Arabian Hospitality
Investment Conference

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25-27 September | Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island


AHIC Talks Episode 7: Ian Ohan & Food Sheikh

In this episode, Ian Ohan & Food Sheikh joined us to announce the Rise Up challenge, a competition searching for food entrepreneurs in the UAE, with the finals taking place live and in-person at AHIC in September. Their conversation with Jennifer Pettinger-Haines touched on why they put such a competition together and what kind of contestant would make the cut. Listen to the full episode to find out more.




Welcome to AHIC talks, the podcast for the Arabian and African Hospitality Investment Conference, which is the annual gathering of the hospitality and investment community in the Middle East and African Region. Every week, our team at AHIC shares a conversation that we've had with industry leaders and innovators in the hospitality and investment community. We really believe you will find this insightful. So let's dive into this week's episode.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: I'm Jennifer Pettinger-Haines, Managing Director of Bench, Middle East. And I'm here today with two eminent figures in the food scene here in Dubai, who I will let introduce themselves to talk about a really exciting new project. And that we at GRIF and AHIC are supporting. So gentlemen, do you want to introduce yourselves.

Ian Ohan: Sure, thanks Jennifer. My name is Ian Ohan. I'm the founder and CEO of Crush Brands. And I've been working in Dubai and operating in Dubai for about 10 years. We do everything food and beverage, everything delivery, everything food technology,

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Fabulous and...

Food Sheikh: And I am Batman. No, I am Food Sheikh. I am an industry commentator, food critic; and I've been in Dubai for come up to 18 years now. And it's a pleasure being here, Thank you Jennifer.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: You're welcome. What brings the two of you together? Why are you sitting around the table today.

Ian Ohan: So I think we have this idea of Crush Brands, we're soon to be launching our new, let's call it an ecosystem, which is basically leveraging all the facets of our business model, which is our food technology, our operations and our delivery capability. And we've built that for ourselves. But we think it's pretty cool to share that with others, especially now at a time when the industry needs help and we can avoid all those extra costs. And the evolution of Crush Brands is really our new aggregated ecosystem called locale. And we're very much in the search of, we have a very much food-preneur for our strategy. We want to partner with the best, most creative, most interesting entrepreneurs and food-preneurs in the UAE. We want to help them grow their businesses. And we want to be their partners.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: So what do you have to offer Food Sheikh?

Food Sheikh: I'm just here for the pizza. Not sure if it's on it's way. No look, I think, what Ian is embarking on is very much aligned with what Food Sheikh has been about since I started the platform. And it really kind of came to light over COVID and the pandemic as to how much kind of help and support the local industry required and needed. Especially in markets such as such as Dubai, where there's limited assistance anyway. So it just really resonated with me to get involved in something like that. Because whatever we can do to help raise awareness, create conversation, is always going to be good for the industry.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: So why don't you tell us a little bit about what that is? So what is it that you two are working on?

Food Sheikh: It's your brainchild.

Ian Ohan: Alright, so we've created a campaign called Rise Up and similar to our ethos of local, local is better for us. We are embarking on a search for talent in the UAE and there's lots of it. And the winners, we'll become their partners and support them with all of the assets in the ecosystem that we have. But it's very much putting those partners first. And this competition is designed to try and identify some of the greatest talent in the country. And from what we've seen so far, there's plenty of it. So you guys have a lot of faith it seems in the locale.

Food Sheikh: I think for so many years, there was this expectation that if you wanted something good in Dubai, you'd have to import the talents, which especially F&B was where you saw the rise of the brands and the big franchises. But nowadays, I don't think that's the case. I think the talent is here. I think it's multi-generational. I mean, F&B has been around long enough now to have continuity and legacy and history. And majority of us here are guests in this country and we're expatriates. And the big question mark or the big concern for me is when when the top talent leaves, at some point they will, where is tomorrow's talent coming from. Where's our pipeline of excellence, where's opportunity for them to be able to shine and get some exposure. And something like Rise Up does exactly that. And especially after COVID, I hate to use the word, but the whole pivot word, you saw so many entrepreneurs, I refuse to say the other word, the food-preneurs, pivot to these incredibly creative kind of business ventures and opportunities with very little resources, very little support. And I just think that Rise Up is a dedicated platform, the dedicated process that kind of accelerates finding that talent and giving them the leg up in the exposure and the support that they need to make it a proper business.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: No, absolutely. That's what you've done already with some local brands. Isn't that right Ian?

Ian Ohan: Yeah. So this is the beginning and sort of the follow on from things we've learned. So we've done a few partnerships already. We partnered with a young lady Eliza Veitch]who set up a meal prep company called Jetlag Chef, so we've become Eliza's partner and her business has grown fivefold in the last four months, and we suspect that will continue to grow. And it's been a great partnership so far. We've done a similar sort of arrangement with a company called Viking Bageri, which was a company that was formed out of the COVID lockdowns. Some of the best baguettes in the world. [Overlapping voices]

Food Sheikh: Do you pronounce it bageri?

