FACT catches up with Samer Hamadeh the founder of Japanese concept Akiba Dori, to discuss expansion plans, Dubai’s F&B scene and the impact of Covid-19.
Inspired by the neon-hues of Tokyo street life, Samer Hamadeh’s Akiba Dori opened in the trendy Dubai Design District three years ago and immediately made a mark on the city’s culinary landscape thanks to a relaxed approach to dining, vibrant interiors and its Tokyopolitan pizzas.
Samer Hamadeh is the man behind the brand. An entrepreneur and pioneer of Dubai’s food and beverage scene. He tells us that the initial conceptualisation of the project took place well before he’d even found the location: “I literally created this world in my head months before I even found the space for it. I feel like I’m stuck in a cyberpunk world sometimes, so it’s really not that difficult to dream up something as colourful and yet dark as Akiba Dori when that’s your status quo.”
The venue is undoubtedly a passion project for Samer, and judging by the busy lunchtime service during FACT’s most recent visit to the trendy neighbourhood hangout. Akiba Dori has well and truly resonated with diners. “I think customers will go to the places they like irrespective of whether they are franchises or homegrown brands, but I did see a preference to my nightclub Stereo Arcade back in the day over almost every franchise in town. But nightlife is different, and people follow the music and vibe. With restaurants, people go for the food, service and ambience.”
Samer Hamadeh’s Akiba Dori has proven so popular that expansion plans are on the horizon and by the end of 2021, we should see Akiba Dori restaurants in both Abu Dhabi and Jeddah. For a homegrown brand, GCC expansion seems to be the next logical step, as Samer is more than happy to explain:
“Abu Dhabi is the logical second location for Akiba Dori since we are a UAE-built brand, and we have many regular customers based in Abu Dhabi, so we are excited to bring the experience closer to home. Jeddah made sense as a first outpost in the Kingdom because most brands overlook Jeddah in favour of Riyadh whereas I see that as an opportunity to become Jeddah’s go-to Japanese affordable luxury concept and then getting into Riyadh as a national brand.”
It’s a well-thought-out growth plan and with the location in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Bay Waterfront already confirmed, the next challenge for Samer and his team will be to ensure consistency with both the cuisine and service while also balancing the intimate essence of the brand. “My team in Dubai has been training our expansion team for over a year now, so this will allow us to open up to five new locations with our current structure, which is the limit for us as operators before franchising takes over and we grow the brand that way.”
When asked about the brands impending growth and the possibility of taking Akiba Dori globally, Samer tells us: “Absolutely, and we are already in talks with a group for our first European outpost.”
Facing the challenges of the global pandemic has been a challenge for the F&B industry. Still, when we broach the topic of recovery with Samer, he informs us: “I think F&B is and will be among the first industries to bounce back, but I don’t see 2021 as the year profits return to the higher echelon. 2022 however, will be a different story. Stay tuned.” Samer’s positivity surrounding the situation is uplifting. With his homegrown brand flourishing despite the obvious adversity, his opinion on people dining out remains unchanged since the pandemic: “I think people want to go out and eat out more; because we all learned the hardest way possible how easily that freedom can be taken away from us.”
Delving deeper into the Akiba Dori concept, Samer tells us that the customer experience is front and centre and that “diners can expect great quality, great pricing and even better service in a neon world that looks like something straight out of the movies.”
His neon-coloured world represents just one factor when it comes to the appeal of the multi-faceted restaurant. A venue where guests are transported out of Dubai from the moment they cross the threshold. “The inspiration behind Akiba Dori comes from the neon-lit streets of Tokyo; there’s no specific anime or manga inspiration or what most people immediately think of when they think of Japan – and that is what makes the brand so unique.”
The uniqueness of the concept, combined with an accessible menu that provides value for money, clearly factors into why Samer Hamadeh’s Akiba Dori was awarded ‘Favourite Japanese Casual Dining Restaurant‘ at the Fact Dining Awards Dubai 2020. When talk turns to what makes Akiba Dori stand out from its competitors, Samer speaks honestly: “From a Japanese street food perspective, no one really does anything similar to Akiba Dori; and from a pizza perspective, we have the most unique pizza in town. The combination is effective.”
Samer Hamadeh’s Akiba Dori Tokyopolitan pizzas with their light blistered dough may not be the first thing you’d expect to order when visiting a Japanese concept. Still, those who try them seem instantly converted, often favouring the unique entity over the more traditional dishes on the menu. It’s things like this that capture diners attention, and when asked how he stays current on new trends and his feeling about creating dishes purely for Instagram, Samer has the following to say: “We eat with our eyes first so, yes, I think it’s important for food to look good; that being said, I’m not sure how many people are as successful as we think they are at creating social-media friendly dishes. Plus, the whole concept of a dish going viral is a pipe dream – rarely do the original creators benefit from it since everyone is so quick to copy and dilute the originality.”
Samer also explains what he believes to be the most effective ways to encourage trust and loyalty in his guests. His reply is succinct: “By giving them great value for their money and time, plus constantly evolving our menu and offering something delicious every time.”
Moving onto more general topics, we ask Samer which are his favourite restaurants and its unsurprising that many of them are homegrown concepts much like his own: “That’s always the toughest question. I would say for Lebanese, Al Nafoorah at Emirates Towers. For Italian, Alveare at Arts Club. For Indian, Mohalla in d3. As for American style pizza, Pitfire hands down. For burgers – High Joint.”