“Cooking is an art form,” says Rami Salous, COO of culinary incubator Kitchen Nation. But without savvy business nous, any modern-day restaurant will fail. The entrepreneur speaks to Ben East about the productivity behind the creativity
Lobster rolls on one street corner, carne asada tacos on the next. And, just down the road, jerk chicken and tikka masala. Street food sold from pop-up carts, stalls and vehicles have become so popular in the United States over the last decade that The New York Times wondered if “food trucks might take over Manhattan”. It was at this point that Rami Salous decided Dubai was ripe for the concept. The Jordanian imported his truck from the US in December 2015, planned his Arabic street food menu, and then, well, the real work started.
“It took a long time to do the paperwork and get the licenses,” he remembers. “When I did finally get them in March 2016, I realised I needed kitchens to prepare the food, and I couldn’t find any that weren’t really expensive.”
The entrepreneur realised that this wasn’t a problem but an opportunity, given he’d noticed other like-minded foodies in Dubai were encountering the same issues. So rather than battle on with the food truck alone, he refurbished a restaurant in Jumeirah Lake Towers, offered out its commercial kitchen as a shared space, and began to provide a range of services for potential clients to call upon, from restaurant hire to brand marketing. In May 2016, Kitchen Nation Dubai’s first “culinary incubator” - was born.
“I knew immediately that for all the passion someone might have for a career or business in the food industry, you need so much time and commitment away from the actual cooking - from renting a place right through to labelling the food,” says Salous. “So Kitchen Nation was about helping people live their dreams, so that they can succeed with minimal risk.”
It swiftly became a whole culinary ecosystem, as Salous’ team guided would-be food businesses from their initial idea right through to putting their products on the Kitchen Nation Cafe menu at JLT, hiring out the restaurant for events, selling their food in the grocery, and finally moving their business out of Kitchen Nation - although many still use the commercial kitchen space.
And though Salous is clear that Kitchen Nation is not a charity - partners have to sign up to one of three packages starting from Dh150/hour - it’s telling that so many new food brands now call themselves Kitchen Nation alumni, from Mexican outlet Mad Taco through to British food-delivery and catering brand Smith’s Catering.
“I think that’s because we tailor our approach to the needs of our clients,” says Salous. “So if they want us to help with the supply of materials we can do that. If they want to discuss how to create their menu, that’s fine too. And it goes right up to building a website, marketing their new brand, helping them with staffing - we’re a one-stop-shop which is all about helping them make money on day one.”
And yet for all the business nous Kitchen Nation offers, Salous is clear on one thing. You can have brilliant marketing and an innovative idea. Your truck, or restaurant, or cafe, might look fantastic. But unless the food is memorable, the business won’t work.
“Cooking is an art form,” he confirms. “But that’s why Kitchen Nation is good for any start-up, because it enables people to concentrate on a good quality food offer rather than worrying about what license or hygiene standard they might need.
“At the same time, we sit down with them at the very start to work through their concept and make sure they understand the passion required and what we expect from them. It’s not just about throwing money at an idea.”
In fact, the beauty of Kitchen Nation, says Salous, is that even if a concept doesn’t immediately take off, because of the way this culinary incubator works the idea can be tweaked on site until it does. Not that this has happened much, a situation he puts down to a diversifying food scene in Dubai which has begun to accommodate and encourage dining away from the high-end restaurants.
“It’s a really vibrant time and I feel very proud that we’ve been able to realise people’s dreams,” he says. “We have Mexican, Chinese, Arabic, French, English and many other kinds of food here. Kitchen Nation is a really interesting, multicultural place. We’re going to need a bigger kitchen.”