They also weigh in on how this transformation is not only enhancing the dining experience for locals and tourists alike but also contributing to the growing economic significance of Ramadan in the F&B sector.

The evolution

ASIL Dubai’s general manager Hussein Hadla observes that in the past, restaurants would open only for/after iftar, but a few years back the restrictions were removed. Hadla says that this “change has been crucial, especially in Dubai, a major tourist destination,” which has been experiencing a 20 percent increase in visitors every year.

Ramadan F&B offerings in Qatar, too, have evolved significantly to cater to the changing preferences of a globalised clientele. “Traditional iftar and suhoor meals are now complemented with international cuisines to appeal to diverse tastes. Cultural fusion menus, blending local flavours with international cuisines, have become popular, offering a unique dining experience that resonates with both locals and expatriates,” says Giuseppe Soccio – F&B director, Waldorf Astoria Doha West Bay. “Some venues pop-up dining events and collaborations with renowned chefs to add an element of exclusivity and excitement to the dining scene.”

Francesco D’Arienzo, bar manager, Blind Tiger, Jumeirah Al Naseem reflects, “Only a few years ago, venues would have to take extra measures – such as installing temporary walls or shutters to cover up the diners who could eat or drink during the day – to ensure business would not be halted due to government-enforced penalties. Before that, some would simply not serve during the day.”

Another change observed over the years is that even non-Arabic restaurants have started offering F&B options that cater to Ramadan.

“Over time, the offerings in the UAE have evolved significantly to cater to a more globalised clientele,” says Chiara Rosato- F&B director, Zabeel House the Greens.

Overall industry leaders observe the diversification of traditional iftar and suhoor menus to accommodate a wider range of tastes and dietary preferences like healthier options, vegan and vegetarian choices that incorporate international flavours to appeal to diverse palates. “Especially as Ramadan falls earlier and earlier each year, hence we are experiencing peak tourism levels currently whilst also catering daily for iftar. This includes offering a diverse range of options to accommodate different tastes and preferences. Additionally, there has been an emphasis on creating a more inclusive and welcoming dining environment that appeals to a broader audience,” says Minesh Patel, owner of The Pods at Bluewater’s Island.

Smaller gatherings, such as picnics or meals at home, where guests have greater control over food quantity and spending too seem to be having a moment. “Last year, we witnessed a significant increase in delivery services and guests were opting for smaller and more practical menu items,” says Sheikha AlMheiri, the founder and owner of MAD Hospitality. Tapping on these evolving preferences, the group made a strategic decision to launch Panu during Ramadan. “As a cloud kitchen concept, we anticipated the surge in delivery demand and wanted to offer something unique yet convenient for our customers.”

Suhoors, Ramadan tents and sustainability

Today, restaurant operators are pulling out all the stops when it comes to providing a memorable iftar experience, from live cooking stations, Allayah dance shows to live music and an array of food offerings. Lily Hoa Nguyen, CEO, Vietnamese Foodies says that suhoors have become a very popular trend in recent years with participation from hotel-based establishments with stronger operation capability. “Same establishments are offering Ramadan tents with exquisite views and special Ramdan-themed set up with moon-and-star emblems. Those seeking a suhoor-in-the-desert experience will find themselves at desert camps where buffet-style suhoors are served in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve accompanied by a table-side fireshow and live oud music,” says Nguyen.

From the Asateer tent at Atlantis Dubai, Bulgari Majlis at Bulgari Dubai to Terrace between the Towers at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, situated on the hotel’s rooftop terrace, offering views of the Museum of the Future, this year, Ramadan tents, with their extravagant seating arrangements and opulent décor have been in the spotlight, more than ever before. Industry players note that they have notably expanded in size and decor, enhancing the festive atmosphere more than ever before. “Ramadan tents are being more creative apart from the basics like ouzi, with a wider variety of warm desserts, considering the cooler season of Ramadan,” says Eti Bhasin, owner at Dhaba Lane and Mahi Café.

Over the years, guests have expressed aversion to all-you-can-eat offers because of their high potential of creating high food wastage, while others decide to avoid overspending on food so that they can save and donate to people in underprivileged and less fortunate conditions. “Enjoying iftars and suhoor at signature locations has a very strong pull towards food enthusiasts, however, there is also an opposite trend of abstaining from over-eating during Ramadan for sustainability reasons or to express empathy with the less fortunate,” says Nguyen.

The metamorphosis of the suhoor experience has also been notable. “Suhoor has evolved from simple menus in a relaxed setting to elaborate buffets, appealing to a broader audience and maximising the use of these grand tents. Additionally, as Ramadan moves into a better climate, venues are also developing attractive outdoor environments to draw in more guests, mimicking a typical dinner service,” says Pallav Patel, founder of Big Belly Hospitality.

Marketing in the age of social media

The advent of social media marketing has emerged as a crucial tool for restaurants to showcase their Ramadan offerings to a broader audience. The rise of social media creators and influencers has further amplified this, providing restaurants with content that resonates with potential guests. “These platforms facilitate direct engagement and interaction between restaurants and customers, allowing patrons to inquire directly, leave reviews, and share their dining experiences with their networks. This enables restaurants to promptly address inquiries and concerns, and even adapt offerings based on feedback received through social media channels,” says Rosato.

The digital and social have landscape have made it easier for customers to discover and book Ramadan dining experiences last minute, leading to increased visibility and footfall for venues. Timothy Groeneweg  – director of food and beverages, Raffles The Palm says that by leveraging both online booking options and the power of social media, restaurants are able to expand their reach and attract a larger number of guests. “Firstly, customers can seamlessly reserve tables at their preferred restaurants with just a few clicks, bypassing the hassle of traditional phone calls or in-person reservations. This streamlined process not only saves time but also ensures a smoother dining experience for customers amidst the bustling Ramadan period.”

