Saudi Arabia Hospitality Investment Conference

14-16 April 2020 | Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, U.A.E


AHIC Talks Episode 2: Andrew Morrow on Australia's & Dubai's restaurant landscape

In this episode of AHIC Talks, Jennifer Pettinger-Haines, Managing Director of Bench, speaks with Andrew Morrow, Director of Operations for the Firmament. The conversations touch on Andrew's impressions of Australia's restaurant scene and the differences he sees in comparison to Dubai. Andrew also shares exciting news about the Firmament's expansion plans for the overseas market.



You are now listening to AHIC Talks, Episode 2.

[Intro Music]

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Hi, this is Jennifer Pettinger-Haines, managing director of Bench Events and founder of GRIF. I'm going to be chatting today with Andrew Morrow who is director of operations for the Firmament. Andrew has recently come back to our shores after a stint in his homeland Australia. He's a fellow Aussie. So I'm looking forward to chatting to Andrew about his impressions of Australia's restaurant scene and what it's like to be back. And has anything changed in the subsequent two years? Looking forward to talking to Andrew also about the Firmament's big plans for the overseas market.

So Andrew, lovely to see you back in Dubai.

Andrew Morrow: Thank you very much

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: How long were you gone?

Andrew Morrow: Two years and two months.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: You were in Australia, right?

Andrew Morrow: Yes.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And what did you find coming back? Was there a big shift in the market?

Andrew Morrow: I think during the peak period of COVID, which is kind of leading up to about three or four months ago in the UAE. I imagine there was a lot of changes. Since I've been back. I've been very focused on our business, which is, you know, I guess had the blinkers on. So I'm only really focused on this part. But I see the footfall is there. I see, you know, the consumer is out back in the market, spending money, albeit at a slightly lower rate than what we were used to in Dubai. Just speaking to a lot of my friends and peers in the industry, even though in the industry, people are spending less, they are going out less, and they are a bit more conscious on what they're spending, but they are looking for quality.

So if anything, that would be the biggest difference - people aren't going out. The people I am impacted by aren't going out and just dropping wads of cash. I'm sure that market still exists, but probably on a smaller scale.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And let me ask you, having gone back to a more established market, in, Australia, and then coming back here - what was kind of the difference or what comparisons did you see?

Andrew Morrow: Massive difference. Australia - it's an incredibly mature market. The market in Australia is very heavily influenced by the labor laws of Australia. The average rate that even a basic person earns there is very, very high. And it makes it essentially impossible for restaurants to dedicate a lot of man-hours to training. So one of the things I was most disappointed about with the industry in Australia is that the mid range restaurant level has really focused on two or three styles and options. And the diversity is lacking in that area. And that's purely because employers or business owners, where in Australia, the majority of them are small business owners. They don't have the capital to dedicate 30, 40, 50 hours of training staff. So they tend to hire staff that have come from restaurants, like they are themselves, so they don't have to retrain or vice versa. They actually change when a new chef starts, they allow the chef to change the concept of their venue to prevent them having to pay for all retraining of their existing staff.

So it's a little bit sad. But at the same time, Australia also has some of the best chefs in the world like Josh Neiland. People like Josh Neiland at St. Peter and you know, the McConnell brothers, Andrew, Sean. They are doing some really great stuff.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: I didn't realise they were brothers. I knew Sean

Andrew Morrow: I think there's three of them actually. The most famous one is Andrew, and then Sean's kind of tends to be more Sydney ACT based. And then there's another one up in Queensland. People who really love and have a passion for the industry in Australia, they tend to have better restaurants than everybody else. The market is shrinking down to very fine points of similarity. Where in Dubai, everything's the opposite.

Everyone's really hungry. Everyone wants to do the next new thing. Everyone's hungry for something, the point of difference. What's going to be the hook that gets people to come to my restaurant? What are we going to do different? And then I love that. I've always loved that about Dubai, the action, the fast pace, the constant need to update upgrade, improve, transform your offering. I think that's a very dynamic aspect of the Dubai market.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Well, I think that Dubai does definitely has one of the most dynamic restaurant scenes in the world. It seems to be constantly evolving, changing, and I think we have a very demanding consumer here as well.

Andrew Morrow: Yes. I think consumers here are very demanding because I guess they've had it good for so long. The industry through its maturation has had that aggressive punchy impact. So that to the consumer, there's always somewhere new to go, always somewhere perceivably, better to go. So there's no loyalty in the market here, I would say, like there would be in Australia. Of course, there is certain people who love certain restaurants. But you don't get that really dedicated brand loyalty or venue loyalty that you would in a much more, you know, owner-operator smaller, more established market. And I think the discount culture here - there is 25 apps and books and things, where you can get vouchers, and deals and codes, and nobody really wants to pay full price for anything anymore. They just expect a handout. I would say that's probably the biggest detrimental element of the industry here is that discount culture.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: That’s very interesting. For you guys over the last year, obviously with the impact of COVID, it doesn't seem to have slowed down your expansion plans.

