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The last supper: How Dubai's restaurants are surviving Covid-19

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By Lubna Hamdan

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With restaurants closing their doors as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, will food delivery companies and landlords come to their rescue?

Restaurants must make it through the next three months

Once the main attraction at Dubai darling Akiba Dori, a $40,000 Italian pizza oven has lost all but a few of its most loyal admirers typically swayed by its finest creations cooked at a blazing 500 degrees in just under a minute.

It’s not that its flames are burning any less brighter or that its gifted pizzaiolo Luigi is any less passionate; it’s that – like many of its neighbours in the once buzzing business district d3 – Akiba Dori and its magnificent wood-fired oven has fallen victim to the crippling coronavirus pandemic.

But Samer Hamadeh doesn’t regret his investment.


Food delivery apps are under pressure to support local restaurants

The restaurant owner and managing partner of Aegis Hospitality calls himself “realistically optimistic”. Despite having to shut down his restaurant, in line with measures to curb the spread of the virus and encourage people to stay home, he managed to deliver the same number of pizzas – 100 to be exact – that he sells on a daily basis during dine-in sittings.

“100 doesn’t sound like a lot,” he says, laughing, “but we usually sell 100 pizzas in the restaurant.”

Saved by delivery?

Even without the government’s enforced closures on dining outlets, Hamadeh would be better off delivering than serving its usual crowd of dine-in customers who have moved on to work remotely from their homes, leaving the typically buzzing business district chillingly vacant.

Now Akiba Dori depends mainly on its delivery-only kitchen which operates on a minimal cost yet excels at providing its customers with the finest Italian pizza delivered hot to their doorstep.

But with the number of coronavirus cases rising across the UAE – leading many businesses to lay off staff or shut down entirely – residents have tighter budgets and have less to spend on takeout or even risk dealing with delivery drivers, not that the number of deliveries are anywhere near enough to sustain Hamadeh’s restaurant to begin with.

“A lot of factors influence people’s habits and in a situation like this, less people are ordering food”

“We’re depending on something undependable. Delivery is incremental revenue and is usually treated as such for most restaurants, meaning their main revenue is the restaurant itself, and delivery is the cherry on top,” he says.

“A lot of factors influence people’s habits and in a situation like this, less people are ordering food, more people are cooking at home or ordering from places they’ve been ordering from for years. I don’t think delivery is a saviour.”

And how can it be when delivery companies charge restaurants a whopping 35 percent in commission fees?

Send help

While US giant Uber Eats has waived delivery fees for consumers, it has yet to reduce fees to support local restaurants. Its competitor Deliveroo has not announced any changes to its charges, while food delivery service Zomato came under fire in March for offering to provide AED1,000 hygiene audits to restaurants amid the crisis. It later said it regretted having sent the email, but has not announced measures to help local restaurants either. Regional player Talabat was also criticised for asking restaurants to offer 50 percent discounts in return for marketing highlights.


Seafood Souq is a B2B online marketplace launched by enterpreneur Sean Dennis to tackle seafood fraud

In a bid to reach out to the aggregators, independent food blogger Food Sheikh, who maintains an anonymous identity, wrote an open letter urging them to step up and offer support.

“The F&B industry as a whole runs on pretty low profit margins anyway so if you’re giving 30 percent to aggregators then giving off 50 percent discount on food as well, you’re not making any money; in fact you’re paying money to give that order to the customer… They [delivery companies] have a strategy and they’re sticking to it, and not only are they not offering support, they’re being insensitive with their offers of promotions,” he says.

His letter went unanswered, but was quickly picked up by Dubai software company Chat Food, which proposed the launch of a commission-free platform Deliver DXB to encourage consumers to order directly from restaurants and help them retain 100 percent of their revenue to cover costs, including staff salaries. They turned it around in 24 hours and in just a few days, it had attracted 500 restaurants.

“One restaurant said their direct ordering had tripled overnight with the launch of the website; another said her number of orders was on par with one of the large aggregators; and one had to close delivery for one hour because they were so busy with orders,” Food Sheikh says.

