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Alabbar urges leaders to focus on innovation

Mohamed Alabbar, Founder of Noon, urges industry leaders to focus on innovation at UAERG Food Service Forum and IMAGES RetailME Food Business Forum

UAERG Food Service Forum and IMAGES RetailME Food Business Forum, MENA’s premier knowledge-sharing platforms for food service (HoReCa) and food & grocery retail in its inaugural edition brought forward industry leaders from across MENA under one roof.

In the wake of the thriving food industry landscape in the MENA region, industry titans converged at the UAERG Food Service Forum and IMAGES RetailME Food Business Forum held at the JW Marriott Hotel Marina in Dubai on Thursday, June 6, 2024. The events witnessed an impressive gathering of over 400 attendees, 100+ speakers, and 20+ sessions, embodying a collective endeavour to explore novel prospects and foster innovation within the Hotel, Restaurant and Catering (HoReCa) and Food and Grocery Retail sectors.

Expressing the power of the ecosystem Mohamed Alabbar, Founder of Noon, acknowledged the importance of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the food business landscape. He said, “We are blessed with a very safe and secure environment for the industry to grow, thanks to the leadership of the country. So, we should take greater care of the country’s economy. SMEs account for approximately 70 percent of the 30,000 food outlets in Dubai, forming the bedrock of our economy. We must encourage the growth of local, home-grown brands.”

Amitabh Taneja, Editor in Chief of IMAGES Retail ME, emphasized the significance of collective action in propelling the industry forward. He said, “The UAE’s food service market is expected to grow at a remarkable CAGR of 17.09 percent, potentially reaching US$43.98 billion by 2029. We believe that the food business at large is a critical part of the overall retail ecosystem. Moreover, the Food & Grocery retail business in MENA is set to touch the US$216.3-billion- mark by 2026. This is an opportune time, and we clearly see that the consumer is evolving faster than ever. Keeping this in mind, we are constantly creating platforms that catalyses retail conversations to help nurture growth for the ecosystem. The Food Business Forum and the UAERG Food Service Forum are a culmination of our efforts to create a podium for the industry to innovate, collaborate, and nurture best practices and ideas for success.”

The morning hours of the conference delved deeper into understanding the nuances of the food business through the lens of industry leaders such as Panchali Mahendra, CEO of Atelier House, a global hospitality chain, who highlighted the importance of enhancing customer experience by balancing

technology implementation with human touch. On the other hand, George Kunnappally, Managing Director of Nandos-UAE, spoke about the choice of implementing technology, only if necessary. While the industry leaders from the food service industry shared their culinary secrets to success, the food and grocery industry leaders touched upon the trends dominating the MENA region and how the CEOs and their teams are navigating the ever-changing grocery landscape with the right strategies and actions.

Muhammad Adeel Anjum, the CEO for Circle K Arabia, highlighted the rapid growth and future potential of the grocery industry. He said, “The MENA grocery retail sector is undergoing a significant transformation, with an increased focus on technology and consumer convenience. The integration of advanced supply chain solutions and real-time analytics is enabling us to meet the dynamic needs of our customers more efficiently.”

Mr. Mohamed Al Hashemi, Chief Executive Officer, Union Coop mentioned, “Sustainability and local sourcing are at the forefront of our strategy. By prioritising these aspects, we not only support the local economy but also ensure the long-term viability of our operations. Our aim is to lead the way in providing high-quality, locally-sourced products to our customers.”

Further during the day through the conversations at IMAGES RetailME Food Business Forum, the varied aspects of the MENA grocery landscape were brought under the spotlight. While key leaders discussed role of technology and Artificial Intelligence in proliferating business growth, a special session on the growth of online grocery in the region brought an illustrious panel featuring John Noja, General Manager, Talabat Mart UAE; Mahmoud Bahaa, General Manager, Rabbit; Chase Lario, VP of Groceries, Careem; Halima Jumani, Founder and CEO, Kibsons International and Raed Hafez, CEO, El Grocer By Smiles.

