Ravi’s dash of flavor accentuates Dubai food scene

It has been serving delicious curries in Satwa for 36 years. It gets through half a ton of wheat a day and serves 2,500 to 3,000 patrons every 24 hours. Snoop Dog referred to it during his stay in Dubai.The BBC has covered it, and Emirates Airlines has included it in a shoot on Dubai’s attractions.

This is Ravi, a Pakistani restaurant in the heart of Satwa that has become a cultural icon and a living slice of the UAE’s history.

Ravi’s founder, Abdul Hameed, came to the UAE in 1970, a year before the UAE was formally created. His old passports still bear the entry stamps of the Trucial States. He was a chef and a barbecue expert; his son Waheed says it seems to run in the family.

Abdul Hameed found his way to Dubai under his own steam and worked his way up through a variety of odd jobs. Eight years after his arrival, he opened Ravi, his first restaurant. The original Ravi occupied the same space as the latter day version, with adjacent shops and a garage later becoming subsumed to create a larger area.

But what made Ravi successful to the point of becoming a cultural treasure? A variety of reasons, says Waheed. First, it is near Jumeirah, “which was the Beverly Hills of Dubai.” People crossed over into Satwa from Jumeirah, and found the no-frills eatery serving mouth-watering fare on the cheap. Word quickly spread.

Then there’s Abdul Hameed’s work ethic. Thirty-six years later, he’s still quietly perched up on the counter, taking orders in person, careful hands counting change into an old-fashioned till. “We’ve replaced those tills with electronic versions in our other restaurants,” says Waheed, “But no one touches his till. He wants it that way.”

Abdul Hameed isn’t exactly logorrheic, but his quiet mannerisms don't hinder him exerting control over the restaurant’s daily operations. “He shows up at 12:30pm and stays till 3 in the afternoon. Then he comes back for another shift at 6:30pm and stays till midnight. He still puts more time into that restaurant than any of us,” Waheed said.

FOOD THAT TICKLES THE TASTE BUDS

The quality of the food is definitely a contributing factor to enduring success. The cuisine is Pakistani, but tailored a bit to UAE tastes. “People here like a bit more gravy,” says Waheed, “and we oblige.”

Ravi’s chefs have also been around a while. For all the heat and flames belching from the kitchen, staff are well looked after. And they reciprocate that loyalty. The chicken tikka barbecue specialist has been with the restaurant since it opened, Waheed says. The art of cooking succulent meat has been perfected over three plus decades.

With a reputation to live up to, Ravi is particular about its chefs. They’ve all been brought over from Pakistan. “We ask newer chefs to shadow old ones, and follow the recipes we use here, so our food retains that quality and consistency,” Waheed said.

The food, says Waheed, feeds his entire family. “We don’t cook at home. This is our kitchen. We eat the same food we give our customers – every single day. It’s like home-cooked food.”

It’s a great mix – history, diligence and loyal chefs who stick around to concoct the same great dishes day in and out.

But Ravi has also had the fortune to be singled out for free publicity that money would be hard pressed to buy. This is why Waheed, who looks after marketing the restaurant, says his work is relatively easy. “There’s really no need for us to pay for advertising, PR or marketing, when people are giving us that for free. For instance, I thought I’d set up a Facebook page to promote the restaurant, and realized that someone had already set up a fan page!”

Why has Ravi been singled out for such attention? Surely there are other restaurants as good? Waheed says that a kind universe, God’s grace and his dad’s hard work have all had something to do with it. “We’ve been very lucky. But it’s also my dad looking over everything. He has a tremendous work ethic, and takes very few days off, if at all. He’s here every single day.”

IMITATED, BUT NEVER DUPLICATED

Ravi has not just endured, but spawned a host of clones seeking to emulate its success. Many restaurants across the city now have “Ravi” in their name, followed by a suffix of choice. “Ravi can’t be copyrighted,” says Waheed. “It’s a river running through the Punjab that goes past Lahore. But we’re trying to make sure our branding remains distinct so our audience doesn't get confused.”

Ravi has now expanded its operations, with two other branches. One is in Al Nahda, Qusais and the other in Karama. Waheed manages the Karama branch in its entirety. Both branches are doing well, Waheed says, but it’s difficult to match the traffic at the venerable original.

Waheed says he wants to expand further. But his father is still old school, and prefers the measured approach. “We’ve been offered partnerships and franchise opportunities many a time, but my dad doesn’t want that. This restaurant is like his child, and he wants to retain control. We’re now looking for new locations, particularly in Deira.”

Waheed is also searching for suitable spaces in new Dubai areas like Tecom, JLT and the Marina, but isn’t entirely convinced. “The issue with new Dubai is that a lot of those areas are quite residential. What I want is that bazaar feel, with a lot of traffic,” he said.

But what about malls? “I’ve been offered mall deals as well. But all three of our restaurants are standalone. We serve an extensive menu, and need huge kitchen facilities. Our customers aren’t going to accept us reducing the menu by even a single curry, so we’ll need readily available space. We’ve never opened in anything under 3,500 square feet,” he added.

Waheed’s experience in running his own branch of Ravi has seen him approached by friends wanting advice. He says that anyone starting out in the restaurant business must be fully committed. “This isn’t a nine-to-five job. The first six months, it’s all hands on deck, all the time. Look at my father. He still pulls double shifts, 36 years later,” he said. “That’s the commitment you need. Only then will you understand your restaurant, your clients and your business.”

As seen on Zawya Business Pulse. To see more, please click here