For me, coffeeshops are place to disconnect. From people. Not work. I like to visit them alone. Only me, my thoughts, and an iced v60. It’s my “me time”.
For others it’s a place to connect. With friends. The community.
Hala Zainal created a space that allows for both.
Tell our readers about yourself
My name is Hala Zainal. I was born in Abu Dhabi and have been here pretty much ever since. I feel like it may have been a conscious decision on your end to ask where I was born rather than where I’m from, which simplifies things but also complicates them. With that said, I have to caveat that whilst I was born here, I’m not actually Emirati. As many others of my generation and particularly in the Gulf, I’m a classic Third Culture Kid. I’m an Arab-Kiwi, with a heart anchored in the UAE (Abu Dhabi, if we want to be specific!).
Tell us about Third Place
Third Place has been operational since April 2014, I remember deciding to peg 14.04.14 as the official ‘anniversary’ date, because for the life of us we couldn’t remember what specific day we opened and this date seemed an easy solution!
Third Place came about partly as a manifestation of an architectural project I designed in my fifth year of school and partly as a result of a love for the coffee culture and community. The name was a literal (it was really difficult to be creative here!) description of the concept of The Third Place – one coined by a Sociologist who advocated extensively the importance of public spaces. In contrast to most cafes, this one was not created out of a need for food and drink. It was created out of a need for connection and disconnection.
I got extremely lucky (or the stars aligned) when I tapped into my now two co-founders who shared my dream and helped make it happen. We broke the ‘don’t work with friends and family’ stigma!
For as long as I remember, I used to hang-out at cafes to work, study, read or just stare into space. I found comfort in key spaces and there were a couple of cafes (closed down now – I’m still devastated) I truly considered my home away from home. Back then, I had no idea this concept of The Third Place existed. Turns out, this need for a space that’s not quite work and not quite home is quite inherent.
I remember when we first opened and I was adamant we would do it ‘differently’. This was going to be that ‘lost space and found object’ situation I had conceptualized. We agreed to no signage and no marketing – people would just stumble upon it. Of course, that quickly died – up went the signage (but still, no paid marketing to date!).
Our space grew at a miniscule pace by UAE standards. We started with just a limited ground floor space with traditional café-style offerings. We then expanded into a front terrace, upstairs and into the backyard. What makes our ‘expansion’ unique is it’s tailored to community. We expanded into providing ‘street-view’ terrace seating, a library room for the studious ones, a function space to bring in our community and a backyard where you can hide, to ensure you have an almost real element of home.
Moving on from all the space elements, we created a menu that appeals to all, with a few absolute staples (our Tiramisu is unmatched), that people can always come back to. The idea is reliable, consistent and satiating, rather than trending, instagrammable and fleeting. We worked with the first specialty coffee supplier in the UAE – RAW Coffee. At the time, it felt as though we’re almost in a similar boat with them relatively new to the market and us the same, both parties sharing big feelings about ‘consistency’. It was a natural connection.
For any long-time resident of Abu Dhabi, it’s clear Third Place was different. The Abu Dhabi café and restaurant scene has unspoken rules, specific demographics frequent specific locations at specific times. What really made us stand out is we somehow brought all walks of life in, exactly as we hoped to.
I know I’ve gone down the route of telling you the story, but essentially, this is what makes our philosophy and what makes us unique. I wish I could tell you we traveled to some remote location, climbed a mountain and hand-picked gold-plated coffee beans. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), our unique edge is a little more philosophical.
What is your earliest coffee memory?
You know, I think about this quite a bit. I can’t seem to pin-point one. But I do remember that I used to drink a mochaccino (this is pseudo coffee to me now, almost blasphemous) quite regularly when I was 16-17ish and hanging out at my then-fave café. Does that count?
Otherwise, I can tell you a little bit about the journey – I quickly moved into toffeenut lattes and the like, then ‘normal’ unsweetened cappuccinos and then things escalated quite quickly to 5 cups of black coffee a day by the time I got to University. Thankfully, that’s toned down now.
What is your opinion on the future of specialty coffee in the UAE?
Focusing on the business aspect of this, I think we’re in storm phase now. What comes up must come down, as bleak as that sounds. But eventually the hype will die down to a more standard situation. I see this as a trend, and by ‘this’ I mean specialty coffee places popping up at every corner, mass expansion and excessive branding associated with it. I want to believe that someday soon, we’ll be left with a few key ‘brands’ and a sprinkling of hole-in-the-wall, homegrown places that actually have that look and feel.
There’s a big marketable focus on the type of coffee served, the beans, the background, the methodology, etc, but to be honest, what’s the percentage of population that is actually valuing and understanding this? I think once the novelty has worn off, the focus will eventually shift back to coffee culture, full stop.
How do you spend your private time?
Earlier I mentioned reading and staring at walls in cafés. That’s very much still relevant.
But on a more serious note, I do also have a full time job, so private time is a rare occurrence between that, a business and a home to run.
I spend private time with my family and kids and do a lot of catching up on sleep when possible! There’s always some kind of personal development journey I’m on, so there’s that too. A certification, a course, a project concept, a new ‘hopeful’ hobby – so far, it’s just books and yoga that have stuck! When I need to get some air, it’s 100% the beach that’ll do it.
What’s next for Third Place?
I want to answer this question because there’s always a lot of pressure with ‘what’s next’, and I’m now struggling to provide the answers that people seem to want to hear. Third Place was never envisioned to franchise out into a cookie-cutter development, but there was vision of contextualized spin-offs – if and when it makes sense. We’re working on uplifting our interiors, building a community through events and collaborations while always keeping an eye out for future opportunities.
You’ll find Third Place on Instagram here. And in Abu Dhabi at Corniche road, Villa T3.