Doing things differently is always guaranteed to catch people’s eye — and who better knows that than David O’Brien, the director of Ghaf Hospitality Group, which was set up two years ago. From the beginning of 2014, residents of the UAE have been seeing a 1962 Citroën H van serving British food at various events. Supported by his executive chef Adrian Bandyk and events manager Caroline Buchan, O’Brien has been giving people something to talk about with the venture called Ghaf Kitchen.
It’s safe to say anything resembling a food truck has not been done before, save for ice cream van Desert Chill, which still cannot sell soft serve ice cream due to the strict food safety and hygiene requirements. Which is why selling food from a truck was thought to be impossible, until Ghaf Kitchen came on the scene.
O’Brien says: “We realised it wasn’t possible to do that in this market in the way that it’s done in North America or the UK. We set about creating, first and foremost, an events and party business that gave it a restaurant quality experience. And people seem to have fallen in love with the H van. Every time we do an event, a party or a fashion show, people stop and engage with what’s come out. That gives me so much reward.”
O’Brien, who has had previous experience with the likes of Gary Rhodes, Caprice Holdings, Richard Corrigan and the Galvin Brothers, says: “I had the idea sitting by the Caspian in Baku. Many people were strolling past and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have something in Dubai that was really different?’ and the thought of a vintage kitchen-on-wheels, a mobile restaurant started to take shape in my head. I did some research and found the Citroën H van.
“From an accountant’s point of view, the van is an absolute nightmare, but I fell in love with the look, feel and charm of the thing. When I came back to Dubai, I worked with TSSC which was brave enough to take on the project of fabricating a kitchen on wheels.”
The van was found, in O’Brien’s words, “sitting in a field in Normandy, rusting away”. It was then transported to the UK to be upgraded to vintage standards, and was brought to Dubai in April 2013. O’Brien says: “At which point we found that Dubai standards are much higher than UK standards in terms of classic vehicles. So we had to have it refurbished again. And we then, in parallel, found our production kitchen and started to have that fit out.” The production kitchen is based in Dubai International City, and O’Brien has revealed he is planning on expanding next door. It is seen as a road to bigger things, including delis, tapas, and further building the events business.
The van’s kitchen was completed by November 2013, after which the team conducted taste tests and dry runs of how the van would work in real situations. The menu can be tailored for sit-down dinners, canapés and bowl food, sparkling BBQ garden menus, and even a sushi counter or raw bar menu. Whether it caters for 150 people on the canapé menu, or 50 for a sit-down dinner, O’Brien says the offer “is focused around the individual expectation to detail” and that customers “come to us because they want some of our fairy dust”.
O’Brien emphasises the importance of research and development, and adds: “We did all of that and made sure that we perfected our offer before we went to market. We went to market in January 2014 after a month of working through product development, supply, tasting, and more.”
In addition to R&D, it was absolutely imperative to get everything with the van right, bearing in mind it was the first time such a project was floated. O’Brien adds again that the hygiene standards in Dubai are very high. He reveals: “When we took the van to the municipality, they were very helpful. But their main concern was more the RTA.” He surmises the concern was related to parking in public spots and vending goods.
“We’ve been clear on our strategy to be a private party, events business, catering to the art crowd, who are fashion, lifestyle. From the point of the municipality, they inspected our kitchen, they’ve been to see us at the Dubai Food Carnival,” adds O’Brien.