“One restaurant said their direct ordering had tripled overnight with the launch of the website”

But Deliver DXB is a temporary solution, and isn’t enough to keep restaurants alive. “The aggregators are really good at what they do especially in terms of customer experience; they serve a purpose. But, at this moment, they need to offer a helping hand. They disrupted the industry because restaurants fell asleep, because they got lazy, but aggregators can also get lazy and they will be disrupted if they do,” he adds.

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Yet many a restaurants are unable to resort even to delivery, as Akiba Dori’s Hamadeh points out that most last mile delivery companies do not cater to areas like d3 where clients are few and far between.

Tech to the rescue

The good news is not everyone is suffering and there are companies attempting to make the lives of restaurants easier. Seafood Souq, a B2B online marketplace initially launched to tackle seafood fraud by connecting international sellers with regional buyers through a traceable supply chain, is currently helping restaurants purchase smaller quantities to adapt to decreasing resources and demand. It has also seen a surge in its orders, having doubled them in March compared to February.


Talabat was criticised for asking restaurants to offer 50 percent discounts in return for marketing highlights

“Orders continue to grow in size, and this is from a food security and agility angle. Being a tech start-up, we’re able to adapt quickly to our source markets if one border closes, because we have multiple options, and can switch very quickly to continue the need for that particular food supply,” says CEO Sean Dennis.

Seafood Souq is also working on digitising fish markets in Dubai to provide access to both the end consumer and small businesses.

“We try to help. When we have orders coming in, they’re able to place smaller orders, especially when we digitise, so one or two fish as opposed to kilos… Working with international suppliers, they’ll often have large purchases so they aren’t able to work with small suppliers locally because of their lack of last mile or payment terms required by larger buyers so by using our platform, we’re able to provide payment terms to certain buyers so they can buy locally, and it’s in the interest of food security as well,” he says.

Dennis points out that the UAE has become too reliant on international markets’ expertise, and that the covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need to strengthen regional supply chains.

“We’re able to adapt quickly to our source markets if one border closes”

“I wish we could have gotten the platform out prior to this but this highlights the desperate need for this so that markets can react very quickly to pandemics… the need to address how globalised we are, we’re becoming too reliant on international and single source markets. I’m not saying we’ve gone too far or that globalisation is bad but the supply chain needs to change,” he says.

Seafood Souq’s digitised fish market will take weeks to complete, but there are plenty of changes that could prolong the life of many F&B players in the UAE; one of them is landlords’ attitudes towards rents.

Big bullies?

While Akiba Dori’s Hamadeh says his landlord has delayed rent and is open to negotiations, other F&B players are not as lucky.

“Some people are receiving threatening letters from their landlords, and none of them want to be named because they’re scared. But this is not the time to be politically correct. People need to know who’s doing this. The landlords are saying, ‘we’re collecting rent no matter what happens’, and some of these are big groups. This is not the time to be bullying people. I don’t want to be that guy but I will be that guy: if your landlord isn’t willing to treat you as a partner in this time, you should drop them.


Samer Hamadeh, the managing partner of Aegis Hospitality

“Landlords always have the upper hand and as long as their revenue is secure, they don’t care if the same shop they have changes over 20 times because there’s always that person who thinks they’re the ones who will make it… In shopping malls, it’s the landlords’ responsibility to get footfall so they have to waive rent if they don’t get that footfall, or say okay, we’ll take 5-10 percent of what you’re making in the next few months so we can both make it through this difficult period.

“I’m not saying don’t pay them anything and let their people starve, but at a time like this, if they can cut fees, if I can cut fees, if the government is stepping in and saying the banks will freeze loans, at least it will provide some breathing room for SMEs,” he says.

Hamadeh is hopeful that government entities, like Dubai Tourism, have stepped up to offer help: “I got a call from someone at Dubai Tourism two weeks ago saying, ‘I know there’s a tough period coming up, can you send me an email about what you think we can do to help you survive during this time?’ Imagine the government reaching out to a random guy like me?

Having the government step in and say, ‘we won’t let you go bust, it’s slowly trickling down, it’s the right message,” he says.

