x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Abu Dhabi's business owners tell what's in a name

The capital has no shortage of uniquely named stores. Saeed Saeed tracks down the owners to explain the stories behind them.

Fame Salon manager Samer Dib. Christopher Pike / The National
Fame Salon manager Samer Dib. Christopher Pike / The National

Any marketing consultant worth his expensively tailored designer suit will tell you that branding is everything to a prosperous business. Successful names and their associated trademarks are seared into our collective consciousness: from Facebook to Apple, from KFC to McDonald's, and so on. But is branding really a science? And honestly, what's in a name?

Such questions pop into one's mind when cruising around Abu Dhabi's streets. Indeed, some of the capital's retail signage confounds the eye with its oblique titles and sheer brazenness.

But behind those signs lie marketing minds that are as canny as they are cheeky; they confirm, as I discovered, that there is method in their neon-lit madness.

Take Top Foam Restaurant in Airport Road (after Falah Street). If that name has you choking at the thought of eating a soap-scented curry, then think again. To enter this two-storey venue is to find yourself within an electric atmosphere, where young waiters dart here and there to serve a full house of mostly Indian expatriates.

Top Foam's owner, Muhiddin Kutty, proudly states the shop's title is largely responsible for its popularity. He explains that while the word "foam" doesn't make sense to westerners, it represents a subtle geographic calling card to let potential customers know that his restaurant serves authentic Keralan cuisine.

"The word Foam is spelt in English but the actual word sound is Malayalam," he says. "It means 'good things'. So then I just put 'Top' [before it], because we want to be the best."

Rakesh DeSouza, a Top Foam regular, says that he enjoys the restaurant's mix of mutton curries, biryanis and dosas so much that he would rather pay to eat here than chomp away for nothing at the restaurant where he works. He says the sign's promise of Keralan cuisine lured him to Top Foam.

"It makes me feel happy and sad. All of us [who eat here] come from the same area of Kerala," he says. "But when I eat the biryani ... which I like very much, it also makes me feel sad, because I miss my mother's cooking."

Kutty is adamant that the cafe's name wouldn't have worked if he had omitted the word Foam and replaced it with my suggestion of Top Malayalam Restaurant.

"No!" he shook his head. "When they see Foam they know what it means and they come."

A few hundred metres farther down Airport Road lies Ala Kaifak restaurant; its yellow sign substantially more faded than the zesty hue on display at Top Foam. In fact, everything about the Ala Kaifak - literally, "As You Like" - seems vintage, with its cracked walls and garish fluorescent lighting. Not that the customers, an ethnically diverse bunch of Lebanese, Sudanese, Pakistani and Indian men, seem to mind.

Before eating his samosa, one such customer, a taxi driver, wraps his food in tissue and squeezes it tightly. "It makes it softer," he tells me. "Old trick."

It was an equally old joke that spawned the 35-year-old shop's name: "I went to the baladiya [municipality] to register the shop," explains Mohamed Mammootty, the restaurant's twinkly-eyed manager.

"At that time, there were really only a few Indian shops here. I told the municipality man that I wanted to register my business and he asked me 'What's the name?'. I said, 'I don't know'. And then he laughed and said 'OK, Ala Kaifak', and I said 'OK, why not put Ala Kaifak', so here you are ... As You Like Restaurant."

Samer and Mohammed Dib, meanwhile, were more careful when choosing the name of their hair salon - which is announced by the word "Fame" writ large in a familiar typeface above the door to their barber's shop - although a team of Hollywood lawyers might argue otherwise.

"We wanted something that made people look up and [instantly] know this place is good," Samer says."A good barber has to have a lot of skill and we think our name explains that."

Indeed the show business theme of the salon also extends to the wide variety of celebrity lookalike trims available to its mainly young male clientele. The hairstyles of famous footballers are, it transpires, the most requested. "Some of our customers want their hair to be like Ronaldo or Beckham, but by far the most popular is the Del Piero cut," he says, in reference to the 37-year-old World Cup-winning footballer.

Samer has never seen the 1980 musical film that bears the same name as his salon, although that doesn't strike him as odd. "But I did hear the song," he says, "and I didn't really like it."

Maintaining that same 1980s flavour is Yugoslavian Furniture, which is something of an Abu Dhabi institution.

Located on Airport Road between Defence and Falah, the furniture store has not only served generations but, according to manager Anjillath Mustafa, was one of the first outlets to introduce the benefits of sturdy communist-era bunk beds and sofas to the Emirates.

Mustafa takes me to his office, where he tells me that the lack of Eastern European sales staff in-store regularly disappoints Bosnian and Croatian visitors to Abu Dhabi.

"They get confused when I tell them the shop is owned by an Indian family," he laughs.

"Sometimes a tour group from those countries comes in and I tell them 'Sorry, but Yugoslavia is only in the name'."

Mustafa said the owners decided to stick with the existing name despite the 1992 UN embargo blocking the importation of Yugoslavian goods and the country's eventual disintegration.

"We became popular by using that name, so we didn't want to change it," he says. "It stuck and we've kept it, even though we now stock different products."

The shop is now mostly lined with Slovenian furniture, although some sofas and tables are sourced from Malaysia and China. Mustafa says he doesn't mind that the brand is now viewed as something of an Abu Dhabi oddity: "At least they know we are here," he grins. "That is the main thing, no?"

Another establishment that clearly understands the importance of a name is Freddy's. Set up in 1968 by Freddy Goveas, this men's tailors moved numerous times before finding its permanent home behind Hamdan Street, opposite Ahlia Hospital.

Under Goveas' reign the shop became favoured by western diplomats for its bespoke suits and dinner jackets.

Head tailor Henry Sequeira worked under Goveas' tutelage for more than three decades before the latter retired in 2000. Sadly, Goveas passed away two years ago, but it was his dying wish that the store continued to trade under his name and maintain its high standards of customer service.

"He taught me how to speak with customers from all countries," Sequeira says, standing underneath a picture of Goveas.

"He may be gone but we still work the way he always did. Because the name Freddy's is there, the customers know that nothing has changed and they know too that there will always be good service."