The social media phenomenon has led to chefs and restaurants now taking the time to perfect their arts and showcase their culinary skills through the watchful eye of social media. “This has also paved the way for non-Muslims to say wait a minute I would also want to be part of these amazing iftar or suhoor experiences which makes it more beautiful in my own opinion,” says Bahjat Saade – director or food and beverage at Grand Millennium Dubai.

This Ramadan, commercial venues have also been stepping up their game with innovative collaborations, cross-branding initiatives, and the introduction of fresh-themed concepts to elevate the Ramadan experience. For instance, 25hours Hotel One Central partnered with the renowned Lebanese restaurant L’Os, infusing traditional flavours with a modern twist conceptualised by Ali Cha’aban, a multi-talented artist who uses his modern vision from the Arabic culture to redefine the traditions and translate it to the moment. The property has also hosted the Montblanc Majlis by Ninive at Juña, a secret garden majlis concept nestled within the ambience of the new-age property.

“These partnerships not only enhance the customer experience but also provide our F&B venues with unique opportunities to attract a diverse audience,” says Sami Matta, the F&B director at 25hours Hotel One Central. “Instagram and Facebook serve as platforms to showcase visually enticing content. Through captivating reels, stories, and posts, guests can get a glimpse of the venue, the buffet spread, and the ambience, igniting interest to visit the venue.”

Matta adds that platforms like Instagram provide instant updates on Ramadan offerings, menu highlights, and promotions. “This real-time access ensures that they never miss out on any exciting updates or exclusive deals.”

Online bookings, especially through WhatsApp, too, have streamlined the process where guests can easily reserve their Ramadan dining experiences, eliminating the need for traditional phone calls. “This approach also provides a visual menu, making it simpler for guests to choose timings and make special requests,” Matta notes.

Hadla also points out that with 70 percent of bookings coming through digital platforms such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and the restaurant’s website, customers now have convenient and accessible ways to reserve their tables.”Social media marketing integrates a “Book Now” link directly into the daily routines of potential customers, streamlining the reservation process,” Pallav adds.

To take this to a whole new level, F&B venues implement strategies to create captivating dining experiences like fusion cuisines, pop-up events, interactive experiences such as DIY dessert bars, and captivating decor. “Ramadan is a great month to explore how restaurants evolve and adapt to guests’ demands,” observes Rosato.

Operational strategies

Venues have been adapting their operational strategies during Ramadan to accommodate the influx of guests and ensure a smooth dining experience. “To ensure the highest quality of service, staff training programs are conducted to educate employees on cultural sensitivities and the significance of Ramadan, ensuring respectful and attentive service throughout the holy month,” says Soccio.

More than ever, establishments have embraced technology to enhance the customer experience, with online reservation and order management systems gaining popularity. “This streamlines operations for food and beverage,” Groeneweg notes.

Meanwhile Rosato asserts that operationally, an iftar is quite different from the typical a-la-carte or buffet experience. “Timing is crucial, with reservations flooding in simultaneously, requiring intricate logistical planning behind the scenes.” She says that systems like Sevenrooms or TableCheck are valuable, allowing restaurants to adapt floor plans for pop-ups seamlessly. This ensures that restaurants can still use their CRMs to deliver personalised experiences amidst the bustling activity.

Mata says the period sees a surge in demand for outdoor venues and those offering levantine cuisine with shisha service, making it a peak season for the industry. “To effectively manage this heightened demand, our operational strategies comprise increasing staffing levels to ensure efficient service and customer satisfaction, as the influx of diners requires a streamlined dining experience,” he shares. Extending operating hours to accommodate suhoor guests is another key adaptation.

“We optimise our kitchen workflow and implement a smart menu system to efficiently handle the larger volume of orders, ensuring that each guest receives a memorable dining experience during the festive season of Ramadan,” states Mata.

Growing economic significance

As Ramadan coincides with Women’s Day, UAE Mother’s Day, and Easter, hotels have been anticipating a bustling business environment. “It is clear that the economic activity stimulated by the hospitality sector during Ramadan contributes significantly to the overall economic vitality of the region, fostering heightened competitiveness in the market and prompting innovative marketing strategies,” says Groeneweg.

There’s a surge in dining out as families and friends gather to break their fast, leading to increased footfall and sales for F&B establishments. “Hotels and restaurants capitalise on this demand by offering special Ramadan tents with a variety of offerings, promotions, and packages, driving revenue growth,” says Soccio.

Nguyen notes that revenue growth from Iftars and suhoors are probably only visible at larger-scale establishments such as hotels and large restaurants that can offer a special dining experience. “For large venues, online reservations can tremendously assist in forecasting customer volume to help them with food preparation to manage cost and reduce wastage.” She adds that for small- to medium-sized restaurants, Ramadan can be a challenging time when they lose footfall to more sizable venues and staff working hours are reduced according to Labour Law.

According to Sophie Blondel, GM of The H Dubai Hotel, substantial revenue is generated from iftars and suhoors. “Many corporates organise team iftars or schools as a way of appreciation for their teams. The increased demand for dining during Ramadan stimulates business activity, supporting the hospitality industry and contributing positively to the local economy.”

 Moreover the bigger footfall of people at once, according to Bhasin, has shown at least a spike of 25 percent in revenue. “We have tied up with vendors like Zomato & EazyDiner, where a guest can pre-book their iftar table, and cancellation rates are usually seven to 10 percent, so most are guaranteed bookings, based on which we are better organised on our F&B preparations. In comparison, to other odd days, more of a routine is observed where food cost is also measured if a fixed menu is created during this period, and better chances of capitalising on revenue with mass gatherings,” she asserts.

by Misbaah Mansuri