Resurrection

Restaurants must make it through the next three months. However, in order to survive, and blogger Food Sheikh is concerned with how many – or how little – will ultimately be able to reopen.

“It’s a cash-to-mouth business. Some of the biggest award-winning restaurants told me directly that they’ve only gotten a couple of months in cash until it’s gone.

“Landlords always have the upper hand and as long as their revenue is secure, they don’t care if the same shop they have changes over 20 times because there’s always that person who thinks they’re the ones who will make it”

“F&B is such a cash-intensive business that, almost immediately, we’re going to start feeling it,” he says.

The takeaway message for those who will be able to make a comeback, according to Food Sheikh, is: “At the end of this, I hope businesses remember who offered that helping hand and who didn’t reply to their emails.”

As for Hamadeh’s $40,000 Italian oven, it continues to perform to a humble audience comprising kitchen staff, the same staff who have banned their boss from going anywhere near it. The reason? “I don’t cook,” he says, “I used to microwave water to make coffee”.

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Oman to suspend all flights from Sunday as coronavirus total reaches 99

Sultanate has recorded 15 new cases of Covid-19 on Wednesday

The ban excludes flights to Musandam and air cargo.

Oman will suspend all domestic and international flights to and from the Sultanate’s airports from noon on Sunday, in an attempt to control the spread of coronavirus.

The decision has been taken by the Supreme Committee as the number of confirmed cases in Oman reached 99, with 15 new cases confirmed on Wednesday.

The ban excludes flights to Musandam and air cargo.

Seven out of the 15 new cases are linked to contact infection, while a further seven are linked to travel to the UK, USA and Spain; one case is under investigation.

The Ministry of Health also said that 17 patients have recovered and they have been advised to stay at home quarantine and adhere to health instructions.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Committee has opened a bank account to receive donations, in response to national initiatives being undertaken by citizens, private establishments, civil society institutions and local society, to fight the pandemic.

A report on the Oman News Agency added: “The Supreme Covid-19 Committee also gave directives to the departments concerned to allocate safe places for washing the dead in each of the Sultanate’s wilayats and to deal with every corpse as deemed necessary for eliminating infection risks.

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UAE launches help service for residents stranded abroad

Tawajudi for residents can be accessed through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website

Residents currently abroad can register for the service through the MoFAIC website, which opens up channels of communication in case of emergency.

UAE residents who are caught outside the country in emergency situations will be provided a safe return thanks to a new service offered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC).

Residents currently abroad can register for the service through the MoFAIC website, which opens up channels of communication in case of emergency.

A statement on state news agency (WAM) said: “This unprecedented step spurs from the keenness of the UAE and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to ensure the health and safety of residents on its land and facilitate their return to the country in emergency cases.”

On Thursday it was announced by MoFAIC that all valid holders of UAE residency visas will not be allowed to enter the country for two weeks, in a bid to bring the coronavirus spread under control.

The service can be accessed through the main page of the ministry’s website, under Individuals Services, then click on ‘Tawajudi for residents’.

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Wizz Air launch to boost Abu Dhabi visitor numbers, says tourist chief

Saood Al Hosani says launch of Wizz Air Abu Dhabi in Q3 will attract more international tourists to UAE capital

The new budget airline will launch operations from Abu Dhabi International Airport to destinations across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

The launch of Wizz Air Abu Dhabi in the third quarter of 2020 will attract more international visitors and boost local economy, according to a top UAE official.

“The launch of Wizz Air Abu Dhabi later this year is very much welcomed by the Department of Culture and Tourism. Having another dedicated low-cost airline operating from Abu Dhabi International Airport will undoubtedly allow more visitors to travel here,” said Saood Al Hosani, Acting Undersecretary at DCT Abu Dhabi.

In comments published by state news agency WAM, he added: “Also, as we step up our preparations for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE in 2021, we are confident that Wizz Air Abu Dhabi and our other airline partners will all assist us in our mandate to boost the local economy through the sustained growth of the tourism and travel sector.”

Abu Dhabi Developmental Holding Company announced on Monday that it has concluded the definitive agreement with its partner Wizz Air Holdings, Europe’s fastest growing airline, to jointly establish Wizz Air Abu Dhabi.

