During a recent interview at his brewery The Maine Land in Business Bay, I showed restaurateur Joey Ghazal the recently unveiled list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants group’s first Mena list.
Of the top 50 restaurants in the entire region named in the revered ranking, 19 are from the United Arab Emirates. But none of the three popular Ghazal restaurants in Dubai made the list.
If he was disappointed, Ghazal didn’t show it.
“Look, awards and recognition are great for team morale,” he says with a smile. “But I think our work speaks for itself. And a lot has happened in the last five years.
Ghazal’s meteoric rise on the UAE food and drink scene is no small feat. Five years after opening his first restaurant in Dubai, The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill in JBR, he has extended the concept to two other locations in the city: The Maine Street Eatery in Studio City in 2019 and The Maine Land Brasserie in Business Bay. in 2020.
Last year, The Maine became one of the first local brands in the UAE to go international, with the opening of The Maine Mayfair in London. Housed in a Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse and spanning three levels with five distinct rooms, Ghazal says the restaurant’s opening exemplifies the evolution of Maine as a concept.
“After lots of testing, what’s really cool about the brand is that they now have this flexibility and malleability. So what we’re really doing is dialing the Maine up and down according to the needs of the neighborhood it’s in. It has to take the shape of the place it’s in,” he says.
The opening in London also gave the entrepreneur confidence that he was on the right track.
“In 2016, we started with 30 people in the workforce and now we are 400 people. It’s huge in just five years,” he says. The National. “I was looking at the numbers thinking ‘it’s crazy how you can expand an operation like that’.”
Next week, Ghazal will embark on his first concept outside of Maine, with the opening of the Canary Club at JLT, his fifth restaurant, something he calls a bit of a “reinvention.”
Occupying a stand-alone building within the Banyan Tree Residences, the multi-level restaurant will tap into a new community, says Ghazal. It will also have the added benefit of being the only restaurant with a roof at JLT.
“Despite our internationalization, we are also very aware that our brand has succeeded thanks to the support of communities in Dubai,” he said.
“Furthermore, what this tells us is that when you go to communities in Dubai that are underserved and with a compelling offer, you can earn the trust and patronage of that community. And we have proven it at JBR for Dubai Marina community, Studio City for Arabian Ranches, Motor City and Sports City and Business Bay for Downtown community.
When offered the location at JLT, it ticked a lot of boxes for Ghazal.
“It’s a new community that we haven’t tapped into, it’s a very unique place and the catchment area is huge,” he says.
While Maine’s breweries are known for their menus inspired by the American East Coast, the Canary Club will celebrate a West Coast vibe, taking inspiration from California to Cabo, all the way to Lima, Peru.
“We’ve created a concept that incorporates a lot of Californian trends, from healthy food and Mexicatessen to Asian influences and sushi and sashimi bowls,” says Ghazal. “Essentially, we’re creating a concept that does a lot of what we did with The Maine – bringing popular favorites into a fun, buzzy environment with a very compelling hook, which in this case is our design and our roof. It will also be very focused on drinks as much as food.
“Basically it’s an east coast brewery doing a west coast concept.”
Ghazal, who is Lebanese-Canadian, hopes to hit the same “sweet spot” he did with his first restaurant, which he has since replicated in all of his other outlets.
“When we started we were really the pioneers and had the high end casual category. There were a lot of high-end restaurants priced at Dh700 per person,” he says.
“We just got to that sweet spot of Dh350 per person. And that’s really the reason for our success and the reason we’ve been able to open up Maine in strategic areas. It’s a formula that works and that what people have come to expect from us.
The community aspect of his restaurants will continue to be a driving force, he says. That’s why he helped found the Dubai Oyster Project, which helps create artificial reefs using hundreds of thousands of oyster shells discarded from his restaurant.
Inspired by the Billion Oyster Project in New York Harbor, Ghazal partnered with the Emirates Marine Environmental Group and the Arbor School in Dubai. Used oysters are collected by school students, instead of being dumped in landfills, then used to create marine structures, which are then launched near Ghantoot, near the Dubai border and from Abu Dhabi.
“This is the first community-based reef restoration project of its kind. Our restaurants produce over 50,000 oyster shells per month and we have so far donated over 250,000 oyster shells to the project,” says Ghazal.
“Students at Arbor School put them in gargoors, which are illegal fishing nets seized by authorities. These are then used to create biological building blocks to create artificial reefs.
As well as being home to thousands of marine species, coral reefs also act as vital protection, reducing the impact of waves when they hit coastal areas.
“We are trying to involve more hotels and restaurants. Our goal is to reach one million oyster shells per year, which is totally doable,” he says.
With five restaurants now in his care, Ghazal, who grew up in Dubai before moving to Montreal in Canada, says he has a few more concepts in the works and other expansion plans for The Maine.
“We are already considering Maine Miami, Vegas and Mykonos and sites in Saudi Arabia and the Far East. We’ve already proven that Maine, as a concept, has legs and we can scale it up and down, depending on where we are,” he says.
“There really isn’t another international brewery brand. There is an international Nobu, an international Zuma and an international Amazonico… So our focus is on that.
“And we are not sitting idly by. There is still so much work to do in the UAE.
Updated: March 03, 2022, 05:02