Andrew Morrow: No. If anything, it's sped them up. COVID was a horrific incident that happened in the world, and is still happening and, many good people lost their businesses globally. And the positive outcome of that is that there are some amazing venues that are on the market with landlords that are hungry to fill those venues in an incredibly difficult market. We've been very lucky to survive, 2020 and COVID, and you know, all credit to the team here. They really did a great job to keep the quality up, to keep the service standards up, to survive financially through the shutdown period, and then pull themselves back from that period and grow back to where we are today. And that's obviously given us the confidence that we have a great concept that is enjoyed and loved by people.

So when the time came to look at our expansion, we were like well, we've got a great concept, there's a lot of interest in the market for the brand or for brands like us. And now there's some amazing global venues that the landlords are willing to do deals on. So it is obviously a little bit scary, but it's very, very exciting.

And most of our expansion plans, hopefully, touch wood, if everything goes well with the vaccine rollout, will be coming online just as the world starts to ease restrictions and open back up.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: So where are you looking at expanding? Can you tell us?

Andrew Morrow: I can tell you that what's confirmed. So here in Dubai, we've got a beautiful venue in the Dubai Marina that we'll be doing under the London project moniker. We'll be doing three new brands that will be brand new in the market.

And then we, as many people might have already seen, the announcement has just been made that we have taken a location in Canary Wharf in London in the floating waters.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: So, the London project goes to London.

Andrew Morrow: The London project goes to London. One of the things that we like to hold ourselves true to is an iconic location. We think that here in Bluewater Islands, it’s an incredible iconic location. And when we got the opportunity to take the Canary Wharf site in London, it was the same, it was such an iconic location. So they're floating units that were built in a shipyard. And then they were recently sailed down the Thames and in through the gates, into Wood Wharf in Canary Wharf. And they just going through the process now of stabilizing themselves to the jetties there. So that's where we'll be opening our first London venue.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Exciting!

Andrew Morrow: And then we have more global expansion plans that are dependent on seeking out and finding and solidifying, amazing iconic locations that befit the brand.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And so you guys are taking this on as an owner-operator?

Andrew Morrow: Yes, very much so. So we will need to expand our team. We can't do it all based here in Dubai. So over the next 12 months, we'll be growing our team to include a more internationally diverse portfolio of people.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And do you think this is maybe a moment for the dynamics you mentioned before post-COVID, for these Dubai-born brands to go global?

Andrew Morrow: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the market is ripe. I think if you've got a proven brand with, um, very good quality food, really good quality offering and a point of difference, I think the world is hungry to see what you have to offer. In our experience, the landlords and the estate agents that we're speaking to are always looking for that point of difference. I think coming into the new world era of post-COVID, the mentality is they're looking for entertainment as much as they're looking for quality food and beverage. So, you know, if you're a brand that has an exciting element to your concept and you are looking to expand, then the time is now.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: And let me also ask, what other markets do you think are exciting?

Andrew Morrow: Globally, it's very exciting. I think there are certain markets like the US which has have struggled more than most, have really been hit very, very hard by COVID and a lot of people have lost their businesses and it's all very sad. And as much as I think a lot of those people who've had a great concept pre-COVID will be able to bounce back and get themselves back into a venue.

I think that's what comes into America will be really interesting. I think Europe is a little bit slower, if I’m honest, particularly mainland Europe, I think that'll be a lot slower to recover. And you know, the cost of doing business there is also a factor that needs to be very, very, very carefully considered before anybody sort of goes in and spend lots of money there on fit-outs and development. As we were just talking pre-interview, the African market sounds interesting. And that's not a market that I'm overly familiar with it, but with the little bit I am hearing, it sounds interesting. I think Asia is going to be, you know, like it was pre-COVID, I think it's going to continue its growth and dominance in the international F&B and hospitality scene.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines Interesting. Well, thank you so much, Andrew. Really appreciate it. And we're looking forward to hosting the advisory board cocktail party here on the 17th of May.

Andrew Morrow: Yes! It should be a lot of fun. We're actually going to be , hopefully, I won't share any finite plans yet. But we're hopefully going to be showcasing something a bit new and the direction that we'll be going in the long term. So it'll be really nice to have our peers seeing that for the first time, getting their feedback, which i’m sure there will be many.

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: [Laughs] No, people in the industry give opinions? [Laughs]No, we're really excited. I'm looking forward to it and yeah. Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Andrew Morrow: Pleasure

Jennifer Pettinger-Haines: Cheers

[Outro Music]

Published 23 May 2021

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