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What I learned from running a food kiosk in Dubai
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What I learned from running a food kiosk in Dubai

What I learned from running a food kiosk in Dubai
Food
Ahmed Tahnoon, Founder of Spheerz.

 

Ahmed Tahnoon understands hard graft in the food business better than most restaurant owners. He launched Spheerz, a Japanese street-food inspired brand that serves rare-to-find snacks such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki and taiyaki as a standalone stall at Dubai’s Global Village in 2016, studying the concept for two business cycles before turning it into a restaurant in the Marina Cubes development in October 2018.

“The main problem is that most new openings just duplicate other successful restaurants without any originality,” the 31-year-old Emirati tells My Salaam. “When the main driver for your restaurants is a trend, then those restaurants are bound to close. On top of that, most new restaurant owners are young and have no business background or experience to support entering a very challenging market.”

He didn’t either – but he learned on the job.
As Ahmed prepares take the brand to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall in June, when he intends to repeat the kiosk-to-restaurant route, followed over the longer term by expansions into the GCC and Europe, we asked the former electronics engineer for tips on making it in the food business.

1. Find a unique product

When he first tasted takoyaki, the round stuffed dumplings whose shape inspired the name of his venture, Ahmed was blown away by the flavours.

“How can I be 26 and trying this for the first time?” he asked himself.
When he couldn’t find similar products in the UAE, where ethnic supermarkets and restaurants offer a wide variety of foods, he decided to try his hand at making it, even importing special equipment from Japan.

“I still remember that first taste – and it’s because of that feeling that I thought, if only I make more people try it, then they would fall in love with it as I did. If you do something different you will stand out from your competitors.”

2. Don’t be ashamed to start small

Although friends and family loved the product, the concept was so different to anything else in the UAE, he felt he needed wider endorsement, and settled on Global Village, which attracts millions of visitors each year.

“I started as a kiosk because it would let me test the response of people before doing something risk as opening a restaurant,” he says. “Because of my lack of business experience, I had to work my way up. If you start small, you reduce the risk. You can test the market for the product you are offering and decide to go bigger if it succeeds.”

Dishes at Spheerz_UAE

Dishes at Spheerz.

 



3. Give yourself space to experiment

Opening at a leisure attraction afforded Ahmed the opportunity to fine tune his product.
“When you start as a kiosk, you have the flexibility to tweak your brand. You still have some room to change things; and once you are sure about all aspects of the brand, then you can go bigger.”
The kiosk also allowed him to ensure that he could literally stand the heat.
“Starting a business can be challenging and stressful and unless you have the passion for it, you will struggle to push through those challenges,” he says.

4. Work is an extension of business school

As an engineer, Ahmed knew nothing about business. His first approach was to read as many business books and magazines as possible – except that most were written for other markets and weren’t entirely relevant to Dubai. Even business school, he says, couldn’t take the place of on-the-job experience.
“You can learn all you can at school, but when you go to the field and actually do the process, you need to relearn accordingly. No theory prepares you for the market,” he says. “You must experience demand and supply cycles for yourself, assess how much competition you have, and [see] if it is feasible to start your business with the business model that you have decided.”

5. Open yourself to feedback – and adjust constantly

The good thing about running a kiosk and feeding dozens of customers every day was the ability to interact with them and to understand what works and what doesn’t.
“After some experience with customers, you will find yourself adjusting your brand to match a target audience. Always, always and always listen to your customers.”
If that sounds like a motto for life, it could be. It’s certainly worked for Ahmed.

(Writing by Keith J Fernandez)

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