Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 4 August 2020

Owner of Dubai's 21 Grams on reopening in the middle of a pandemic: 'We're going to fight'

The UAE's popular Balkan bistro clawed itself back from the brink and reopened on Monday

Stasha Toncev may run Dubai's preeminent Balkan bistro, but for the time being, it has been transformed into a "flower shop".

In the 24 hours since 21 Grams reopened, following almost three months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, Toncev says she has been "completely overwhelmed" by the feedback from her returning patrons.

"We have been turned into a flower shop. There are more than 15 bouquets here," she tells The National, the day after she reopened her doors.

"My heart is just forever grateful to those people who have recognised all the hard work we've done."

We're going to fight and we'll keep fighting. We built such a beautiful community, we have so many beautiful things to be proud of

Toncev reopened her popular Jumeirah Beach Road restaurant on Monday, July 20, after announcing she could not "sustain" operations in April and closing indefinitely.

It was tragic news for fans of the eatery, which had amassed a loyal customer base over more than two years, many who flocked there on the weekends for its piquant pindjur eggs, brothy Komplet eggs and perfectly flaky burek. At the time, it was not clear if the pandemic was to mark 21 Grams' complete demise, like so many other restaurants around the world that have fallen victim to economic uncertainties stemming from Covid-19.

However, Toncev says this was never the case.

"We were always going to come back," she says. "For a brief moment it didn't look bright, but I really strongly believe we had to find a way to come back. I just didn't know how at the beginning."

Stasha Toncev, owner of 21 Grams, says stepping back may have saved the business.
Stasha Toncev, owner of 21 Grams, says stepping back may have saved the business.

Toncev says she made the decision to close after first trying to operate a delivery-only model, and finding it was not "who we are". The restaurant struggled trying to translate its concept and dishes into plastic containers and delivery drivers, which is something, she says, it was never supposed to be.

"We are food and service, not just food. Once we shifted to delivery, nothing was the same and it definitely didn't work for us. We lost that personal contact with our guests."

And so, Toncev shut up shop. For the first two weeks, the whole team just took a break. But after that, it was time to get to work.

She wanted to take a step back from the business to figure out "what we want to do and who we want to be" after the pandemic. And over the proceeding two months, she says, that's exactly what they decided.

21 Grams Urban Balkan Bistro has grown a loyal fan base. Leslie Pableo for The National 
21 Grams Urban Balkan Bistro has grown a loyal fan base. Leslie Pableo for The National 

The new 21 Grams comes with new operating hours, a new food concept, and a "new point of view".

While the cafe's menu was previously something of a catch-all – a meal suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner – Toncev has changed its hours to instead focus on breakfast and lunch, meaning they now operate only between 8am to 5pm.

As for the food, Toncev says customers can still expect modern takes on traditional Balkan fare (a geographical area that includes Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, mainland Romania, southern Serbia, and even bits of Greece, Turkey and Italy), but they've tried to move away from the "starter, meal, dessert" idea and more towards a sharing concept with plenty of smaller plates.

One of the new dishes is sarma, a pickled cabbage dish. Courtesy 21 Grams.
One of the new dishes is sarma, a pickled cabbage dish. Courtesy 21 Grams.

The menu will now also be broken up into three parts: "Balkan our roots" for traditional dishes, "connecting the dots", which fuses the traditional and modern, and "Dubai our home", which relies on local, seasonal ingredients to "honour Dubai as the place where we call home and to follow the heartbeat of the city".

New menu items include sarma, sour cabbage rolls with minced beef and smoked wagyu brisket; Adriatic octopus with fennel sauce; and Wagyu beef cevap tartare.

However, purists shouldn't fret: Toncev has promised that their hugely popular breakfast dishes, such as the Komplet egg and the cheese burek, will still be on offer.

The Adriatic octopus with fennel sauce. Courtesy 21 Grams. 
The Adriatic octopus with fennel sauce. Courtesy 21 Grams.

But, despite completely overhauling her operation, she says her "greatest achievement" is not making a single staff member redundant. While they all took pay cuts, Toncev says she ensured their "living costs were covered".

On Monday, the day they got back to business, Toncev says 21 Grams welcomed about 80 people. Most were regulars. Upcoming weekends are fully booked for breakfasts – down to new social distancing requirements that have limited capacity, as well as overwhelming demand.

The moment I stepped back and saw the response, from the closing and the reopening, I realised how much we meant to people

"We are great, we are the happiest. We missed all the people and the operation. This was the longest three months ever," she says.

"Our souls and hearts were full of excitement to see our community and our guests and to show them what we've been doing the past few months."

In the end, Toncev says, temporarily closing may have saved the business from closing permanently further down the line. The short break allowed them time to "change things to make them better" and realise their own worth.

"It's easy to be good when things are good but it's not easy when things are south.

"The moment I stepped back and saw the response, from the closing and the reopening, I realised how much we meant to people.

"We're going to fight. and we'll keep fighting. We built such a beautiful community, we have so many beautiful things to be proud of."

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Read more:

Hidden gems: Can Dubai's answer to Serbian fare stack up to the real thing?

Discovering Balkan flavours at Dubai restaurant 21 Grams

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Updated: July 23, 2020 12:11 PM

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