Ian Ohan: Bageri, Bageri. I'm pretty sure it's Bageri. You can call it Bageri if you want. I just assumed it was Bageri, I'm pretty sure it's Bageri.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: It is not debatable. It's like, it's amazing, the quality, and I've never had a baguette that had chocolate chips in it before. It's not chocolate chips, it's like melty chocolate.

Ian Ohan: And you have another truffle one, obviously. That's another experience all together. So those are just some examples and we're working with other local suppliers. But it's been a very fruitful relationship. Because, I think there's five or 10 years ago, if you had a great product and great service you could have a great food and beverage business, but today with, the requirement for technology, for connectivity, for delivery, and all these other things, the various entry are extremely high, I think, and we can bridge that gap for young entrepreneurs or younger businesses. And so far it's proven to be quite a great formula, and we can help food-preneurs accelerate their businesses.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And you have spent a lot of time developing your own platform and you systems, so you're quite far along and sophisticated in that process.

Ian Ohan: Yeah, I think what's interesting is we've developed all of our -- we have a food technology company, so it develops all of our online ordering, we have our own operating platform, our administration, finance, accounting, marketing, branding, the whole gamut. And then we have our own delivery fleet, our proprietary delivery fleet. And I think, we didn't build those to make money, whereas I think a lot of third party companies are trying to make a profit from those services. For us, it's how we get our food to our customers, how do we make it easy for them, how we make it convenient. And so we're not looking to make a profit on those assets. We want to share those assets with young food-preneurs so they don't have to pay for them.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: So what are you looking for from young food-preneurs?

Ian Ohan: So for me, I think what the formula so far has been very successful, is first and foremost you have a great product, something that's really wonderful and great. The second thing is they have to be fanatical about customer service. So we're a bit old school, we believe that good food, good service are very important to people. And it also provides, they have good stories as well and we think that's super important that we can share about them. It's not just about the food. The third thing is they have to be kind of tough. Doing business anywhere in the world is difficult, so they have to be quite resilient and quite motivated. And I think the fourth thing, which is to me, the most important is they have to have similar views and ethos about how we treat people, how we support the community, how we are part of the experiences that we provide. Food is more than just a commodity. It's not a widget. Convenience, of course, is important, but I think, there's and enchantment around food that we don't want to lose. So the entrepreneurs have to share our passion for the industry, and for the way we treat our people, we treat our communities, our customers, etc.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: That sounds like very good quality to have. And Food Sheikh what do you think makes a good food-preneur?

Food Sheikh: Well, from my standpoint, I think it's the narrative, it's the story behind it. I think, especially with the rise of these virtual brands that are coming through they often struggle to create that narrative, that emotional connection with the audience. I think, finding whoever applies or whoever works through the rise up program needs to have that compelling, strong story behind it. People buy into that these days, and of course, backed by the fundamentals, which is good product, etc. But for me, it's all about storytelling. It's what humans are built to navigate towards, it's what we can do for millennia and I think food is just another vehicle of storytelling. So I think for me, that's got to be the priority.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And let me ask you, who do you think is like a really good example of local talent that has done an amazing job, the type of thing you'd like to foster with rise up?

Food Sheikh: Who do I think is doing a good job? I think people like a story of food, Neha, I think she's a great example of taking a hunger and passion and bringing it to life.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: So for those who don't know the story of food, do you want to just tell a little bit about it

Food Sheikh: Yeah, she can get a free plug. That's fine, I'll invoice her later. So Neha is behind the Instagram handle Assorted Food. For years, she's been putting on private supper clubs as she specializes in ramen. And it was so popular that she decided to create a Japanese restaurant, which is in the Onyx building, I believe in the Greens. I have not been to her supper club or a restaurant, much to my disdain, and she knows it. But from watching from afar, it's a great example of hard work, dedication, attention to detail. I believe she even made her own crockery, she went into a -- where do you make pottery? Where do you make crockery?

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Pottery, I believe? I have no idea.

Food Sheikh: A pottery. She made her own rumbles, for example. So that sort of storytelling is great. And what's interesting, she's really now learning what it's like to be the public fora as well.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: So that's really interesting point. Because I mean, you mentioned storytelling, and being in the public forum and this whole movement of where so much is through social media first, before you've even tasted the food. So how important is that these days?

Ian Ohan: I think I also wanted to say that I think the reason that I contacted Food Sheikh is because he's one of the best writers of any kind that I've come across. And I love the way -- he obviously speaks much better than I do, and he writes even better than that. But really, it was so important, because he was telling the stories of all these people and it's much deeper than just the food, the photos and all of that. And I think that's really important. And I think we live in a world where convenience, has sort of lived supreme over everything else. And I think the idea of putting the experience back into food is super important for everyone. And I think, you can still have convenience, but why can't we have both, why do we have to choose between convenience and experience? And that storytelling, the depth of that story. With Eliza and Magnus, their customers want to talk to them. Their stories are important to them, they want to interact with them. And that to me is super important. And you can't, you can't fabricate that in the dark.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And that raises an interesting point. So in terms of what you guys are looking for, it's not necessarily just a concept to go into the ring, you're looking for potential bricks and mortar restaurants as well.

