Talking Trinity collaboration
The operator perspective

Dubai-based HWH Hospitality Investments has been making waves at Dubai International Airport with a series of innovative and highly successful dining outlets that have brought a new foodie inspiration to the world’s busiest international airport. To date the company’s impressive momentum has been built on crafting its own original concepts. Opening and operating the Nutella Café presented a very different but hugely exciting challenge, as Talha Al Hashimi, who co-founded the company with Mustafa Al Hashimi, told Martin Moodie.

Mustafa Al Hashimi

Talha Al Hashimi

Martin Moodie: Talha, tell us why the opening of the Nutella Café is such a big deal conceptually.

Talha Al Hashimi: What’s key here is that it’s not only about the food. The airport environment is completely different, as you know. Here you can do a personalised jar for a loved one or friend. It’s so powerful to have your name on a gift or to be able to send something that’s so very personal. The whole experience of being there, of having a Nutella experience, is amazing, especially when you have a life-sized Nutella jar for the adults and the kids.

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how many people just come to take a picture with that huge jar! It’s doing really well and I’m very, very happy with it. It’s a big testing ground.

How did the idea come about?

We were connected by a local party because of our airport experience and they [Ferrero] wanted to be in the airport. They saw the value in Dubai International. It started off with a much smaller project, like a small cart. Once we had developed it, we said: “No, this should be bigger than it is.”

We were very careful about it because they’re a very cautious company and they want to get it right. So, when we presented the big idea to the top management, they said, “Okay, this is a great idea.” Especially, when they came to the airport with Eugene [Barry] and myself and we presented. We showed them the space, we showed them the airport and they saw the value of it. So, it came out of something really small, but it really turned out as something completely different.

As always, HWH-style, we try to make it spectacular. You know how I work!

"The best moment was when a kid just walked up to the store with a huge smile. And I said to Eugene Barry: 'Look at this kid. This is what I wanted. This is what it’s all about.'”

Did you have a look at the Nutella Café in Chicago before you opened?

We did a lot of research. We worked very closely with the Ferrero team, saw what was happening, saw what were the best-sellers on the menu, what was going on and the do’s and don’ts and how to make it.

We took a lot of lessons from Chicago but Chicago is very different – it is a travel destination. This is an airport environment. So we added a lot of personalisation such as t-shirts, jars, mugs, all the gifting part. Since we’ve seen the success of that, we’re looking to also expand the menu.

Is the crossover between food & beverage and retail key in terms of the consumer experience?

"This is something which is uncharted territory – a crossover of food and retail together."

Yes, a hundred percent. The consumer experience is the most important thing today. I didn’t want to simply create a space where you make Nutella crepes. You can have that at any street stall in the world. How could we make it more of a full Nutella experience?

We obviously looked at the menu and all those elements. But at the same time, we wanted to get the customers engaged so that they can start gifting. More importantly, we wanted to increase the personalisation, so the customers can feel attached to the brand, feel a part of it – and, as they walk in, smile!

One time Eugene and I were sitting there, looking at the store, and the best moment was when a kid just walked up to the store with a huge smile. And I said to Eugene: “Look at this kid. This is what I wanted. This is what it’s all about.”

That kid was shocked to see Nutella and this huge jar. He walked up to it to see it closer and it was like, for him, his awe moment. And I pointed at him and I said: “That’s the one. See, that’s the experience I was looking for.” Then his parents came over and then they looked at t-shirts, mugs and they had the crepe. It’s that crossover between the world of travel retail and the world of food & beverage. This is something which is uncharted territory, I think – a crossover of food and retail together.

"Ferrero are really rigorous... they fly out their chefs, they do spot checks, they make sure the quality is right. They make sure the crepe is perfect."

Sum up the experience to date.

We brought our airport experience to bear. We held a lot of discussion on what works, and what doesn’t work. We kept it simple initially and it surpassed their [Ferrero’s] expectations and now we just want to improve more and more.

Ferrero are really rigorous about how much Nutella we put in. They fly out their chefs, they do spot checks, they make sure the quality is right. They make sure the crepe is perfect. So they are taking this very seriously. We had a spot check today actually – Nutella had somebody come in and check the quality and whether you are putting too much Nutella in or putting in less Nutella? If you put too much Nutella in, the customer might not feel right about it. Ferrero is taking every intricate detail so seriously, to make sure the quality of the customer experience is good.

"For us, nothing is impossible. We try for the best and always aim high."

You’re very driven by quality yourself, though, Talha. Both you and Mustafa are avowed purists and both deadly serious about getting things right, while raising the bar. But it strikes me that you’re also very much into the whole consumer experience.

Yes, with all our outlets design is a main factor. So, we really tried to push the limit of design here. Even the chairs are like a cap from the iconic jar, so, we really make sure that anyone who sits down feels that wow experience. It’s not just that they’re in a Nutella outlet.

For us, design is so important and we really wanted to make that stand out, especially as it’s the first one. That ties into customer experience, one hundred percent. People say: “What’s this place? Nutella? Wow!”

HWH Investments’ Talha Al Hashimi on the thinking behind the Nutella Café.

How important a stepping stone is this for HWH?

This is for us, first of all, an honour and we take it very seriously. For a company like Ferrero to entrust us to deliver something like the Nutella Café shows us we’ve come a long way and we’ve gained the trust of a huge multinational company. That is something that we really cherish. It shows that we’ve come along by leaps and bounds. So, for us, nothing is impossible. We try for the best and always aim high.

Mustafa Al Hashimi speaking at this year's Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) Conference in Helsinki, where he first broke the news of the Nutella Café...

... and where a certain well-known travel retail Publisher received a surprise personalised gift.

The Moodie Davitt e-Zine | Spotlight Series – Special Report | 10 October 2018