For some men, a good burger can equal a great business.
Such is the case with Kuwait-based entrepreneur Basil Alsalem
“You have a young generation that wants something new.
My business strategy is for people to be able to say, ‘This place is actually different.’”
Basil Alsalem has a very active Twitter account. If you were to follow him, you’d see his self-proclaimed status as a “knowledge seeker at heart” and that his profile is rife with positive customer feedback. It’s testament to the popularity of the seven restaurants he owns across the Middle East.
For those who hadn’t noticed (probably the strict vegans among you) there was a gourmet burger revolution in the early Noughties. In 2001, when Gourmet Burger Kitchen first launched to an eager crowd in the United Kingdom and subsequently the world, it became acceptable to pay more than a handful of change for a burger. High-end restaurants have long catered to an expensive burger that’s more wagyu then Wendy’s, but the gourmet burger boom meant people were in search of something
a little tastier (and healthier) than typically found on a McMenu.
A more accessible and affordable high-end burger, if you will.
Putting his own spin on the trend, the now thirty-four-year-old Basil Alsalem decided to launch the first gourmet burger restaurant in the Middle East. Burger Boutique opened in Kuwait in 2003, kick-starting Basil’s entrance into the restaurant business. “I’d been to one place in New York that had created a $24 burger,” Basil explains when we meet in Kuwait. “It had all kinds of fancy ingredients and that was my inspiration point. I wanted to make a designer place that focused on a high quality product that wasn’t necessarily very expensive.”
Aside from the fact that Burger Boutique plugged a major hole in the Kuwaiti market, the restaurant’s quirky décor also helped sell it as a hangout. A self-confessed “design junkie”, Basil’s vision was to put a contemporary spin on the idea of the American diner, something he knew a lot about having majored in finance at the University of Denver and thus spent time travelling across the States. “In the 1950s, diners used materials that were a reflection of the industrial strength of the day,” he explains. “Steel, glass, brick and computer-controlled warm lighting… all of these things were reflected in the design. At Burger Boutique, I took these elements but reinterpreted them to reflect today’s symbols of industrial strength, so we have cutting edge materials and rusted metal walls.”
It’s this eye for detail, design and substance that carries through to the rest of the restaurant portfolio. Basil is a dab
hand at catering to different tastes but always with a design-focused twist; something that can be seen in his other restaurants. At Slider Station, also in Kuwait, imagine Yo Sushi but with burgers (some with their buns creatively dyed different colours) going around on the conveyor belt and a more rustic, stylishly raw décor. Just next door is Cocoa Room, with its brunch-focused menu and low-slung single light bulbs. The walls are adorned with Basil’s personal collection of American memorabilia, while iPad menus help lend an up-to-date element. Over at the city’s favourite mall, 360, is Open Flame Kitchen — a mean mother of a restaurant, constructed like
a giant steel grill and boasting over twenty tonnes of steel.
It cost over $3 million to complete.
Each of these restaurants is a major personal project for Basil, and talking to him it’s clear that the design is just as important as the menu. In fact it flows through his blood. “My brother is an architect and both my mother and father have a real interest in design,” he tells me. “It has always been a part of the family. I grew up looking at Architectural Digest and my father took me to museums instead of playgrounds and so my interest in art is ingrained.”
Not that it’s all furniture shopping and gazing at nice artwork for Basil; he’s taken his appreciation for design and aesthetics and turned it into a core part of his approach to success. “At the end of the day it’s business that counts,” he explains, passionately. “Encompassing a package in terms of design and atmosphere, so people will enjoy the experience and not just the food alone, is my selling point. Twenty years ago people paid for food and they were fine with that. Today they want an escape and they are willing to pay for that package.”
And it’s thanks to those people who quickly became regulars that Basil was able to expand outside of Kuwait. In particular, his Burger Boutique in Saudi Arabia has been a real success. This might seem surprising given the logistical issues. Only male staff members are permitted, “which means we have to work twice as hard to find good employees.” And then there is the country’s conservative stance, which Basil admits was a difficult, though not impossible, challenge. “You have to think: Do I do something within the barriers or do I push it a bit? Saudi restaurants usually have separate family and bachelor areas. I’ve risked not having those sections. It might seem bold to others, but people are connected to the Internet and you have a young generation that wants something new. My business strategy is for people to be able to say, ‘This place is actually different.’”
Although he says it took “a little bit of convincing” to obtain permissions, it was worth the effort. He has no direct competitors and thinks the restaurant scene is picking up every year. “A huge young and trendy Saudi population is coming of age,” he says.
Another brave move for Basil was the launch of Slider Station in Muscat, a noticeably quieter part of the region. “We opened in December 2011, so it’s still very fresh,” he explains. “It went through a lot of rectifications and there were mistakes, like with my very first project. It’s a large space and I wanted it have a really unique look so it didn’t look like I’d just copied from elsewhere. To open in a country that is a virgin when it comes to the restaurant scene was a bold move but, as with all bold moves, it pays off in the end.”
Perched on a beach overlooking the Indian Ocean with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and a spacious feel, you can see why he took the risk of opening in another relatively untapped market.
This is exactly what one should expect from an entrepreneur who has created a business with an annual turnover of $20 million. But he didn’t do it entirely on his own of course. Coming from an investment background, it was Basil’s father and two investors who helped start the company. He and his family now hold a seventy percent controlling stake, making it the first real business his family has directly run.
You’d think that with his eye for spotting gaps in the market, Basil would own other money-spinning enterprises, but he says he came to the conclusion early on that focussing on one business was better than trying to divvy out attention to multiple sources of income. “When it comes to the restaurant business there are a lot of logistics,” he explains as our meeting comes to an end. “There is a lot of PR and hiring that goes into it and so it requires my full time attention. I want to stick with this way of working for the next couple of years until I reach the stage where I have enough leadership within the organisation that I think about doing something else too.”
That something else could potentially be boutique hotels, another industry in which Basil thinks he could bring something fresh to the region. Given what he’s done with his unique take on restaurants, it wouldn’t be a surprise if, a few years down the line, a stylish hotel designed by Basil himself became the place to check into in the region.
And will there be a restaurant in Dubai, the city with the region’s most developed food scene? If it seems surprising that it hasn’t already happened, the answer encapsulates Basil’s vision for success. “If I could find the right venue then I would do,” he answers. “But I don’t want it to be in some hotel lobby. I want an independent location that feels fresh and original.”