Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 September 2020

From a fish shack to bespoke nougat: Natasha Sideris reveals what's next for her Tashas empire

Sideris opened her fifth Tashas cafe in the UAE in Al Barsha this week, but hopes to pay tribute to her father with her next venture

For most people, being at the helm of 25 restaurants across two countries, and successfully launching another outpost in the midst of a pandemic, would leave you with some form of contentment.

Not for Natasha Sideris.

In fact, the founder and namesake of the popular Tashas cafes, five of which now exist in the UAE, is already plotting her next steps.

Not only does she want to recreate the fish restaurant her late father began in Johannesburg here in Dubai, she also hopes to open a steak and burger concept, and start a bespoke nougat and espresso bar.

At this point I don't really care about making money ... I just want to trade, pay my staff and by December, take everyone's salary's back up. I don't care about anything else

Natasha Sideris, restaurateur

"I'm at a point in my career where I can get a lot more creative and I do stuff I've always wanted to do, and start other brands," Sideris tells The National.

"It's been a fascinating journey."

The fifth outpost of Sideris's popular Tashas cafe opened this week in the Galleria Al Barsha, after being delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. As well as three other Tashas cafes in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi, the Tashas Group also has the Flamingo Room, Avli and Galaxy Bar under its belt, as well as 17 Tashas cafes in South Africa. That's a lot of restaurants to shield from an outbreak that has hit the hospitality industry hard, resulting in mass lay-offs and permanent closures across the world.

But Sideris is pragmatic about her position.

Natasha Sideris, owner and namesake of Tashas cafes. Pawan Singh / The National
Natasha Sideris, owner and namesake of Tashas cafes. Pawan Singh / The National

"I wouldn't normally advise people to open a business during a pandemic but this particular restaurant was in planning for eight months. We had employed all the staff and it was ready. I had two choices: either I would have to retrench all 30 or 40 people I employ here, or open and try and bring in some turnover to at least cover their salaries," she says.

"At this point, I don't really care about making money – any restaurant that thinks it's going to be making money during the virus is being overly ambitious. I just want to trade, pay my staff and by December, take everyone's salary's back up. I don't care about anything else."

Sideris admits the last few months have been "tough". She's had to make staff redundant (fewer than 50 in total across the UAE businesses) and everyone has had to take pay cuts, including herself. Naturally, she's worried about her restaurants across the board, but especially those in South Africa.

Sideris first got involved in the restaurateur business alongside her father in Johannesburg, when she was studying psychology in university.

"I used to look at him and think 'he's so tired'. He'd come home with blisters on his feet, he's exhausted, and I'm never going to do this."

But things changed when she began helping her father at his restaurant, the Fishmonger. "I got hooked," she admits.

The rest, as they say, is history. Sideris, with no formal chef training, set about opening restaurants bearing her nickname.

With the help of her brother, she opened 17 restaurants across South Africa, before setting her sights on going international. Offers were on the table in Australia, the US and the UK, but it was Dubai that she finally seized upon. In 2014, the very first Tashas opened in The Galleria Al Wasl.

Many of Sideris's staff came with her from the South African stores. Pawan Singh / The National
Many of Sideris's staff came with her from the South African stores. Pawan Singh / The National

After three years of splitting her time between South Africa and Dubai, Sideris moved here permanently in 2018, leaving her brother to oversee the South African outlets.

While Dubai is renowned for its high number of restaurants, Tashas seems to have maintained its loyal fan base throughout the years. The cafe's popularity paved the way for Flamingo Room, which was born out of Sideris's desire to "show the world and to prove to myself we could do a more sophisticated kind of dining experience". Avli by Tashas followed thanks to an eagerness from half-Greek Sideris to show her "Athenian spirit".

It was already difficult to make money before Covid. What coronavirus has done is taken a magnifying glass and magnify those issues

Sideris believes that Tashas' "classic, old school" mentality, which doesn't pander to trends or fads, is one of the reasons the cafe has garnered such a cult following.

"I'm a stickler for old-school restaurateuring," she says. "I also love my restaurants. You'll find me at Avli every Thursday night, I never miss it. And most Fridays I'll have lunch or dinner at Flamingo Room."

The new Al Barsha branch of Tashas is the most health-focused Sideris has opened, and will, come cooler climes, feature a walking club.

She chose a location at the back of the mall, with less visibility from the street, because it looks out on to the back of a park to allow customers to "connect with nature".

Of course, the pandemic has resulted in a few operational adjustments. Her menu of 59 dishes has been reduced to 38 to cut down on waste. She's been vocal in her criticism of delivery aggregators and their commissions, so you can now order direct on Tashas' Instagram page.

In the four days that the Al Barsha outlet has been open, they've been serving roughly 40 to 50 people per day. Pre-pandemic, a Tashas cafe would serve about 400 people, and at the larger Abu Dhabi outlet, up to 800.

But Sideris is quick to point out that this is "not so bad", and many are faring worse.

"It was already difficult to make money before Covid. What the coronavirus has done is taken a magnifying glass to those issues. But this can also change some of the things that were broken."

Sideris is optimistic that by the end of the first quarter in 2021, around 80 per cent of the UAE food scene could be back up and running.

Indeed, she is planning to press ahead with three new dining concepts. Two will be a tribute to her father, Harry. The first, a take on her father's Fishmonger, will serve a simple and "accessible" menu of seafood, chips, rice, boiled potatoes and salad. She plans to name it Harry's Fishmonger.

Next will come a steakhouse and burger concept because, before fish, Harry Sideris helped found two "of the most famous steakhouses in South Africa".

Lastly, she'll be going into bespoke nougat, as she's bought into South African nougat company 1701, and wants to launch espresso bars where you can watch the sweets being made.

But as much as she sees her future here in Dubai, Sideris is quick to point out that she will look after her "foundations" in South Africa, and ensure her restaurants there survive the pandemic, too. She helped found non-profit The Restaurant Collective there, and has spent weeks lobbying the government to allow the restaurant industry to reopen.

"What I want to do with that platform is to upskill the entire South African food industry," she says. "It's my gift to Mother Africa to say hospitality is ingrained in us. We've got so much to offer."

Updated: June 19, 2020 11:29 AM

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