The low-cost airline is set to launch its operations at Abu Dhabi International Airport this autumn.

The new budget airline will launch operations from Abu Dhabi International Airport to destinations across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

The airline, which will be 51 percent Abu Dhabi-owned, will start flying with a fleet of three new Airbus A321neos, increasing to 50 planes over 10 years.

Wizz Air offers more than 700 routes from 25 bases, connecting 155 destinations across 45 countries, with a fleet of 120 aircraft, made up of A320s and A321s.

The new airline, the Budapest-based group’s first outside Europe, will focus on establishing routes to markets in which Wizz Air has existing, high growth operations – central and eastern and western Europe.

Wizz Air Abu Dhabi will be the seventh airline to operate from the UAE after Emirates airline, Etihad Airways, Air Arabia, Flydubai, Air Arabia Abu Dhabi and the new, as yet unnamed, airline planned to operate from Ras Al Khaimah.

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Dubai Police returns lost AED50k to DXB passenger

Asian passenger, unaware of his loss, was approached by the airport security team who handed him over the money just before boarding his plane

Dubai Police has revealed that it returned AED50,000 to a visitor to the emirates within an hour of it being lost at Dubai International Airport.

The Asian passenger, unaware of his loss, was approached by the airport security team who handed him over the money just before boarding his plane.

Brigadier Mohammed Ahmed Bin Dylan Al Mazroui, director of the General Department of Airport Security at Dubai Police, a report had been received saying someone had found AED50,000 and 1,000 Rupees.

“From our experience in such cases, the owner usually is either unaware that he or she is missing anything or searching for it around the airport.

“As a result of joint efforts between the search teams at the airport security operations room and foot patrols, the owner was identified in record time and his lost money was safely returned to him before he left the country,” he added.

The traveller, who has not been identified, was reportedly “extremely happy” and expressed his thanks to Dubai Police.

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Abu Dhabi closes airport terminal to contain virus spread

Flights from terminal 2 will operate from terminal 1, Abu Dhabi Airports said on Monday in a tweet

Abu Dhabi airport on Monday closed one of three terminals as the government accelerated measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Flights from terminal 2 will operate from terminal 1, the airport said in a tweet. It didn’t cite a reason for the change.

The airport is home to Etihad Airways, which operates out of terminal 3.

The UAE on Saturday announced it is temporarily suspending the issuance of all entry visas from Tuesday except for those holders of diplomatic passports.

The move will be effective from March 17 but does not apply to anyone who has already been granted a visa before that date.

In a statement carried by state news agency WAM, the Federal Authority For Identity and Citizenship said the move was taken as a precautionary measure to contain the spread of coronavirus and is in response to the World Health Organisation declaring the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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UAE urges citizens to stop travelling to India amid virus concerns

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issues statement after India suspends all tourist visas until April 15

The UAE on Thursdy called on its citizens to refrain from travelling to India following rising concerns about the new coronavirus.

The UAE on Thursdy called on its citizens to refrain from travelling to India following rising concerns about the new coronavirus, known as Covid-19.

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said: “The decision comes in implementation of the instructions issued by the Indian government, which stated that all foreigners holding Indian visas of all kinds will be barred from entering India until further notice as a precautionary measure taken by the Indian government to reduce novel coronavirus spread.”

The UAE Embassy in New Delhi requested UAE citizens currently in India to register on the ministry’s Twajudi service.

The move comes after India on Wednesday suspended all tourist visas until April 15 and said it would quarantine travellers arriving from seven virus-hit countries as it attempts to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak a pandemic.

India’s visa suspension begins on Friday at the port of departure, the government’s Press Information Bureau said.

Diplomatic visas and visas for international organizations, employment and projects are exempt.

While the majority of Covid-19 cases have been in China – which shares a border with India – the number of new infections has steadied there. Hotspots however have emerged in Italy, Iran and Spain.

All travellers, including Indian nationals, “arriving from or having visited China, Italy, Iran, Republic of Korea, France, Spain and Germany after February 15 will be quarantined for a minimum period of 14 days,” the statement read.

