With both Indochine and Miss Lily’s being the ultimate celebrity hangout spots in New York City, Dubai has been lucky enough to add the venues to its roster of fabulous eateries in the emirate.
Adding to Dubai’s burgeoning scene, VKD Hospitality Founders Khalil Dahmash and Varun Khemaney have managed to make both the restaurants popular places to dine in here in the city.
Emirates Woman sat down with the dynamic duo to find out what it was like to bring two famed NYC celebrity hotspots to Dubai, how they dealt with the pandemic and what they think of Dubai.
What made you want to bring two iconic New York hotspots to Dubai?
Both brands are very special in their own right. We fell in love with the décor, food and how unique their overall offering was. We don’t like to go after big franchises as we like to add our own creative touch while taking into account what the local market wants, when translating the brands from overseas – as this can be seen with both Indochine and Miss Lily’s. Another reason of what attracted us to bringing both brands here was that both Jamaican and Vietnamese cuisines were underrepresented in the Dubai culinary scene. They both filled a niche that was missing in the market.
How did you begin your careers in the food and beverage industry?
A large portion of Varun’s family business was in F&B – so he picked up the hospitality bug from a young age. He also partnered up with Iron Chef Morimoto and opened up a restaurant called Tribeca Canvas in NYC not too long ago. Khalil on the other hand came from a finance background – he worked a lot on mergers and acquisitions in the Middle East specifically in the F&B sector. He gained his operational experience by building and operating Miss Lily’s and Indochine, which allowed us to form the VKD hospitality group in 2016.
Miss Lily’s arrived in Dubai first – what was it like bringing this hotspot over to Dubai? Were you worried it may not mesh in with other establishments?
That’s exactly why we brought it over – we really didn’t want it to mesh with other establishments in the city. It was unique and that is the main reason why it did so well. Everyone in the city wants to go big, while we wanted to go small.
The process of bringing the brand over from NYC was difficult and it took a lot of time and effort to convince the partners that we were the right operators for the brand. Funny enough, there were several other big Dubai F&B operators going after the brand at the same time. However, after months of back and forth they chose us as they felt that we truly understood how to translate the brand over to Dubai without losing the true essence of what makes Miss Lily’s so special.
Varun Khemaney and Khalil Dahmash
Then last year you brought over the iconic Indochine. Has it been as popular as you’d hoped here in Dubai?
Yes, it certainly has, the reception has definitely been very positive. It is gratifying to see a space come to life and manifest from the original idea we had in the first place. Indochine received the best fine dining newcomer in the 2020 timeout awards – it was great to get such validity from our industry peers.
Can you talk us through the appeal of Dubai?
It’s the biggest cosmopolitan city in the Middle East. The population has a large number of expats and a very well-educated local class who are always looking for something new. High spending power. The city also attracts a large number of tourists every year – it is an entertainment hub. Plus, setting up businesses in the UAE is pretty easy and straight forward.
How long was the idea in the works to bring Indochine to Dubai?
It took roughly about two years to translate Indochine DXB from an idea to reality.
Of course, it only arrived in Dubai at the end of 2019 then we had lockdown in March – crazy times! How did the pandemic and lockdown affect Indochine?
Really crazy times! It’s unfortunate that the pandemic came just a couple months after Indochine opened. The restaurant was just getting into its stride and reaching its momentum. We opened our doors starting with Gucci’s annual party and from there we got continuous coverage from the best publications and key industry leaders in the city. Once the pandemic hit, we had to close down our doors and we, unfortunately, lost the momentum that we have built up. We had to basically start again from scratch once we opened back up – but we are thankful for the reception we have received; all of our regulars came back to support us. We are happy to be back on track now.
How did you adapt during this time? Other restaurants like LPM turned to delivery, which meant they could keep all of their staff employed. Is this something Indochine did?
At VKD we always preach family – that being said, our main goal was to retain all of our staff and to not lay anyone off. In order to do that, we had to be nibble and see how we can adjust our business model to keep afloat. With the restaurants being closed, we shifted our entire offering onto an online delivery platform (Deliveroo). In order to increase our reach, we also found a satellite kitchen located in the marina area. We launched both of our concepts from there – by doing that we managed to expand our delivery radius so that we can reach the majority of the densely populated residential areas in Dubai. This helped bring in a substantial amount of revenue during the lockdown – it also allowed our kitchen staff to continuously work during this time.
The food and beverage industry, especially when opening a restaurant, can be a difficult one to break into as it’s so competitive. What’s your advice to budding entrepreneurs in this industry?
It is definitely one of the most competitive industries out there. Stick to your core competencies, understand your clientele and making sure that you always deliver a consistent product and experience.
What are your thoughts on how the pandemic has affected the F&B Industry in Dubai and the UAE as a whole?
No one in our lifetime has really dealt with a pandemic – this is something that is really new to everyone. Everyone is trying to figure it out. The lockdown forced curfews, capacity limitations will definitely have a ripple effect in the F&B sector – a lot of restaurants and bars have already closed, and we expect to see more of that as the time passes. Only the strong will survive. Coming out of lockdown, we do feel that the UAE has dealt very well with the pandemic when comparing to other cities around the world, they have managed to keep numbers low which meant that operators like us were still allowed to open up and run their businesses – to survive really (even though it is limited). When you look at cities like London and NYC, they are in a much worse state than we are – it’s affecting the F&B industry there much more.
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