The Art of Ambiance: Miss Lily's Dubai

The Art of Ambiance: Miss Lily's Dubai
Stephen Allsop and Ian Riddick
Published: 15 November 2019 - 5 a.m.
By: Claudia De Brito

When they brought Miss Lily’s to Dubai, partners Varun Khemaney and Khalil Dahmash knew that they were filing a gap in the market. Three years ago, Caribbean cuisine didn’t have a presence in Dubai and 300-cover concepts were the norm. Stephen Allsop explains: “Nothing had a vibe or any type of culture that the Caribbean community was providing, along with the food. So, they thought there was something missing that people wanted.”

Another point of differentiation is the laid-back approach to service. Allsop says: “For us it wasn’t really about hiring waiters and bartenders. It was more about personality than experience. They greet you like they’re your friends because they actually are your friends. I haven’t worked in a place like this in 15 years where I’ve had as many regular customers as we do here. To a point where if I’m on vacation for a week, when I come back, the guests say ‘Welcome back! How was your holiday?’ For me that’s a special thing. We got to build that. Even to the point where we have guests that will come in by themselves because they’re not by themselves when they come here. They’ll come in three, four times a week. They come in they sit down and they know they can talk to the bartender, they can talk to the server they can talk to the manager or they talk to the DJ.

“I think that’s what we've been able to give our guests. It’s that comfort level, you have people whenever they have friends in town they say ‘We've got to take our friends to this restaurant.’ Whenever they have family coming, they’ve got to bring their moms, their dads, their sisters their cousins and they have to come show them Miss Lily’s because of the environment and the experiences that they have here - they have to bring people to Miss Lily’s. I think that is the unique selling point that brings people back two, three times back a week. It’s important for us to cultivate personal relationships with guests. It’s not supposed to be stiff and it’s offered at a decent value. Dubai is an expensive city in itself, already, so if you can come in and have a good time and not have to worry about how you’re going to pay rent, it’s a good thing.”

Ian Riddick underlines why he thinks the concept has been so successful: “I think the product that we offer does have good value. I think our music is wonderful, I think our food is great and I think the ambience is amazing. More than any of that, people feel comfortable and when you feel comfortable you're always going to go back to that place.”

The lifecycle of restaurants Dubai can be very short. Sometimes they’re hot, they’re not and they’re gone within six months. Three years in, it’s still hard to get in to Miss Lily’s on certain nights. Allsop explains: “The size of our venue is small. We can seat 100 at a time. But for dinner alone in the record room, it’s 40, with the PDR being another 16. Then you go into the yard, which is a bar area, you add another 50-60, with the lounge. But the total standing capacity I’m allowed to have at once is 170. So if you don’t make a reservation on a weekend, on a holiday, there’s a good chance you’re not coming in.”

Riddick adds: “It makes the door hard but the fact is, we have the hotel security literally standing outside with clickers to make sure we don’t go over our capacity. So one of the great things about this place is, 50 people in, it already has a buzz, it already has a vibe. When we hit our capacity, we unfortunately have to turn people away. We always encourage people to make a reservation because we want them to come in and have that experience. I think that definitely plays into why we’re so busy, there are still people who haven’t been able to get in. It’s fantastic to have that be one of the problems that we have.”

Allsop explains: “You have to hit on a bunch of different points, when you’re running a restaurant, it’s not just about food, and it’s not just about the liquor and it has to be about the vibe, the ambience. There has to be this feeling, there has to be a soul. I came one night, I was standing with Varun (Khemaney) and it was an insanely busy Friday night, the front door was packed, people just waiting to get in and he looks at me and he says ‘How long can we keep going like this?” This is past the six months where people in places in Dubai start to tail off because so many things open up and I looked at him and I just go ‘I don’t know, because I’ve never seen anything like this.’”

Instrumental in creating the ‘vibe’ is the music. Allsop says: “There was a huge hole in the market so it was an easy call for us. We were going to do hip-hop, RnB, soca, reggae, dancehall and we’re going to bring down the size of the venue to probably quarter of what all the other ones are doing and we’re going to make it a more intimate feel.”

Although they knew it had potential, they didn’t expect to be doing this well in a tough market. “It’s the third year and we’re doing better than last year in terms of revenue, people coming through, covers, all of it, says Allsop. “I spoke to one of my friends in the city, they’re down 15%-20% and others are closing. So we’re very lucky to be in this position and we know that so, we don’t take it for granted. Each guest has to be taken care of.”

This approach has spawned a loyal clientele who help to spread the word. Riddick says: “Whenever we have guests coming in, they bring friends, they bring family. The amount of people that continue to come in here with new people, every time they come in its outstanding. We can’t say enough about it because, without them there is no us. The word of mouth has been through traditional actual word of mouth and a digital presence which is a virtual word of mouth. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have a handful of big names that have come through and helped shed some light on the venue. Ed (Sheeran) is an outstanding guy and we’re very fortunate that he comes in to dine with us.”

The concept’s location is also an important factor. Allsop says: “The Sheraton Grand is great to work with. They’ve been fantastic throughout the process. Any partnership has its ups and downs but they’ve really good to us and they are extremely accommodating. I can call the general manager of the hotel for a meeting and I get it immediately. I’ve also been able to build a good relationship with the concierge department. They’ll call me if they have someone downstairs or a guest there who needs help with a reservation. The relationship is more than just ‘we pay you rent’. We genuinely work together to make sure that people that are in this building wither they’re staying here or they’re just visiting here have a great experience.”

When it comes to expansion plans, they have been conservative. Allsop says: “I can’t even tell you how many times people said ‘Oh man we need a Lily’s here.’ We appreciate that immensely but at the same time we have to make sure that what we’re doing is right for the business. We’ve got to make sure that we’re not cannibalising ourselves and we’re not exceeding our bandwidth. So we’re focusing on this and now that we have this we feel that at a good temperature and at a good pace, self-contained.

However, Allsop does confirm that there is something on the cards: “We are putting together this new project that is going to be equally as amazing and we’re really excited for it. It’s taking time because it was very calculated. We didn’t rush in just because we had success at this place. We had to give it the right space.”

The new project is French-Vietnamese New York celebrity haunt Indochine which is set to open in Dubai’s DIFC this month. There’s also a revamped menu at Miss Lily’s conceived by chef Dharamsingh Rana, who has introduced some lighter, inventive dishes that don’t stray too far away from the concept’s Caribbean roots.

Riddick sums it up: “We stick to our strengths. We know what we do well and we stick to our lane. We try to be as successful as we can in that way.”

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