwiches are being wrapped with paper. Label cards are placed in front of pristine rows of tarts and cupcakes behind polished glass. And the wood and steel shelves that line the 340-square-metre store's walls are stocked with gourmet goodies ? from saffron-flavoured candy floss to stove-top Italian coffee makers.

Within minutes, the first customers begin to trickle through the sliding glass doors. After more than a year of hard work, Jones the Grocer, a boutique supermarket and restaurant in Abu Dhabi, is open for business. "I feel really good," the store's owner, Yunib Siddiqui, said during the store's grand opening this week. "To be honest, it's been going on so long that I got to the stage where I was probably like some of the customers: 'When is it going to open? You keep saying it's going to open and it hasn't'."

When The National first reported on his entrepreneurial odyssey in April, Mr Siddiqui, a 40-year-old Briton, slowly saw his ambition of launching a franchise of the Australian upmarket grocery store draw closer to reality. He spent months filling out stacks of paperwork, searching for a sponsor and taking care of start-up costs, such as the Dh18,000 spent on licensing fees to establish his own grocery store and cafe. After receiving to the keys to the store ? located in Abu Dhabi near Muroor and 15th streets in the Mubadala building ? Mr Siddiqui thought he was off and running. But since then he encountered new obstacles when hiring staff, building the store and importing the gourmet products, which delayed his opening date of June 15 by more than three months.

Indeed, Mr Siddiqui's perseverance may prove helpful and inspiring for any would-be entrepreneur. "It's been a challenge, and I expected it to be a challenge," he said. "But I believe that once you start trading, it gets easier." Still, Mr Siddiqui explained, launching Jones the Grocer has been anything but simple. One major task was hiring 16 employees, from chefs to sales clerks, for the combination grocery store and cafe. Finding people was the easy part, he says.

"Because of the recession, it has not been that difficult," he explained. "A lot of employers are letting staff go. I guess if I had done this two years ago, I would have found it very hard." The task got complicated when transferring his staff from their former employers to his business licence, and moving them from Dubai ? where most of his workers came from ? to Abu Dhabi. For example, he needed to find accommodation for his staff in Abu Dhabi, where available housing has long been in short supply. His new hires didn't have time to find a place to live, he said.

"Their employers never give them any time off," he said. "They have to work through their notice period and they can't take any leave." Although some of his employees were able to find homes, Mr Siddiqui still needed to rent two studios in the Mushrif area of the capital, at Dh70,000 each per year. "It's costing a fortune," he said. Mr Siddiqui knew there would be fees involved in securing visas for his employees, usually Dh6,000 each. But when an employee's situation did not fit the traditional mould, there were hidden, unexplained costs.

One of his employees, for example, had been working for two years at a cafe in the UAE, but was out of a job when the business shut down. "When when we went to renew his visa, his visa fee was Dh11,000 when it should be Dh6,000," Mr Siddiqui remembered. "And the reason we were given was because he was looking for a new job within the three-year period." Mr Siddiqui asked his previous employer to pay the outstanding amount, but they refused. So, rather than leaving the employee without a job, he paid the extra amount and his employee agreed to work off the extra expense over time. Bringing in products to stock his shelves also proved difficult.

The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and customs officers were used to dealing only with big hypermarkets, which imported crates of goods from single destinations. So when Mr Siddiqui tried to import small quantities of select products, which came from China, Greece and Italy, but were routed through Australia, his requests did not fall in line with the rules. Customs agents said they needed separate shipping documents for each product from each country they originated from. However, the import processes through Australia did not allow for that.

Now, instead of getting supplies from the warehouse in Australia, Mr Siddiqui is forced to ship more goods directly from the original supplier in its home country to accommodate documentation requirements. The process adds another 10 to 15 per cent on his shipping costs, he said. And last Tuesday, when some of his supplies finally arrived, the goods were spoiled and unsaleable. A shipment including homemade ice cream, frozen pastas, fudge and pastry dough arrived in a poorly-refrigerated van, and the dry ice had disappeared, Mr Siddiqui said.

