A colleague, who I worked with for about 7 years, decided to resign and move to the United States to start his family. He was back in Dubai recently for a conference. I forget the exact date I saw him last but it feels like less than a year had passed since he left back then. We agreed to meet at our favorite restaurant near the World Trade Centre. Where we could catch up over a good meal and a shisha.
We arrived at our spot to find it boarded up. Closed for business. Permanently. Through a crack I saw that most of the furniture was already gone. Looked like the light fittings were next. The place looked dusty. Broken. Sad. Nothing close to the buzzing cafe it was less than a year ago.
It reminded me how quickly restaurants come and go in Dubai. I recently found myself in the company of two successful restauranteurs and told them this story. They shrugged in unison, unsurpised. The life cycle of a restaurant in Dubai is one year, they said. One. Year. They didn’t have the time to unpack why that is.
So when One Life recently celebrated their seven year anniversary, I had to meet the founders to ask them how they managed that.
The first cafe to open in d3, way back in 2016, One Life started out as a small outlet and has become the favourite place of the district for Dubai-based freelancers. One Life sources and roast in-house specialty grade coffee beans from different origins including Ethiopia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Burundi and Colombia. Ask any regular and they’ll speak volumes about the wholesome dishes and welcoming vibe that have won this cafe a legion of fans and many awards over the years.
I asked Head Chef & Managing Partner, Kelvin Kelly, and Founder & Managing Partner, Necip Camcigil, what the seven lessons are they learned in seven years.
Kelvin Kelly, Head Chef & Managing Partner
1. The market is always right
One LIFE has shed its skin more times than I can count over the years, not because we don’t know what we’re doing (who does? ), but because the market will always speak, you just have to listen. For example, you might keep a dish on the menu because you think it’s delicious. The fact remains that it is taking up space on your menu, and if the dish isn’t selling for whatever reason, retire it and try something new.
2. Trust your gut
Don’t question yourself. Follow your instincts; they are usually correct. There have been a few instances where we have chosen logic over intuition, and we should have listened to our intuition.
3. Don’t be afraid to be wrong
Who knows, as I previously stated, what the true recipe for success is. There is no single way to run a restaurant. Sure, there are the fundamentals that define a restaurant, but we’ve been wrong about a lot of things in the past, and that’s OK. We’ve learned to try new things and to be okay if those things don’t work out. I don’t think we’d be where we are now without those lessons. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you should try everything at least once.
4. Growth is not for the faint of heart
Growth, while thrilling and vital, can be extremely painful. Let me explain: It makes no difference how well prepared you are, how many systems you have in place, or how well thought out your contingency planning is. There will always be things you can’t predict, whether it’s construction delays, consultant miscalculations, kitchen flow issues, or design flaws. The list is endless, but I genuinely think it’s worthwhile.
5. Investing never stops
While reflecting on the last seven years, it occurred to me that we never stopped investing in the business. This isn’t always about money; it’s about what you put into your brand by investing time with the team, in the patrons, in the experience, and always striving to make it better and better every day.
Honesty is a strange one, but I believe that being an honest brand is genuinely a necessary character required for your brand’s longevity. This goes a long way, and people eventually notice.
7. Take the time
Restaurants are busy, people’s lives are busy, the steaks are always high (see what I did there? ) and tension is unavoidable. It’s a constant balancing act, but we’ve discovered that taking two hours a week to sit down with the team to regroup and discuss the previous week, as well as share a meal together, adds more value to your business than any level of marketing.
Necip Camcigil, Founder & Managing Partner
1. Nothing trumps food quality
It’s important to remember that the primary reason people are coming to you is for the food, and any deviation from that can be detrimental to your business. It’s also worth noting that consumer expectations of what constitutes to great food is continuously evolving, so if you are staying the same, you’re most likely being left behind.
2. There’s nothing wrong with constrained, consistent growth
One Life never opened with a bang, neither in d3 nor in JVC. A gradual, steady approach to business growth allows you to identify and correct problems while they are still minor and have little impact on your business. Starting with a large influx of customers is fantastic, but only if you can maintain that momentum in the future.
3. Culture matters more than experience
When hiring staff, understand that people with lots of work experience have most likely adopted the culture of previous employers as their own. If their previous employer’s culture differs from yours, they will have to unlearn things before being re-trained. They could have come from a restaurant that aggressively upsells, for example. If that is not what you want, it will be more difficult than you think for them to unlearn that behavior. I believe you would be better off hiring someone who you can mold into the culture and behaviors you are trying to cultivate.
4. Average Check Matters
When trying to grow your business, one factor that has a huge impact on your business is Average Check. In 7 years, we managed to double our average checks through menu engineering, moderate price increases *cough* and upgrading the concept along the way. The truth is, it takes a similar amount of time and effort to serve a table spending 50-60 dhs as it does one that spends 100-150 so the key is to understand how to give more value to the consumer for them to spend a bit more.
5. Change is good
When we started, we had a very specific idea for what One Life was and what it wasn’t. We didn’t use any sugar, we didn’t have sandwiches, we were married to a Paleo/Healthy living vibe for a while, but now we do have sandwiches, we do have sugar, we sell Coke, and we even have alcohol. It might sound like we sold-out but the truth is each of those decisions were only introduced when it felt right or necessary to do so. We still stick to our fundamental belief that good food is food made from scratch so we make our own bread, roast our own coffee, make the majority of our sauces in-house, and avoid using processed food items as much as possible.
6. Cost Control is a way of Life!
We only hired a cost controller in 2021. Unfortunately, at that point we had already developed a slightly wasteful culture internally which we’re now finding is quite an effort to reverse. I don’t believe any individual we work with has ever really had bad intent towards the business, but the more you grow, the more the cumulative effect of carelessness when it comes to cost control can affect your business negatively. You may price an item according to a specific food cost target, but a the end of the month when you look at what that item actually costs you in ingredients, you will invariably be over your target. The goal isn’t to eradicate this effect but to minimize it.
7. Be Present
I absolutely love what I do, I love being at the cash register at lunch and engaging with our customers. I think One Life or any restaurant for that matter is very difficult to manage remotely. Presence, humility, listening to your customers, and constantly trying to better the food, the service, and the overall experience for guests has been extremely rewarding for me and the business.
One Life, Building 5, Dubai Design District, daily 8am to 11pm. Tel: (0)4 513 4727, onelifedxb.com
One Life, Hive CoLiv, Jumeirah Village Circle, daily 8am to 10pm. Tel: (0)4 456 9859, onelifedxb.com