Hani Ali Mirza, Managing Director, Bin Mirza International which brought to Oman a number of international fast casual brands, says Oman’s F&B sector is better placed to weather the storm of economic slowdown. Excerpts from an interview with Muhammed Nafie
Can you give us a brief on the various international brands Bin Mirza Group handles now?
We started our operations in 2004 by obtaining Second Cup cafés from Canada and Nando’s PERi-PERi Chicken restaurants from South Africa. In 2005, we acquired the franchise rights of CinnZeo Bakery cafés from Canada and boutique bakery BreadTalk from Singapore. Later on, we added American restaurant, Steak Escape Sandwich Grill, and British confectionary store, Spun Candy. Lately, we have entered into an agreement with UK-based Wagamama to bring the brand to Oman.
We also acquired French-based bakery and pastry, Carmel which we are refurbishing now and will relaunch soon. In addition, we have a management franchise agreement with Shell Oman Marketing Company to operate their Deli Café. In total, we are operating almost 20 outlets and we have a few more coming up which includes Nando’s in Al Mouj.
Are all your brands faring well currently, despite the economic slowdown?
In 2015, we saw us grow in a big way. We added five to six locations last year: two in Al Mouj and three in Oman Avenues Mall and a couple of kiosks in some corporate locations.
There has been a slowdown, to be honest. But our overall sales as a company have gone up, because we have had new outlets in operation. However, the slowdown is not only in Oman; it is a global phenomenon, when you look at the trend in the region and internationally. I think at this time people are more conscious about their spending. And, in addition, they have more varieties available today, than they had a few years ago. We have more shopping malls with plenty of dining options available.
But despite the slowdown in sales, I am optimistic that the future will be brighter, with government sparing no effort to keep up the momentum. We have Oman Conventional and Exhibition Centre (OCEC) expected to open in August, and similarly, we have several landmark projects coming up such as new airports, Muscat waterfront etc.
No doubt it is difficult time for everybody. But I think difficult times make people stronger and less fragile, and enable them to adapt and grow more. Oil prices have gone down, but it gives the government a bigger push to promote tourism to diversify the economy away from oil. Of course, it is a bit late, but sometimes you need that push to get you move in the right direction. As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
If there is a slowdown and people are not willing to spend, why are you looking to open new outlets?
You can’t stop the momentum. We want to be the leader in F&B sector in Oman. We have achieved a lot during the last 12 years. There may be a slowdown, but it is not going to be a total stop. I am optimistic that things will change for better and improve in the future. It’s a life cycle we have to live with. Why should we stop, when the government continues to spend on developmental projects?
How are the new international brands being accepted in Oman?
All our brands are unique. They are not competing brands; we always bring complementing brands. But it always takes time for a new brand to strike root in a new market. You need to educate customers and acclimatise them to a new experience and even to a new lifestyle as well. It involves changing a tradition of food and introducing people to a new way, culture and style of eating.
Through all our new brands, we have introduced a new concept. When we first launched Second Cup and Nado’s, we did not have what you call fast causal restaurants in Oman. We had fine dining and fast-food. But Bin Mirza came in between with our fast casual eateries. The same is true of Steak Escape and Spun Candy which are also fast casual restaurants, where you have to wait while your food is being made fresh. It is not a frozen food that is served after being reheated in a microwave for a few seconds.
Do you have plans to further expand your footprints in the country?
This year we have Nando’s opening up in Al Mouj, as well as, hopefully, Wagamama which we expect to open either towards the end of 2016 or early 2017. We are also looking to bring other brands as well. But it takes time as it involves a lot of research and negotiations.
What is the prospects for hospitality industry in Oman as a whole?
Prospects are bright for the hospitality sector in Oman. The opportunities are galore, but what the sector needs is a push in the right direction. As I already said, we have the OCEC and several new hotels coming up. The new airports will add to the demand for more F&B options in the country. The new malls such as Mall of Oman and Palm Mall and those which are expected to come up in Sur and Salaha require new F&B outlets.
In addition, the government is promoting tourism in a big way. The number of tourists to Oman is on the rise and we have to set up the infrastructure such as hotels, cafes and restaurants catering to their needs.
You have brought a lot of international brands to the country. But considering the population of Oman and the number of inbound tourists to the country, do you think that there is a saturation of international eateries in the country?
We don’t have enough international brands, compared to other cities in the region or globally. In metropolises like London which already has numerous dining options, you can see new American and French brands come in. A growing city will have different people to cater to. And people are associated with certain brands. Whenever they travel, they get acquainted with new brands, and when they come back, they want to have it here.
But is Muscat still a small place with a lot of eateries catering to a small population?
But it is a growing population. We have now 4 million, and counting. So you can’t say we are small. Ours is a big country and the population is not coming down. With more projects coming up coupled with concerted efforts to promote tourism, I think the number of tourists will increase and we need to have more international brands to cater to their culinary choices.
Any plan to expand to outside Oman?
I have strong ambition to go beyond Oman, to be honest. But sometimes, you need to have a solid base, before moving somewhere else. We need to do a lot to position ourselves as a company in Oman and we have to expand our reach beyond Muscat to other parts of Oman. However, we have plants to go to the neighbouring countries and even beyond.
What’s the future outlook for Bin Mirza Group?
It’s a challenging time and we need to fine-tune a lot of things. First, we need to improve our performance. It will be a tough year with current oil prices going down, and the expenditure being slowed down. Bu I am optimistic; if you don’t have optimism in life, there is no point in living. And I think 2017 and 2018 will bring a better future for Oman, if things go as planned and if government could seize the new opportunities. We have trust in our leadership and we will overcome the challenges as we have done it in the past. As Oman has through economic crises in the past, I think we will get through this one as well.