Beans on toast. The British staple would be Ian Toal’s choice if he had to choose only one meal to subsist on for the rest of his life. Fortunately for him, he hasn’t had to test his theory yet, and is unlikely to have to do so in the near future but it’s perhaps a surprising option considering Ian’s career in the F&B sector.
As the CEO of ALFA CO for operation services Ltd (ALFA CO), the restaurant and food division of Saudi-based conglomerate Al Faisaliah Group, Ian has easy access to some of the most popular casual dining outlets in the kingdom and the GCC.
“I started out in the industry washing dishes and worked my way up to taking on various leadership roles over the past 14 years. I fell in love with food – not just food for eating, but the whole experiential side of food,” he professes.
The desire to create an experience for his customers explains Ian’s hands-on approach in the day-to-day operations of the company and his management style.
“I think the most important thing I can do in my job is to make sure that the people I lead are as passionate as I am – and I am passionate about every single detail of the business, from a dot of dust on the floor and a picture not being hung straight, to a menu not quite being folded the right way,” he says.
“I work hard at engaging my team, and it gives me a great feeling to see that they are truly engaged. It’s only then that everyone has the ability to do the best job they can in the role they have.”
Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has made indelible changes to the experience of dining out. All ALFA CO restaurants reopened on 21 June, the first day that the lockdown was lifted in Saudi Arabia. The new reality looked decidedly different from pre-pandemic days.
The number of tables had been reduced by 30% so they could be placed further apart. Self-service salad bars were no more. Diners were encouraged to order from their phones off digital menus, and cutlery and condiments were wrapped in bags labelled ‘sanitised for your safety’.
These changes were a result of more than two months’ planning, which kept the team busy while the Kingdom was in lockdown. “I think during these tough times, I have learned more about myself, my team and my business than I have in 30 years. These are the times that can define the individual and the team and I’m very proud of the things we have achieved,” Ian says.
“We rallied together, kept busy and focused on the end game, which was reopening. We focused on the things we were doing rather than all the negative things that could happen.”
Of course, simply working towards a reopening wouldn’t have cut it. More than two months of restaurant closures could have shuttered ALFA CO and, according to Ian, had indeed shuttered many of its competitors.
What kept the firm afloat was its quick thinking and innovative approach to in-home dining. One of its first experiments was an online butcher shop set up under the Steak House brand, which offers customers the chance to buy the same steaks and burger patties used by the restaurant to recreate their menu favourites at home.
Leveraging on its status as one of the biggest buyers of beef in the Kingdom, the restaurant is able to give its customers competitive prices on the meat.
“In fact, to capitalise on our supply chain’s strength, in July we introduced a new butcher shop called Kutz. The meat shop chain will provide the highest quality meats, fish, cheese, fresh produce and retail accompaniments needed to create any meal at home with ease from the comfort of Saudi homes,” says Ian.
That wasn’t all the team did. They also came up with what they call [email protected] meal kits for 30 to 40 of the most popular dishes served at Steak House and Piatto, ALFA CO’s casual Italian chain.
These come complete with sauces, spice mixes, cooking instructions, equipment lists and even instructional videos on YouTube to help aspiring home cooks serve their favourite restaurant meals in 15 minutes. For Ian, testament to the success of these meal kits is feedback from satisfied customers.
“The biggest compliment I have received was from people who tell me, ‘I never knew I could cook, but now I can,’” he says with pride. Although the lockdown is over, the crisis certainly isn’t.
“Yes, our business is different now,” Ian admits. “The dine-in segment will probably still be our main business, making up 70–80% of our revenue, but we had to make sure that we come out of this as a digitally savvy organisation as well.”
The company was forced to accelerate the development of its website and delivery function during the closure of its restaurants, doing in six weeks what would usually have taken six months.
“Only under true pressure do you realise how quickly you can get things done,” Ian jokes. As a result, its online business grew by 150% and it reduced its reliance on aggregators, or third-party food delivery services.
He predicts that in the future, the restaurant business will be more of a blended model, with comprehensive online options offered in addition to the dine-in experience. Only time will tell how quickly the Saudi F&B industry will bounce back post-lockdown.
Recovery will now largely depend on diners’ confidence in restaurants’ sanitation and safety measures. “In less than a month after reopening, sales across all ALFA CO brands are now 70% of pre-COVID levels and steadily rising,” he says.
Having pulled his team through the worst crisis of the decade, Ian now has a new ambition for his tenure at ALFA CO.
“I hope that my legacy will be a team that is capable of taking on any restaurant business in the world. At the end of the day, people still want – and need – to eat. If we can make it the safest and most appealing thing to do, then we’ll always have a good business.”
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