An accidental grocer has valuable lessons for doing business in the UAE
Jones the Grocer CEO Yunib Siddiqui has been building the brand for over 14 years and is eyeing global expansion
Jones the Grocer is a UAE institution. Favored by the President, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, it has served breakfast, lunch and dinner to a cast of famous faces, including Hilary Clinton and Tony Blair.
With locations now scattered around Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh and Doha, it began as a rare spot in Abu Dhabi that felt like a neighborhood café. Much of the food and beverage industry in the Gulf is dominated by fast-casual franchises in large shopping malls and high-concept restaurants inside five-star hotels.
The Jones café-markets are, by contrast, airy, with blue-and-white tile and a pronounced lack of trendiness: upmarket but not designed for Instagram. The menu is comfort food-focused: grilled steaks, heaping sandwiches, hearty soups. Large open shelves display gourmet foodstuffs for sale like olive oils, jarred chutneys and marmalades and dark chocolate line the walls. Its charcuterie boards are the mark of a good dinner party in Abu Dhabi; their Thanksgiving turkeys are a favorite of American expats, while the Aussies and Brits lean on Jones to outsource their Christmas roasts.
With revenue of over $50 million across all stores, it’s one of the UAE’s local success stories that is about to go global.
Karachi-born Yunib Siddiqui tells the origin story. Flying from Vietnam on business in 2007, he spotted a double-page spread in the design magazine Wallpaper about an Australian restaurant chain with a produce shop and cheese room called Jones the Grocer.
“The last line ended with the owner saying, oh, he’s interested in growing the brand around the world. I faxed all the locations at the time, trying to get hold of him and he just wrote back to me saying, ‘Come and meet me in Singapore.’”
So he did. And despite not having any prior experience in the restaurant industry, Siddiqui liked what he saw at the Jones in Singapore and signed on the dotted line to open a franchise.
On his way back to London, Siddiqui stopped over in Dubai, and though he’d agreed to open in the U.K. capital, two friends convinced him to do business in the UAE instead, promising to invest.
When he told his wife, she wasn’t keen on moving to the UAE, threatening “instant divorce,” he laughs.
Now, 14 years on from when Siddiqui opened his first outlet, Jones the Grocer has 31 stores across the Middle East, with eight more in the pipeline. In 2019 Siddiqui acquired the global rights to the brand from Louis Vuitton’s private equity arm, L Capital, which in 2015 bought a majority stake in what was then a distressed company. Today, nine of the UAE stores are company-owned and operated. The rest are franchises.
While he decided not to option the outlets in Australia and Singapore, and “ended up with a business that was predominantly in the Middle East,” 54-year-old Siddiqui has plans for global expansion.
“We are opening at London Heathrow,” he said. “We’re opening two sites in Singapore, shortly. We’re already in India. You know, we have ambition to grow beyond the region.”
Jones the Grocer directly employs 195 people, with the franchise stores collectively employing 450 people.
While the Gulf is often seen by outside investors as a potential goldmine, full of residents with discretionary income, Siddiqui says there are steep challenges.
“I think one thing is clear that the cost of doing business here, whether it’s asset prices, rent, whether it’s labor, whether it’s raw materials, it is expensive,” he said “And you know, it’s up there with most other countries.
It doesn’t help that the Middle East is often linked with crisis – most recently with the war in Gaza that has sparked travel advisories.
“People have preconceived impressions, people think that we’re right next to Gaza, probably, but the truth of the matter is that you can’t really change preconceptions,” he said.
Siddiqui warns investors looking at the region not to lump the Gulf countries together, saying that even within countries there are different rules and regulations.
“Abu Dhabi has its own nuances. Dubai has its own regimens, quite different.
“And then if you’re looking at the Gulf …Saudi is a tough, competitive market now. And a lot of people are just going in thinking it’s easy money. Probably it is easy money, but I think it’s very, very hard to get started.”
But when you crack the market, there are some definite advantages.
Now trading in the UAE for close to 14 years, Jones the Grocer has been frequented since the early days by the country’s 62-year-old ruler, who continues to host meetings over breakfast with world players such as Clinton and Blair.
Sheikh Mohammed “was always a big fan,” Siddiqui says “He started coming in within the first two or three weeks of us opening, and he still comes fairly regularly. And then he brought everybody else along.”