There is a growing movement in the UAE toward food that is locally-made and locally-grown where at all possible. All very commendable – and all very challenging when you live in a desert country like the UAE, which relies heavily on imports. But that hasn’t stopped these enterprising foodies from striving to make “Made in the UAE” a byword for “delicious.”
Former economic analyst Justine Corrado launched Basiligo, her food delivery business, in 2014 because she couldn’t find lunch choices that were both healthy and affordable. She started with five employees and now has 35, producing and delivering healthy breakfasts, lunches and dinners all over the UAE. All meals are cooked from scratch using seasonal ingredients with no preservatives or added sugars. At least 50 percent of the ingredients are organic.
Basiligo (company motto: “Clean eating made easy”) supplies meal plans for weight management and all dietary needs. There is also an organic café on Reem Island in Abu Dhabi.
“My vision is to provide affordable healthy food to my community,” explains Corrado. “Healthy eating should not be a luxury.”
Fatima Al Sayegh got into baking while at a cookery school in London. When she launched her Abu Dhabi bakery, Wake N Bake, she sold only doughnuts but soon added cakes and other baked goods. She is committed to using only top quality ingredients, organic wherever possible and no preservatives or food coloring.
“Even though people are more health conscious these days, they still indulge in baked goods,” says Al Sayegh. “Our customers know what kind of ingredients we use and we make our custards from scratch.”
Sourcing good ingredients
The supply chain is always challenging, says Corrado.
Meat comes every few days, while vegetable delivery is daily and although local produce is a priority, taste and price have to come first, she adds.
“Unfortunately, some of the local produce doesn’t have good flavor or consistency and the different global aspects [of food supply] affects us deeply,” she says. “The biggest problem for a small business is that nobody will extend you credit. All the money you make has to go straight back to the suppliers.”
Al Sayegh says other than dates, the supply chain aspect has been a learning process.
“I know all about the dates I use because they come from my grandmother’s farm,” she says. “I’m learning as I go along.”
Advantages to being in the UAE
Corrado: “The feedback you get from customers. It’s always hard when you’re starting a new business to make it great for everyone and we were very grateful that people kept coming back and giving us great feedback which enabled us to offer a better service. The great community here helps because they give us a second chance to get it right.”
Al Sayegh: “It’s the support of my family and friends. Before starting Wake N Bake, I would send whatever I had baked that day to them and they gave me feedback and confidence. That’s what encouraged me to follow my passion. In the UAE there’s also a lot of support from the government, which helped me get my business off the ground. After our first event during Ramadan, we were selling out every day. When I saw people queueing for our doughnuts, I knew I had the right idea.”
Customer feedback versus owner vision
Corrado: “When I started out, I wanted to put all the information on the website, but it was too much for people. They didn’t want to read, they just wanted me to send them the food. I spent over a year and a half putting together a rotating selection of dishes. I hired a nutritionist to go through each one to make sure everything was healthy. I’m happy to listen if more than one person gives me the same feedback. That’s the only way we can serve a multicultural community like this one.”
Al Sayegh: “I truly believe in what I’m doing so I just do what I want, basically. I want to bring to the UAE something we don’t have here. I want people to experience a fresh doughnut in the morning with their coffee. You can get a croissant here in the UAE, but it won’t taste as fresh because the ingredients won’t be as good as in other places. That’s why I want to do it right.”
Food, social media and marketing
Corrado: “We do promotions and ad boosting. It was a game-changer when I got a digital marketing company involved. They were able to promote us much more effectively.”
Al Sayegh: “Branding is a big part of it; it’s not just about the products. It took me a long time to get the company started because I spent so much time on the branding. I wanted to create a small, cheeky brand that makes the consumer feel special when they open the box. I wanted something fun, because that is who I am – I wanted my brand to be me. I run the social media because it’s so crucial to the business. I try to show people what’s happening in the kitchen. It’s nice to show customers what you’re doing and what you’re putting in their food. We also do promotions for events, which has helped us a lot.”
Corrado: “For us it’s sustainability. It’s hard to find a leak-proof craft box. Sauce-y things have to go in plastic – it’s the only way. But we’ll send our products out in people’s glass containers if they provide them. You can’t have glass in an industrial kitchen so we have to have a special area for packaging. We tried to collect recyclable containers, but found out that they weren’t being recycled here in the UAE anyway.”
Al Sayegh: “We have eco-friendly packaging. We’re still home-based with a limited menu, but as we grow, we will look into using glass and more sustainable containers. We would like to be able to offer customers 10 percent off if they re-use packaging, but it’s hard.”
Female-led food businesses
Corrado: “I don’t think there’s any difference. I haven’t faced any particular hurdles as a woman. What is definitely more challenging is being a young woman and hiring and managing older men.
Al Sayegh: “Yes, managing others is definitely the biggest challenge. It’s hard to get the level of communication right. I still struggle with it.”
What is your dream for your business?
Corrado: “Changing your diet often requires a lot of support. We offer free consultations almost 24/7 with a nutritionist. I want to expand that to help more people make lifestyle changes.”
Al Sayegh: “A year ago, I didn’t even know I would be where I am. I want to make products for everyone, no matter what their food preferences or allergies. I want Wake N Bake to be a place where everyone can come.”
- Justine Corrado of Basiligo and Fatima Al Sayegh of Wake N Bake were panelists in a discussion on the UAE food business at the first Livehealthy Festival, January 24-25, 2020 at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi.
Zach Holz is an American English teacher living and working in Dubai. He writes about financial freedom and other happy things at his blog The Happiest Teacher.