The number of Covid-19 cases in India – which has a population of 1.3 billion – has doubled to 60 in the past four days, increasing public fear and the government’s state of alert.

Many of the cases have been blamed on Indians who have travelled or worked in badly hit countries in Europe and the Middle East.

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Saudi Arabia halts travel to EU, other countries

Saudia will continue to operate flights from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport through Friday, March 13

Saudi Arabia also suspended passenger traffic overland to and from Jordan

Saudi Arabia has temporarily halted the travel of its citizens and residents and halted flights to the European Union and a number of countries as a response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

The decision applies to the European Union, India, Switzerland, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia.

Authorities in the kingdom also suspended entry to passengers coming from the same countries.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia also suspended passenger traffic overland to and from Jordan. Commercial movement and cargo traffic is still permitted, as are exceptional humanitarian cases.

The move does not apply to Saudi Arabia-based healthcare workers from India and the Philippines, as well as shipping, trade and evacuation trips conducted with precautions.

As of the morning of Thursday, March 12, Saudi Arabia has 45 confirmed cases of coronavirus, 1 of which has recovered.

Flights from France continue

Despite the suspension of travel to the European Union, Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) will continue to operate flights from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport through Friday, March 13, for those wishing to return to Saudi Arabia.

Previously, the Saudi embassy in Paris had called on Saudi nationals to establish contact with them to arrange and coordinate their flights back to Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this week, Saudi authorities announced that fines of up to SAR 500,000 ($133,000) will be imposed on anyone who fails to disclose health information or travel details at entry points throughout the kingdom.

“All the travellers coming to the kingdom by international flights, managers and workers of other transportation means have to respect local and international health directives,” the Saudi public prosecutor said in a statement.

Saudi officials have already restricted travel to and from 14 countries – including the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt and Italy.

On Sunday, the kingdom imposed a temporary lockdown on the eastern province of Qatif – where a large amount of cases have been confirmed – as temporarily closed the King Fahd Causeway that links Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

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Food debate: Will the vegan revolution kill the meat industry?

Founder of Soul Sante Cafe, Manisha Advani and founder of Mattar Farm kitchen, Hattem Mattem indulge in a vegans vs meat-eater debate

Image: ITP Media Group

Influential documentaries like Cowspiracy and What The Health have thrown a spotlight on the intensive meat and dairy industry, exposing the impacts on animal and human health and the wider environment.

Renowned environmentalist George Monbiot addressed a debate at the Oxford Farming Conference a couple of years on the motion “This house believes that, by 2100, meat eating will be a thing of the past”.

But is the meat industry going to really die? Is meat eating the main problem or the way the industry operates today the real issue.

Founder of Soul Sante Cafe, Manisha Advani and Founder of Mattar Farm kitchen, Hattem Mattem indulge in this heated vegans vs meat-eater debate.

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Bahrain's Gulf Air waives fees for virus-related changes to bookings

National carrier of Bahrain launches campaign allowing passengers much more travel flexibility in reaction to the current coronavirus crisis

Gulf Air, the national carrier of Bahrain, on Tuesday launched a campaign allowing passengers much more travel flexibility in reaction to the current coronavirus crisis and its impact on air transport.

The airline said passengers with issued bookings in 2020 and new bookings made from Tuesday until the end of March are eligible to unlimited changes to their travel dates without paying any change fees.

The airline added that its Falconflyer members will have their current status and membership tier extended for the next three months regardless of not completing the required number of trips or miles travelled.

Gulf Air’s announcement comes two days after UAE airlines Emirates and Etihad announced various waiver policies allowing customers to change travel dates with no extra charge, in light of the continuing coronavirus crisis.

“Gulf Air would like to reassure its loyal passengers that it is applying strict International Air Transport Association disinfectant procedures inside the aircraft cabin and it urges passengers to apply preventative measures recommended by the World Health Organisation,” it said in a statement.

The airline added that it continuously coordinates with the relevant authorities in Bahrain and with airports throughout its network to “take all precautionary and preventive measures in order to ensure the safety and security of our passengers and crew”.

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