Culinary character: exporting restaurant brands

In a globalised world, opening a new international outlet of an acclaimed restaurant should be easy no matter what the location. Or is it? Vision.ae explores the challenges that even the most successful restauranteurs must face

You’re in a restaurant, with palms, a pianist and a story that goes back to 1856. The first choice is between oysters: there are French, Scottish, Irish or English varieties, served with traditional accompaniments. Thousands of miles away from Dubai’s financial district, a patron sitting in the original Wheeler’s of St James’s faces no such dilemma. The menu there only offers one type of oyster. The Dubai branch of Wheeler’s of St James’s, the London seafood restaurant recently revived by Marco Pierre White, has out-oystered the original.

Foodies in the UAE are used to European restaurant brands opening Dubai outposts. There’s everything from noodles from British brand Wagamama (one of 90 worldwide) to a burger from NYC’s original Shake Shack (where the menu is halal and, in a nod to the climate, offers extra frozen treats). But when you replicate restaurants far from ‘home’, how easy is it to bring their unique characters along for the ride?

Brand spirit

RMAL Hospitality operates Marco Pierre White’s many restaurants in the UAE, and also runs Wagamama’s Dubai sites. Chief Operating Officer Walter Hall describes the appeal of replicating the spirit, if not the OTT design, of the original Wheeler’s in Dubai.

“Wheeler’s has a heritage dating back to the mid-nineteenth century; the longevity appealed, as did the association with London where many people from Dubai have spent significant time over the years,” he says. “We have considerable experience in adapting brands to the Dubai market. The cookie-cutter approach does not work with high-end restaurants, but we have been very careful to retain the DNA of the Wheeler’s brand.”

This extends to everything from staffing to ingredients, he says. “Our restaurant team are predominantly from England. Many customers have commented that they feel like they are back in London when they dine at Wheeler’s. However, we’re continually adding new touches: every great brand needs to continually reinvent itself.”

Even with a strong heritage and the best will in the world, some brands don’t survive the transplant. Le Caprice opened in New York’s Pierre hotel in 2009 and closed three years later, having endured bumpy reviews. The move to territory unknown is potentially fraught – which, for some brands, is where local hospitality companies like RMAL come in.

Market characteristics

Restaurateur Jesper Boelskifte is one of the brave souls who decided to go it alone, opening a branch of his Danish success story MASH (which stands for Modern American Steak House) in London in 2012. “Anyone who moves to a different market has to be aware of the different mentalities at play,” he says. “There is a big difference between being in Copenhagen and London, or Hamburg or Hong Kong. You need to be very careful with legislation, bureaucracy, locations; the smallest detail can make or break a business. In a new market you need someone to help with that.”

Blissfully unaware of all this, the customer eats their MASH steak. But are they eating it in an American steakhouse in London, a Danish-American steakhouse in London, or simply a steakhouse in London?  “I hope that people feel they’re in a unique brand that stands for itself,” says Jesper. “It is a modern American steakhouse, but before that it's a MASH experience, and that’s what we're trying to transport from Copenhagen to London.” One of the most distinctive features of this is service style, he says. 

“In Scandinavia our organisation structure is much more flat, we don't build a hierarchy. It’s more down to earth: you will see me working the door. And service, how we train our staff, is really all about getting that atmosphere going.  It's the total experience.”

As with Wheeler’s, Jesper has brought staff from MASH’s home territory. There’s no need for them to put their passports away just yet. “London is just the start for us. We’re looking at Stockholm, also Germany, and a couple of opportunities further away. We've been negotiating with people as far away as Hong Kong and quite a few things in between.” Expansion, it seems, is addictive.