Since opening its first outlet in the Middle East nearly 10 years ago, Baker & Spice is today an award-winning food shop and restaurant with locations in Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain. Guided by the seasons and ethical principles, Baker & Spice’s food philosophy is simple: Local, Organic, Fresh and Homemade. During the ongoing growing season (October – May), all of their vegetables come from local organic farms and one can meet the farmers and shop at the now famous annual Farmers’ Market, currently in its 9th year.
We caught up with Andre Gerschel, Country Manager at Baker & Spice, on his views around incorporating sustainability within restaurants and the hospitality sector in general, besides the initiatives that have helped Baker & Spice leave an indelible impression within the Middle East’s organic food sector. Andre likes to introduce Baker & Spice as an artisan bakery and cafe focused on local and seasonal ingredients.
OPR: Baker & Spice in a way introduced organic dishes, using locally sourced produce here in Dubai in 2009. The concept was fairly nascent then. Briefly throw some light on the experience over the last decade.
Andre: The past decade has been a wonderful renaissance in terms of the proliferation of organic farmers. We are proud to have helped and bring the spotlight on local farms so more customers, and businesses are buying organic local produce. In the beginning there were three farms with about 20 products. Now we have 26 plus certified organic farms with a product catalogue 120 fruits vegetables and herbs. Imagine a Chef with 120 new toys.
OPR: What are some of the initiatives you have taken here at Baker & Spice Middle East that resonate with the brand’s focus on Sustainability?
Andre: There are many but perhaps my favorite is that we offer free water. It seems somewhat obvious that the hospitable thing to do in the desert is give people water. We use an extraordinary company called Liquid Life Filters (look them up and give them love!), reducing the carbon footprint and ultimately offering sustainable value to our customers.
OPR: You’ve been recognized in the past for having in place a very strong employee program and an emphasis on engaging with employees. Could you outline a few examples around this program?
Andre: We don’t hire senior or mid tier positions any more, only entree level positions, without exceptions. In addition colleagues who show a tenure with us qualify for cross training programs and we have even paid for specialist courses for chefs to branch out and learn about chocolate, cheese making, butchery. I consider it a personal challenge to keep them challenged. The one thing my predecessor, the founder of the company, always reminded me was, “This is a teaching kitchen. Stop learning and perish.”
OPR: Baker & Spice has been instrumental in establishing the annual Farmer’s Market in Dubai. Could you provide some insights on this experience, the reception it’s received and the relationship nurtured with the local farming community?
Andre: The local farming community has been thrilled. We are now in the 9th season, which has been graciously provided to us by Dubai Properties. This has allowed us to charge no rent to the farmers and allows customers to get the best possible deals from the numerous local farmers and food craftsman.
OPR: On the customer side, your chain’s been a reflection around the increased adoption of an organic way of life. Yet some remain hesitant, a primary concern being the notion ‘organic is expensive’. How’d you counter such a belief?
Andre: I would counter that saying when is the last price you bargained the price down for medical treatment? We don’t feed. We nourish. HOWEVER the best counter point I can offer is that organic produce actually isn’t more expensive. The issue is not enough people buy it or it would be cheaper. The actual production cost, (no chemicals, no storage for those chemicals, recycling programs and paid pickups) is lower, so the actual unit cost is in fact lower. The more people buy like this, the cheaper it will become. Think Flatscreen TV’s 10 years ago per inch versus now. We’ll get there but keep supporting your local market.
OPR: What’s the expansion plans for Baker & Spice in the region over the next 1-2 years?
Andre: We want to silently take over the world at max volume. We have a great presence in the GCC. I would love to see what we can do in North Africa, Turkey and beyond. Again all this is about is expanding our workable pantry. Our language is food, our words ingredients. Better produce rich markets allow for beautiful work.
OPR: You’ve personally travelled extensively, staying nearly 7 years now in Dubai. How have you seen the region evolve around the theme of Sustainability? More specifically to your line of work, are you seeing an increased competition within the field of Sustainable Hospitality?
Andre: Absolutely and this also extends to the physical fit out of hotels, packaging, lighting chairs tables, cutlery. There really isn’t a competition we need more people in the space to then push down the cost of the goods we are buying. There is also of course an education element. Our grandparents called gluten free a “tummy ache”. Customers are becoming more aware of highly specialized diets, meat free and plant based diets, sustainable fishing. I think everyone is focused on farm to table but people haven’t really focused on ‘sea to plate.’ We only use local fish, that means no salmon, and often reduced options in summer when spawning and water temperature is too high.
OPR: Something at an individual level. A restaurant or hotel chain globally which you admire for its Sustainability practices?
OPR: Do you see Sustainability within Restaurants (Sustainable Restaurants) grow as a parallel to the conventional restaurants? Or it is something most are bound to adopt to ensure continuity going ahead?
Andre: I think it can’t just be sustainable, it has to be delicious or add value to the customer experience. We in the industry need to educate customers, on why these practices are not only better but also more enjoyable. It needs to be connected to joy.
OPR: Your favorite travel destination?
Andre: Well I haven’t been yet, but I have always wanted to take an intense camping trip to Lapland and Norway on the Kings Trail to see the northern lights. You get to drive a team of huskies! Don’t worry they are loved and treated better than we live. No carbon footprint. Just paw prints.