Food Sheikh: I think the invitation is wide open.

Ian Ohan: Yeah, I think what we want is we want we want to build brands and brands, sort of they spread across all formats, but whatever formats relevant for the brand, we will support. Technology is easy to spread across any sort of physical, sort of you know..

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And I think the other thing is really so you're looking for kind of storytellers, people don't have to have any experience they can be... Or they can have a lot of experience and be looking for an opportunity to.

Food Sheikh: Look maybe you've unfortunately lost your job in COVID. And you've got you got decades of experience behind a kitchen. Maybe you're a start-up croissant maker and you want to launch a croissant range. It literally could be anything. We're just throwing the net kind of wide .

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Far and wide.

Food Sheikh: Casting the net far and wide to see what we can collect and then kind of filtering through.

Ian Ohan: And it's also enabling people, maybe there's experienced chefs that have worked for others for their career and they want to own their own business and secure their own futures. The idea is that this is a future, it's not just about a business, it's not just about an idea. It's about creating something that they can be proud of, and build together in, I guess, what might be a safer environment with a steadier pair of hands. That's there just to guide them, but it's their business. And that's the intention of rise up, it's just to let people rise up with their own ideas and businesses and support that.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And primarily locale. So primarily UAE, or are you looking outside Dubai?

Ian Ohan: I think we're in the UAE and so the UAE is very important. Obviously, it could be locals, there could be a variety, they don't have to be. So it's what we're really looking at cultivating in the local culinary scene, whatever that is.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And so when you say that local culinary scene, I mean, we touched on this briefly before, but how do you think it has developed? Or how do you think it is developing here in Dubai?

Food Sheikh: I think it's finally being recognized for what it is, I think that scene by timeout for the market, coming in the food court at Nakheel Mall in the Palm, I can never pronounce it.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Neither can I.

Food Sheikh: Okay, so we'll just move on quickly. And I think opening up a huge real estate space like that, and having the competence to bring in local operators is a great tribute to them and their success and their passion. So I think they're certainly significant advancement in that area.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And you think this will also help build that and build that pipeline of talent?

Ian Ohan: Yeah, I think it'll continue the momentum, I don't think no one is doing exactly what rise up is doing. Being that food accelerator program, competition, so to speak, I don't think anyone's doing that in the region. So I think it'll be a great story to tell, it'll be a great initiative to run...

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: It will be a great journey to follow as well.

Food Shekih: Look, I'm excited. I mean, I've already I already seen a lot of Instagram accounts, though, I think oh they should enter, they need to enter, they need to enter, they need to enter. Just because I can see some much talent out there that just needs a little bit extra, a little bit of -- some safer hands, to help them.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: So this is all culminating at GRIF and Apex in September? But the process before that, do you want to tell me a little bit about the process that these guys are going to go through?

Ian Ohan: We're going to be sort of kicking off the campaign around mid-June, which is the call for all food-prenuers to register. We'll run that program for about 4-5 weeks, then we will select we'll call it the next class, the potential graduating class; then we will put them through the risk of using other terms of sort of a Shark Tank/Master Chef type environment where we'll be testing not only their culinary skills, but their skills in terms of how they do things, their ethos, their passion for the industry, their business acumen. And it'll all culminate at AHIC on September 22nd.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Exciting! We're really delighted to be a part of it, because I think this is what growth is all about. So it's all about bringing people together to make businesses happen. So we're very excited to be a part of it. But I think also one of the really interesting things is that this is also an opportunity for investors potentially. So you are looking for investors to get involved as well. Correct?

Ian Ohan: Yeah. The idea is each of these businesses will be of course, the businesses owned by the food-preneurs. And so like the food-reneurs we will be partners in that, but the opportunity to bring investors in for each of these businesses is very viable, very relevant. And it'll help grow their businesses. And so I think we're very open to inviting others and to join with the growth.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: I think the whole thing sounds really exciting, and I'm looking forward to watching it all unfold and being a part of it. So thank you both so much, and hopefully, we will see an amazing array of food-preneurs on the stage on the 22nd of September.

Food Sheikh: Yeah!

Ian Ohan: We're really excited. We're very pleased that GRIF is involved and both Food Sheikh and myself and we've been here for over 20 years and to see the industry changing so rapidly. This is the time for new food-preneurs to leave their mark in the Dubai Culinary Scene. So thank you.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Amazing and we're delighted to be part of it. So thanks so much gentlemen!

Food Sheikh: Thank You.


Thank you for listening to AHIC Talks, the podcast for the Arabian and African Hospitality Investment Conference. You can find a full transcript of this podcast on the content library on, along with other reports and insights. We can't wait to welcome you and your colleagues live and in-person AHIC in Dubai from the 20th - 22nd of September 2021. If you haven't registered yet, go to to purchase your pass today and save on the early bird rate. Feel free to email us with any questions at Until next week, stay safe and keep well. Bye!

Published 22 June 2021

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