Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 26 January 2020

Money & Me: ‘I was an orphan refugee — now I’m in the land of opportunity’

Dubai restaurateur and real estate entrepreneur Gaber Kenger left Iraq as a young boy

Gaber Kenger started five restaurants in Dubai, including Chandelier, Shu, Fudo, Loui and his latest opening, Brazilian-Lebanese fusion Tete at Bluewaters Island. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National
Gaber Kenger started five restaurants in Dubai, including Chandelier, Shu, Fudo, Loui and his latest opening, Brazilian-Lebanese fusion Tete at Bluewaters Island. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National

Gaber Kenger is a Dubai restaurateur and real estate entrepreneur who was born in a small village in Baghdad. He left Iraq with his older siblings when he was nine after both his parents passed away. The family moved to Syria and then Denmark as refugees, where Mr Kenger started a chain of six Italian restaurants — which he later sold for 10 times the price he paid for them. Since moving to Dubai in 2003, he has launched five restaurants, including Chandelier at the Dubai Marina Walk, and Shu and Fudo in Jumeirah. His latest venture is Tete, a Lebanese-Brazilian fusion eatery at Bluewaters Island. Mr Kenger, 37, is also the chairman of GN Homes, a Dubai real estate developer established in 2016. He lives in Jumeirah Park with his Brazilian wife and two daughters, aged 5 and 7.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I was born near Baghdad in a small village. My parents were very poor, coming from a very poor neighbourhood. My mother was a housewife and my father sold tea in a small kiosk for employees who work in factories. I have six brothers and three sisters and I’m the youngest.

Money is not everything in life. It’s amazing to have, it can shape your lifestyle, but it cannot shape your attitude.

Gaber Nehma Kenger

I’ve always learnt that money is not everything in life. It’s amazing to have, it can shape your lifestyle, but it cannot shape your attitude. It’s something you can use to live a nice life with — buy a nice car, buy a nice house — but never forget who you are.

I had a hard life and it’s not because my father was poor. My parents passed away when I was five. My father died from liver problems and my mother died a year later. When we were kids, we had to leave Iraq [during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980-1988] because of political issues as we’re Kurdish.

I feel like the reason for my success was the way I was brought up. Everything in my previous life — that my mother and father died, that my brothers and sisters took care of me, the poor situation that we were in — made me more ambitious. Positivity drives me. Whenever you see me, I’m never, never negative. I don’t believe in the word impossible. There is a solution for everything.

How did you end up in Denmark?

We were thrown out of Iraq to Iran and stayed there almost six months — we didn’t know anyone there. Then we moved from Iran — we took a four-day bus to Syria. We stayed in Syria almost four years, but there was no future for us, so we had to find a European country that can help us in developing our future. We asked the refugee officers to help us and we were able to go to Denmark.

What was your first job?

At 20, I worked with my brother for six months in a pizza shop, serving pizzas. He taught me everything about business. Then, when I learnt everything, I opened my own. After six months I sold it, because it didn’t go well. Then I entered into a clothing business with my other brother in Spain. It didn’t go well as well, so I had to come back to Denmark.

There, I found an opportunity, a beautiful location for a restaurant. I borrowed a little bit of money from family and friends and the bank to open a Mongolian BBQ restaurant in Aarhus, three hours away from Copenhagen. We had problems because the municipality decided to open a small canal in front of us and there was construction. It killed my business.

I moved to an Italian concept and opened a place called Marco Polo with my brother, where we served the finest Italian food for cheaper prices. We had 120 seats; we were fully booked every day. Within two years, I opened six restaurants. I actually searched for restaurants that didn’t do well, that were almost bankrupt. I turned them upside down; I used to do the painting myself and I leased the furniture on a monthly basis.

I opened the six restaurants between 2000 and 2003 and in 2004 I sold everything. Each restaurant cost me an average of approximately Dh150,000 and I sold them on average for almost Dh1.5 million.

Mr Kenger used his experience opening Italian restaurants in Denmark to start several restaurants in Dubai. 'Tete' is an affectionate word for grandmother in Arabic. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National 
Mr Kenger used his experience opening Italian restaurants in Denmark to start several restaurants in Dubai. 'Tete' is an affectionate word for grandmother in Arabic. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National 

What brought you to Dubai?

I felt Denmark was too small for me, for my ambitions and I wanted more challenges. At that time Dubai was starting to promote itself around the world. I took the opportunity and found this is the place I want to be. It’s the land of opportunity.

I love the dynamic of the country — a lot of different nationalities, different mentalities. It has taught me a lot of things. At the same time, I can implement my experience in Denmark here in Dubai. I opened a restaurant called Chandelier in the Marina. It was one of the first restaurants in new Dubai. It had huge success that I never dreamt of.

After Chandelier, I opened Fudo and Shu in Jumeirah and Loui in Downtown. I sold Chandelier and Shu back in 2015. I made a good profit and had enough cash to start a development company called GN Homes in 2016. Because of the real estate dynamic situation here, I thought that it was a perfect time for me to start a small boutique development company where I can implement my ideas into an end-user product. I’ve always been a fan of interior design concepts. I do my restaurants, my own homes. I love this kind of work.

Why enter Dubai’s crowded real estate market?

I found a niche where I can grow and be successful — building high-quality homes for end users. I build small projects — 30, 40, 50 town houses — and put all my energy into the design and all my energy into the finishes and the details.

Mr Kenger enjoys designing his own restaurants and incorporated his love for design in his real estate development company, GN Homes. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National
Mr Kenger enjoys designing his own restaurants and incorporated his love for design in his real estate development company, GN Homes. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National

Are you a spender or a saver?

I think I’m both. Because of the situation my family or I had before, I always think of the future. At the same time, I like to live my life but with caution.

What is your most cherished purchase?

My house in Jumeirah Park, because it created a [sense of] family for me with my wife and my kids. I bought it in 2013. The inside of the house doesn’t mean as much to me as when I see my kids playing outside with their friends, because I never had childhood friends. I’ve always been a traveller — not a traveller, because I loved travelling, but because I was forced to find other opportunities.

What luxuries are important to you?

Cars — that’s my weakness. I just bought a Bentley. When I moved to Dubai, I bought an old BMW because I first wanted to see if I can create a legacy here. Later on, when I started doing very well, I bought a yellow Hummer. Then I bought a Ferrari — it was my dream — and then an Aston Martin.

What has been your biggest financial milestone?

Chandelier. It was my first business here and my favourite one; it was my little baby. It gave me so much opportunities in Dubai. We had almost 900 customers a day. People always told me I was very generous with my food — with the quality, the portions. My whole life is based on a belief that quality will bring you quantity.

Updated: December 8, 2019 09:07 AM

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