Rainbow: Capturing UAE taste buds is ticket to success

The Rainbow Steakhouse has been a part of the UAE's collective palate since 1978. Started by Johnson Manjooran, it has since served countless customers- a majority of them UAE nationals- over two and a half decades of operation.

Manjooran studied hotel management in Mumbai, and joined the Sheraton there in 1972. He came to the UAE in 1975 and commenced work as a nightclub manager. A year in Sharjah and two in Abu Dhabi brought home to him the tremendous business opportunities a nascent UAE offered.

Rainbow Steakhouse started out in Abu Dhabi. 'I had a partner up until 1990, after which we went our separate ways. But my partner still runs the Rainbow Steakhouse in Abu Dhabi, while I've assumed control of the name in the Dubai and the Northern Emirates,' he said.

Post the dissolution of the partnership, Sharjah was Manjooran's first port of call. 'In 1990, I opened a Rainbow Steakhouse in Sharjah. It was an easy decision, because we've been the official caterers for the Sharjah International Stadium since 1984, and that has helped our popularity in the Emirate.'

85576-1But Sharjah's consumers were different, and Rainbow’'s eponymous steaks weren't the cult favorites they had been in Abu Dhabi. 'There were no alcohol licenses, and tourist numbers were lower. Because there were no Americans, Europeans or other international audiences who appreciated good steak, we had to rethink our menu. It was then that I honed in on offering buffets with dishes that would interest the palates of our Arab clientele. That switch worked very well.'

It thus came that the Rainbow Steakhouse, while keeping the legacy of a well-burnished name, stopped serving steak. 'We reworked our food, but kept the name because of its history.'

WORD OF MOUTH

At about the time he opened in Sharjah, Manjooran started expanding into catering for weddings and events. 'We started getting enquiries from UAE national clients to cater for weddings. So we entered the wedding organization business, handling everything but with a main focus on food.'

It was a simpler world, one where celebrations were organised at home or in large tents, and word of mouth was more effective than expansive ad spends. And Manjooran cornered the hugely coveted market demographic of UAE nationals.

'Word spread, and we didn't really need to engage in advertising. Even now, 70% of our clientele is Emirati. I put it down to our food variety and quality. We don't compromise on that at all. And even after all these years, I take a personal interest in the kitchens. You’ll find me in the back with the kitchen staff, looking over operations there.'

Only recently has Rainbow Steakhouse breached into Dubai, with a branch perched near the water close to the Hamriya Port in Deira. The expansion came late because Rainbow had been reaching across the UAE through its Sharjah base. 'We'd always been popular in Dubai, but didn't have a base here until we opened the Rainbow Steakhouse near the Hamriya Port in 2011. And now from Dubai we can offer catering and event services as far afield as Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.'

The current tally, as it stands, is three Rainbow restaurants- two in Sharjah, and one in Dubai. Manjooran also owns the Grand Buffet Restaurant in Sharjah, which opened in 2000, and Dwarka, an Indian vegetarian restaurant, that he wants to bring to Dubai soon.

CAPTURING EMIRATI TASTE BUDS

One might imagine the culinary veteran to have faced his fair share of challenges. But to watch Manjooran's smiling countenance narrate his tale is to believe he’s been riding a fair wind for decades. 'I've been very lucky in that I really haven't faced major challenges. This is not to say there aren't challenges in this field – many people who've tried to emulate Rainbow Steakhouse have run into difficulties.'

But how might a business cultivate such serendipity? Manjooran believes that capturing the hearts and taste buds of an Emirati audience led to organic growth and opportunities. “I think getting into the Emirati market was one of our biggest success factors. They love our food and we've become part of tradition.”

Favor with an Emirati audience segued into government catering contracts. 'We're registered as preferred suppliers with many government departments. For instance, the Ministry of Interior asks us to cater for events UAE-wide. We've been busy with them the past two weeks, hosting events in police stations and so on,' he said.

But times are changing, and so are customer demographics. In particular, lucrative Emirati wedding and party catering service contracts are under threat from modern amenities and five star hotels. 'The wedding catering business has saturated, I feel, and is on the decline. I think this is because Emirati lifestyles are changing. They're going for modernity and convenience. Rather than organize ceremonies at home or in a traditional tent, families are choosing to go to new hotel venues. But we're still keeping that business running – we've got catering contracts with some wedding halls, for example. But they’re in remote areas like Khor Fakkan and Hatta.”

COMPETITIVE RESTAURANT MARKET

And it’s not just traditional wedding tents giving way to hotel ballrooms. An absolute slew of dining options means familiar faces peer through restaurant doors a bit less frequently now. “There are so many choices for people to dine now, between the hotels, malls and franchises. Families that might have been eating in the Rainbow Steakhouse four times a week might only come in twice a week now.”

For all that, Rainbow Steakhouse does brisk business. And Manjooran, in his pleasantly conversational fashion, has the future neatly mapped out.

'Our buffets are running well, and we're going to continue them. But it's very resource intensive to prepare the array of dishes that we do, every day. It's hard work making 150 international dishes daily. So when we open new restaurants, we’re going to focus on Indian and Arabic cuisine and specialize a bit.'

He is streamlining operations through centralized kitchen facilities. 'My first priority is to set up a central kitchen in Dubai, and we’ve already bought 12,500 square feet of land for the purpose. Right now, all our restaurants have their own cooking facilities, which means more coordination and heavier staff loads. Kitchen centralization is the way forward. And then we'll open in more Dubai locations, in the new parts of the city such as JBR and the Marina. That's where our clientele has moved to.'

Manjooran is also going to be looking into business catering with more interest. “We have a lot of lunch catering enquiries from banks, financial institutions and hospitals. They really like our food but they want to be able to examine the kitchen facilities, and aren't very keen to come see them over in Sharjah. Once we've set up our central kitchens in Dubai, we're good to go,” he said.

After all these years, Manjooran still believes in the food business. He says it has potential for entrepreneurs to turn profits in - if they know what they're doing. 'The food business is very good, even now. But there is competition. So you must know the profession, choose the right menu and understand your market. A lot of people enter this business just to chase profit because there certainly are margins. But it's not as easy as it looks and you can't just hope to muddle through. Those times are gone. Now, you must study what you're doing and have reliable people with you to run the show.'

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