Enas El Masry

With devoted backing from the government, Kuwait is steadily headed towards becoming the world’s food capital by 2030, making it a mecca for all aspiring food and beverage (F&B) business owners and investors.

In our first part of the interview with Kuwait’s aspiring chef Faisal Al Nashmi, we inspected food and cooking through the lenses of art, philosophy, and culture. But just like any business that is based on a form of art, passion alone cannot keep it alive.

In the second and last part of the interview, Al Nashmi walks us through the ins and outs of building, maintaining, and growing a successful business in the F&B industry.

Q: To be passionate about what you do is great, but how do you monetize this passion?

A: I once gave a talk called Passion vs. Business and it was one of the hardest things to clear up because being passionate is totally different from being a businessman. For you to survive, you have to make money. And making money means you’re a businessman.

Luckily I have a partner who is handling the business side. Because taking care of the business needs can often take away from the passionate part of the job.

But making money off art is no different from starting any other type of business. First, you have to understand what the market needs and validate whether those needs are aligned with what you have to offer. In my case, I saw that the market was short on creative restaurants. No matter what restaurant I visited, be it Japanese or American, their food almost tastes the same. This didn’t make sense because if I travel to different countries, I wouldn’t get the same food experience everywhere I go.

This lack of diversity in the food industry in Kuwait created a big market gap which I set out to fill.

In order to differentiate myself from the rest of the market, I had to begin by understanding what makes restaurants succeed. I did this by breaking down the popular dishes and defining what they had in common.

In Kuwait, we have a very amateur palette. We like things that are safe, and by safe, I mean creamy, spicy, sour, and sweet foods complemented with a defined texture. Combine these elements, and you get a successful dish in Kuwait.

Using the five elements of a successful dish, I started getting creative to come up with a menu that is uniquely Faisal Al Nashmi’s. I wanted the restaurant visitors to say, “I ate at Faisal’s restaurant,” and not the name of the restaurant. Because when they know that chef Faisal is good, they would want to visit any other restaurant he opens.

Knowing the chef as a person and not a brand is basically how you get the market moving.

Q: And did you start your own restaurant right away or did you work in someone else’s kitchen first?

A: I worked at the Sheraton Hotel for three weeks and then I worked at Lenôtre, a French restaurant, for almost a year as a creative developer. That’s the experience I got before opening my restaurant.

Q: What about the logistics of opening a restaurant? What are the key elements that people have to be mindful of?

A: Operations is the most important element that any restaurant owner has to look into. It is the hardest and most time-consuming. At the backend of your restaurant, operations include everything from suppliers to staff: how to receive items from suppliers and how to store them, maintaining hygiene in the kitchen and restaurant, food preparation and how long it can be stored… and the list goes on and on.

Then you have the front end which includes customer service: how to make sure the customer receives the best treatment, how to deal with their complaints, how to take an order, and so on.

All the above falls under operations. So, one person can’t oversee all of it on their own. That’s why you try to hire the right, skilled operations manager, restaurant manager, and employees. But realistically speaking, it’s impossible to hire the right people and to entirely work out this structure from day one. You need a big budget and a lot of luck.

Q: What you’re saying is that there are always going to be hiccups before the business starts picking up a steady pace.

A: Of course. I remember that during the early days of my first restaurant, I used to sleep there. For a very, very long time, I spent all of my days at the restaurant and I barely saw anyone.

Slowly, things started to pick up and I started regaining my social life. But at first, there were a lot of hiccups here and there which I believe made us stronger. They taught us how to run things the right way.

Al Makan was the first followed by Table Otto then Pam + Cow, Street Cafe, and then San Ristorante.

Q: I noticed on Trip Advisor that there were many complaints about the service during your Table Otto expansion. What caused these issues and what could have been done to avoid them?

A: Service is always a major part of any restaurant. Most of the time, customer complaints will come from the service whether it’s my restaurant or others’. The reason behind these complaints is that Table Otto is a breakfast restaurant. In the morning, we’re incredibly busy and the waiting list might extend to two hours. In the wintertime, we seat around 100 people. So imagine when you have 100 customers and another 2-hour waiting list. This is how busy it gets.

So people walk in in the morning without having had any coffee or breakfast and they find out they’re on a waiting list. By the time they’re seated they’re already on edge. And then there’s still food to prepare which naturally takes time. These delays build up and affect the experience negatively. That’s why most of the complaints are shared in the morning.

The quickest and easiest solution is to hire more staff. But today, we don’t consider it an issue of staff quantity but rather a question of management quality. A good manager can operate a restaurant with half the amount of staff if all resources are utilized and planned wisely.

As a seasonal restaurant, this situation is recurring. During summer, everything is calm. But come winter, we take a hard hit. Meanwhile, the Table Otto management keeps changing until we find a team that can navigate the hard times as smoothly as they navigate the easy times.

Q: What other elements factor into the success of a restaurant?

A: The interior design, the branding of the restaurant, and the service are very influential. But I believe that the concept of the restaurant is the primary factor as it must have an identity.

The dining experience is a comprehensive one that involves a lot more than the food served. You need to build an experience that would make people want to eat at your restaurant over somebody else’s.

Q: While we’re on the topic of branding, how did you manage to build five different brand identities for your restaurants that are all inspired by your journey?

A: I do so by thinking from a customer’s perspective. I think, “What would I like to see at a restaurant? How would I imagine an Italian restaurant or an Asian one? Or a burger joint?”

My frequent travels allow me to experience a lot. The same applies to my partners. And that’s where we derive our expectations for our restaurants from.

The other thing that inspires the identity is striving to be different. When we consider the restaurant’s design, we think of the surprise element that would swipe visitors off their feet before they’ve even tasted the food. At Table Otto, for example, we specifically picked this location because while people are walking at Al Shahid park, there’s this wall. When you cross it, you find this beautiful garden concealed behind it with beautiful windows.

The same applies to Al Makan. It’s a very small space downstairs, but then you go up and it’s huge with exposed ceilings. It’s like an industrial space. At San Ristorante, the visitors’ experience begins with an aromatic greeting of pizza and Italian cuisine that works up their appetite long before they’ve laid eyes on the menu.

So it’s safe to say that design isn’t only spatial but extends to include the whole experience which begins when the visitor sets foot in the restaurant.

Q: On Table Otto’s Instagram account, I noticed a lot of emphasis on the culture and team, how they interact, how you bond, and so on. How does the work culture affect the restaurant, and how would you describe the work culture at Table Otto?

A: This culture isn’t exclusive to Table Otto. It applies to the whole company. We treat our staff like family. Because the more they’re treated like family, the more they treat the restaurant as home. And this can only be instilled through day-to-day interactions.

We have a great relationship with our staff. And because I’m a chef, I’m always around the kitchen which allows me to build a very special bond with the team. Everyone has my personal number and we’re always sharing kitchen updates over Whatsapp.

The success of our culture shows in the low turnover rate. I would say that around 95% of the employees complete at least two years before resigning.

Treat your staff as you treat your friends, and they will be there for you through thick and thin.