We sat with Jennifer Pettinger-Haines, The Bench’s managing director of the Middle East to get the lowdown GRIF.
What motivated you to organize this hospitality summit?
I joined The Bench team in 2008, and over the years of working with the Arabian Hospitality Investment Conference (AHIC), I noticed that F&B was a recurrent topic of concern during advisory board meetings and conversations for hotel owners and investors as well as the brands. One night at the Marlena Bar at IHIF in Berlin, the legendary hotelier Gerald Lawless inspired us to start GRIF by saying how it would be so much easier if there was a place where all the owners could meet the F&B brands, as he was spending a fortune sending his team around the world. In 2014 GRIF, a true passion project of mine was launched with the support of The Bench chairman, Jonathan Worsley.
What were some of the standout moments and accomplishments from the most recent edition of the summit?
We had so many highlights at GRIF in Riyadh this year, with fascinating conversations and contributions from almost 20 founders. These included some of the biggest players in Saudi, such as Mohammed Jawa, chairman and founder of MJS Investments, and Faisal Shaker, co-founder of MFC. A personal highlight for me was having Deem Albassam, co-founder and managing director of The Independent Food Company, on stage. I have wanted to have her on the GRIF stage for years. The company has been a real innovator and pioneer in the region, and her responses were meaty and insightful.
The founders’ session on Driving Growth and Generating Value through concepts was a fascinating conversation led by James Hacon with Rizwan Kassim, founder and managing partner of RIKAS Hospitality; Chris Miller, founder and CEO of White Rabbit Projects Group; Uday Mukundan, CEO of The Food District Company and Natasha Sideris, founder and CEO of Tashas Group. They were all candid and provided very valuable insights. Then, of course, the two world-renowned chefs Tom Aikens and Bobby Chinn were brilliant, charismatic and great storytellers.
At GRIF, we had two culinary tours. It was a great privilege to showcase the incredible restaurants available in Saudi Arabia.
The private dinner hosted by Mohammed Jawa at Il Baretto was a night to remember. The ambience, the world-class food and the service proved possible to have a dining experience in Riyadh comparable to major worldwide cities, which surprised some firstcomers.
What key insights can you share with us?
The industry in Saudi Arabia has seen a rapid expansion, from only 900 restaurants in Riyadh in 2019 to its current figure of over 3,800. The country has also seen a 65 percent growth in the upscale and high-end sectors, with the casual sector almost doubling in size, as presented at GRIF by Gustavo de Hostos, founder and managing partner of Forsite Data.
How would you describe the Middle East’s evolving hospitality scene, particularly in Saudi Arabia?
The Saudi restaurant scene is rapidly growing and evolving, so, it is hard to keep up. However, what was evident from the three-day conference, particularly through the culinary tours where we visited LPM, MAMO, Meraki, Yauatcha, Maiz, Villa Mamas and Altopiano, is that it has the potential to be world class. The competition at the top end of the spectrum is already fierce, and it is going to be even tougher with more outlets and international names coming onto the market. Diners at Riyadh’s finest restaurants are sophisticated and discerning. Concepts, particularly international ones opening in Saudi, need to provide the same level of experience, service and food that guests experience elsewhere in the world; otherwise, they will not survive.
What projects are you working on next?
Now, I am shifting my focus to Abu Dhabi, where GRIF and AHIC will be running as part of Future Hospitality Summit (September 25-27). There has been a great deal happening in the capital, and I am looking forward to showcasing it to the international GRIF community.