Ramusake, Fume, Copper Dog, Barbary, Morimoto, Ruya, The Ivy – these are just some of the restaurants and bars that shut down in Dubai over the past couple of years. Many more closed shop following the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020.
BB Social Dining could have easily been one of them, with the 3-floor restaurant and bar sitting in the high end DIFC area.
Instead, the group operating BB Social Dining (the owners are still deciding on a name for a holding company) has tripled its growth and expanded its business by diversifying into everything from pop-ups to soups and canned non-alcoholic drinks.
They claim it’s what saved their business from “collapsing to its knees”.
“BB was the launch baby back in 2017. Through the difficult times in Covid, we managed to understand that having a physical space in a growth period was great,” says co-owner Spero Panagakis.BB was the launch baby back in 2017. Through the difficult times in Covid
“But to expect what happened [Covid]… and to understand that the physical business almost collapsed to its knees… Out of that, businesses had to look at various ways of, if we do choose to grow, then we need different streams of income coming in, whether it’s a different brand opening or from the same brand, how flexible can the brand be?” he says.
Pretty flexible, we’d say. The group went from operating one physical space (BB Social Dining in DIFC) to opening a pop-up in TimeOut Market Souq Al Bahar, two dry pop-ups in Nakheel Mall’s Depachika food hall and the Huna food court in Yas Mall, as well as an Abu Dhabi branch of BB Social in the Rosewood Hotel opening next month in January.
The Expo Effect
They also saw an opportunity to test out a new Greek concept in Expo 2020 through a pop-up. It worked, and restaurant Philotimos in Dar Wasl Mall was born.
“Pretty much triple growth has occurred since Covid… and the delivery business, which was functioning very well for us during the lockdown, gave us the opportunity [to join] Expo, where we launched the little Greek shop, which then transpired to the Greek restaurant Philotimos.
“Because of the success of the [pop up in Expo], which gave us a great reputation, we said that’s a great opportunity to do a physical space,” Panagakis says.
The opening of a BB Social Dining pop up in TimeOut Market also brought about a two-fold increase in revenues for the group, resulting in a reliable cash flow model through pop-ups, he adds.
“From that [pop-up in TimeOut Market], we said, this could be a good little cash flow model in different parts of town. So, we were lucky to get Depachika food hall in Nakheel Mall where we have a dry version of what BB is… It’s doing great,” says Panagakis.
Know your Abu Dhabi customers
While BB Social’s Abu Dhabi branch in the Rosewood it set to serve alcohol, it will steer away from its focus on the bar, and instead offer consumers a more conservative experience in line with market demands, such as a shisha garden area.
“Abu Dhabi is conservative. It’s a corporate, government-driven city… it’s more business driven… You don’t have that hustle and bustle… While it’s going slow in its process, it will reach that point… As you see on Yas Island, it’s becoming more alive with projects… like SeaWorld opening next year. So, there are a lot of attractions coming, they’re just waiting to flip it…,” says co-owner Alexander Stumpf.
“Our research has shown that the bar and entertainment is not as strong [in Abu Dhabi] as it is here [in Dubai] so we are focusing more on the restaurant and we’re going to have a garden outside which will incorporate shisha… We are more expat populated here [in Dubai] whereas Maryah Island [in Abu Dhabi] is international, yes, but still has a high local influence… We’re focusing more on the local entertainment instead of just the bar…” he adds.
‘We’re not going to run’
While the brand is considering an expansion to Saudi Arabia (it opened a pop-up for a year in 2021 in the Huna food hall in Riyadh), it is wary of the F&B industry’s volatile nature.
“To grow internationally is also there, but again, we say go, but then stop. Because it’s also easy to dilute very fast, whether you’re a corporate or you’ve got a massive enterprise behind you or you’re just sole traders like we are… it’s very fast paced but can also unwind very quickly,” says Panagakis.
Good for the Soule
That’s exactly why the partners decided to expand into retail through Soule Soups. The idea? Making (packaged) soup cool again.
“A lot of people enjoy soups of today but with the connotation of soup being, oh it’s for winter, oh it’s cold, oh I’m sick, or only my grandmother cooks it. It’s a forgotten culinary item,” Panagakis says.
Hard to forget a soup made in 17 different varieties and available in some of the largest supermarkets in the UAE, including Spinneys, Waitrose and massive online retailer Kibsons.
“We’re looking to diversify what a physical business can be, but with talent of respecting what we do as a base and stretching out to what a B2B business can do versus just a physical business appointing staff in the traditional way,” Panagakis explains.
70,000 cans later
And diversify, they did. When the duo decided to experiment with Soule Soups, they bought a canning machine at the restaurant. One day, they decided to dabble in canned non-alcoholic drinks – 70,000 cans to be exact.
“There’s been a big movement towards [non-alcoholic beverages] in the past couple of months… During lockdown, [because] we had our non-alcoholic drinks [on the menu] we said, how do we get these now to the consumer?” Panagakis says.
“So, in conjunction with our soup business, we created some labels that were pre-mix and all they [the consumer] had to do was add the ice. At the same time, because of the soup idea, we had bought a canning machine.
“We started making our own pre-batch brew… and made 70,000 cans. We called it the #BBCan. We not only can [the drinks] internally at the restaurant, but we could also take it [the canning machine] to people’s homes,” he adds.
Don’t expect the drinks to make it to major supermarkets, however. Unlike soup, non-alcoholic drinks have a shelf life, which proved an issue for the duo. But throw a Christmas party, and you’ll have your own BBCan can with your own personalized label.
“Every wedding, birthday, or party, we can it for you direct. So, we did a lot of Christmas parties last year and the year before. And we personalized the labels for the individuals at the time. I think we’re going to continue that legacy into Abu Dhabi,” says Panagakis.
Where businesses fail
Successful as their revenue steams may be, however, Stumpf is convinced F&B businesses need hands-on management to survive.
“Where most bars or restaurants fail is if it isn’t owner-operated, and it runs more or less on an employment basis and then you have to franchise in a city somewhere in a different country or somebody who invested into the restaurant but isn’t from the industry itself,” he says.
“The focus of what the brand is meant to deliver wears off very quickly and they don’t believe in what they set out [to do] in the first place… When something doesn’t work, they find something else, and then they try something else again and next month, you never know, they’re already running a completely different business than they initially were,” he adds.
“You have to understand what you want to deliver. If you want to hire somebody who wants to deliver your dream, but you don’t know what your dream is and you’re busy with something else and you get it run by someone else, it won’t deliver over the long run,” Stumpf says.
It’s safe to say the dynamic duo is running, and living, the dream. Even if that dream means picking up a KFC burger instead of a BB Bao bun after a long day – yes, Alex, we remembered your cheat day.
Quick fire questions with Spero and Alex:
BB’s most popular drink?
Our negroni classic cocktail and the Garden Tonic, which is our [citrusy] twist on the classic gin and tonic. Those are the biggest two sellers since we opened.
BB’s most popular dish?
The Wagyu Katsu and the BB Bao. We made the mark with the Wagyu Katsu. The Bao is the most popular and the most Instagrammed dish in the market.
BB’s busiest days?
Friday and Saturday play off each other because Saturday has the brunch as well. The afternoons have slowed down on Friday but the dinners pick up later.
BB’s highest bill?
We had a couple who ordered two bottles of wine for AED19,000 ($5,000). It was completely unassuming.
Whose cooking is better?
Alex: Spero’s cooking is actually good. He’s getting better.
Spero: Alex gave me one compliment during Covid… I thought he’s going to hate [my cooking] and criticize and make fun of me. But one day he saw me chopping chives and he said, ‘not bad’. That was the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten from him.