"The ice cream was all liquid and warm," he said. "The frozen pasta was all swollen. The bags were all swollen up, because it was full of warm air." Much of the US$1,200 (Dh4,408) shipment had to be thrown away. The freezer in the back corner of his store sits empty, he said, and he still has not received an explanation from his logistics provider. "The problem is there is no accountability," Mr Siddiqui explained. "And nobody really knows who is responsible."

Mr Siddiqui also hit some major snags when ordering equipment. He bought two top-of-the line industrial pastry ovens from the famous German baking-equipment company, MIWE, through a Kuwait-based distributor. For a price of ?24,000 (Dh129,700) he purchased two ovens, and warranty and servicing for a year, for which he paid the distributor 85 per cent upfront. But 12 weeks passed, and Mr Siddiqui still had not received the equipment, he said. "I called up MIWE directly, and I said, 'What the hell's going on? You've got a distributor but he's not supplying me.' And they then tell me that he's gone bust."

At first, MIWE did not have any of the ovens Mr Siddiqui ordered in stock, and would not give him his equipment. Eventually, the company sent Mr Siddiqui two units which had been used for exhibition purposes. Then he received an invoice for the full amount. "I said, 'I paid your distributor, and I think you should cover it. This should be your problem.' And they turned around and said, 'You've got to pay for them'."

MIWE is also asking him to pay ?11,000 for the warranty, he said. Fitting out the store was also a complicated process. At first, Jones the Grocer was scheduled to open its doors on June 15, but that date got pushed back a month, then by another month. Mr Siddiqui said the delays stemmed from the extra time it took to get construction plans approved, the to-and-fro between the landlord, consultancies and relevant ministries just to figure out the required steps and paperwork to get an approval.

Also, because his chosen site on the ground floor of an office building was not designed for a retail business, it took more construction to put in toilets and fix the floor for the store, he said. Then, after flooring had been installed, another problem arose. After his staff began bringing furniture into the store, Mr Siddiqui began to notice that the floor began to crack and lift up from the foundation below. The solid, polished concrete-and-stone floor had to be removed and reinstalled, from scratch. By the time it was ready again, Ramadan had begun, an inopportune moment to open a grocery store.

But in the end, everything fell into place. If negotiations with his oven suppliers go as planned, Mr Siddiqui said he should be close to his original budget estimate of US$1.2 million (Dh4.4 million). After much going back and forth, from ministries to contractors to suppliers, he eventually navigated his way through the system. He met contacts in the relevant departments who were flexible and eager to help, he said.

"Even though the rules are very opaque and its hard to know exactly what you're doing, once you find the right person you get it done," Mr Siddiqui said. "But the problem is who do you go and see? And where do you start?" While most business owners use a public relations officer ? someone typically hired by business owners or sponsors to co-ordinate with the various government departments to establish a business ? Mr Siddiqui suggests sitting down with one to learn the ropes instead. Doing the paperwork yourself will not only speed up the process, but also keep costs from spiralling, he said.

"I had money to lose personally, and I pushed the envelope really hard to get things done, more than someone else normally would have done," he said. One thing Mr Siddiqui said he would do differently the next time around is give more time to get the business off the ground. "The biggest mistake we made is we thought we could do things quickly," he said. His advice for other would-be entrepreneurs is to plan well, but leave room to think outside of the box when obstacles arise.

"It's not the place you can do business with just a business plan," he said. "You need to really be able to be ready to walk around ministerial corridors like a pregnant woman's husband in a hospital. Wait for people to show up who never show up. And wait for people who said they would be there at 9:30am and they don't come until 10am or 12pm. Its not that they're not helpful, but they don't value time."

Mr Siddiqui has signed a memorandum of understanding to open another outlet in Dubai, in Jumeirah near Sheikh Zayed Road. But his immediate plans involve smoothing out the kinks in his Abu Dhabi outlet and taking a six-month break away from the trials and tribulations of starting up a new store. "I'm going to take it easy now for a few weeks," he said. "Then I'll figure out what to do next." aligaya@thenational.ae