While experts from the grocery industry of MENA discussed fast evolving customer preferences, warehouse automation, turning seamless across channels, food security and much more through the day, on the other hand the food service industry experts brought forward the idea of expansion, serving to a global audience, menu management, and marketing as a pillar of strength.

While everyone acknowledged the growing influence of tech across the spectrum, interestingly the ‘power of people’ emerged as the biggest talking point across both UAERG Food Service Forum and IMAGES RetailME Food Business Forum.

Explaining the concept of people power and community-building Amit Nayak, Vice Chairman of UAE Restaurants Group & Vice President of HAMA MEA, said, “Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospitality sector in the UAE has experienced a robust recovery, with a significant 22 percent increase in occupancy rates. The sector is projected to grow to US$10 billion by 2029. As a community-founded, nonprofit organization, UAERG is committed to closely working with governmental bodies to sustain and enhance business opportunities. This forum represents a pivotal moment for collaboration and innovation within our industry in the UAE.”

The food service industry is no stranger to change, with shifting consumer preferences and market dynamics driving continuous innovation. Keeping this broader context in mind, the afternoon panels at the UAERG Food Service Forum brought #HealthyHabits under the spotlight and key leaders and chefs highlighted the importance of integrating health-conscious options into menus to cater to the growing demand for healthier lifestyles.

The power of homegrown brands and how the fusion of local and global is redefining palates became a highpoint of discussion at the forum and the panel had local businesses talking about the art of mastering customer expectations by offering personalized experiences, all while catering to diverse tastes. Osamah

Alawwam, Co-founder, Roasting House touched on the concept of ‘Made in Saudi’ and mentioned, “Local brands have a unique opportunity to showcase our rich cultural heritage and flavors. By emphasizing quality and authenticity, we can create a strong identity that resonates globally.”

On the other hand, talking about interesting global concepts and how tweaking the same to local tastebuds can create a difference, Louay Moursel, Regional Director of Operations, Gastronomica mentioned, “Understanding local preferences and integrating them into global culinary trends is key to our success. By doing so, we can offer a unique dining experience that appeals to both local and international customers.”

Sharing his experience about the forum, Dr. Sadeddine Mneimne, Chairman, Access Group International (AGI) Holding, said, “As the Chairman of AGI Holding and a Golden Spoon partner, I am honuored to endorse an initiative that epitomizes innovation and collaboration within the food service and retail domains. Food Business Forum’s dedication to nurturing growth via community involvement and collaborations with governmental bodies aligns seamlessly with the core principles of AGI. We are steadfast in our conviction that through our alliance with IMAGES RetailME, we can effectively catalyse constructive transformation and foster sustainable advancement within the MENA region’s food industry and globally.” Sadique Ahmed, CEO of Pathfinder and Founder of RetailGPT, added, “The Food Business Forum has been a fantastic gathering of industry leaders, all in one place, showcasing and sharing their expertise and success stories. It’s inspiring to see such a convergence of ideas and experiences, which greatly benefits everyone involved. As a partner, RetailGPT is thrilled to have been part of this event. The interest in AI within the industry has been exceptional, underscoring the value of our partnership. We extend our best wishes to all the participants and look forward to continuing these fruitful collaborations.”

The discussions and debates reached a crescendo in the evening and culminated into an evening of celebration. Two special releases marked the beginning of evening: The Voices of Food & Grocery Retail coffee table book brought together the stories of triumph and success of the leaders of the food and grocery retail, while the June issue of the RetailME magazine titled Pioneers of Palates presented the stories of culinary journeys of prominent names from the food service industry. Moving on, the platform celebrated excellence and innovation within the industry through the IMAGES awards. The IMAGES RetailME Food Service Awards 2024 and Golden Spoon Awards powered by Allezz celebrated best practices in the food service and food and grocery retail across MENA. From culinary innovation to operational excellence, the awardees represented some of the finest retail practices, inspiring others to strive for excellence in their own endeavors.

As the UAERG Food Service Forum and IMAGES RetailME Food Business Forum drew to a close, participants left with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. The forums not only provided a platform for knowledge exchange but also forged meaningful connections and collaborations that are poised to nurture the trajectory of the food service and food & grocery retail sectors in the MENA region.

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