The Innovative Sehri Marketplace

The Innovative Sehri Marketplace

August 17, 2016

By Kazi Aaquib Shams

Sehri, Suhoor, Suhur, “pre-dawn meal”, or early breakfast – whichever name you prefer to call it by, it is clear that the concept has vastly evolved over the past couple of years in Dhaka. Three years back, I remember questioning myself “why does no one focus on sehri?”, quickly followed by “is there actually a market demand?”. Though I personally cannot take any of the credit, all those questions have been answered and answered convincingly. Our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him), according to a hadith in Sahih al-Bukjhari said “take suhur as there is a blessing in it”. Evidently, we (the hospitality industry) have been helping to spread blessings.

  A few years back, I, a Gulshan resident, clearly remember having Kabab Factory as the only realistic sehri option in terms of logistics and quality of the eatery. Fast forward three years, and almost every reputable restaurant and hotel in the city has picked up the pace and joined in on offering buffet, set menus and à la carte menu to the increasing-outbound sehri crowd. Just a glance at the popular Facebook group, Food Bank, spells out the widespread success as it features an album with all the tempting sehri offers from around the city – talk about being spoiled for options! So how did this come to be?

Much of the credit for popularizing sehri in Dhaka must go to food festivals such as Coca-Cola Sehri Nights and Food Panda’s Sehri Khann. Both events, hosted at the International Convention City Bashundhara, organize a diverse group of popular restaurants under one roof. It’s akin to going to a food court, especially reserved for sehri – ideal for large group of friends and family who have unique tastes and preferences. However, it also comes with other bells and whistles. For example, this year’s Sehri Khann not only had a collection of 19 restaurants and cafes, it also had arcade games, table tennis, stand-up comedians and live screening of Euro 2016. For better or worse, it signals a modernization of the traditional sehri concept. For the glitz and glamour, celebrities galore also graced the event with their presence. With thousands of people turning out at these events, it turned heads for restaurant and hotel owners as well. In product innovation, there is a diffusion of innovation chart, beginning with innovators and ending with laggards (See figure below). These events attracted and educated the innovators and some early adopters (let’s say 10% of the market), which made it simple for restaurants and hotels to introduce their own sehri offerings to the early majority.

 Though the sehri craze is new in Gulshan, Uttara, Banani and Dhanmondi, I am aware of the continuingly-successful sehri scene in Old Dhaka. Call it nostalgia or innovation, this new sehri drive in “New Dhaka” is an attempt to catch the crowd that would rather not make the painstaking drive to Old Dhaka but would readily visit multi-restaurant fairs. Eating is perhaps our national pastime, and Ramadan (ironically) offers plenty of opportunities to that. However, the sehri growth is not just about the demand side asking for more dining options, it is just as much (if not more) to do with the supply side carving out a market – analogous to Apple’s product launches. This was done through digital, blitz and traditional marketing and also the power of persuasion of word-of-mouth. Mesaharati singers were push strategies employed to wake people for sehri, whereas, the marketing drive to bring impressionable diners to restaurants, hotel and events easily work as the pull. And there are good operational reasons to jump on the sehri bandwagon.

Restaurants and hotels have three saleable meals, namely, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Restaurants not only do their best to fill up for each meal, they also have multiple blocks for dinner since everyone has dinner at different times. For example, I have seen restaurants with 120 capacity (similar to our 13th floor restaurant, Bunka) easily covering upwards of 250 pax. In essence, selling every dinner seat 2 or 3 times. However, during Ramadan (pre-sehri craze), we were restricted to one meal, and with cover unable to exceed capacity – everyone has iftar and dinner together and an unsold seat was left unsold for the whole day. Inefficiencies are evident, especially from an unused capacity point of view. However, inefficiencies existed for hotel team members as well. Inbound traffic spiked at iftar and dinner time, and a lull for the rest of the day, with hotels and restaurants running just one shift. Make no mistake, restaurants and hotels make unbelievable revenues serving only iftar and dinner, however, given demand there appeared to be room for more.

Back to current times and with sehri fevering on, I decided to give sehri a go this year at Six Seasons Hotel. Even though most places offered set menus, we went big with a sehri buffet and live cooking. I priced it low (relative to iftar and dinner) in the hopes of getting a slice of the proverbial pie. We put our team members to work at night – personally content about purging some of our inefficiencies of being overstaffed. The place was our rooftop restaurant, Sky Pool, beside the swimming pool, and overlooking the diplomatic zone and Gulshan Lake. Exotically and aptly naming our offering ‘Sehri Under the Stars’, we accelerated our digital marketing (Website, Facebook, Twitter, Google), traditional marketing (magazines, newspapers, flyers) and bank and telecommunication partner efforts.

Capture

The results were not astonishing, but it returned solid revenues. On weekday dawns we managed to increase our Ramadan Food and Beverage revenues by 15%, whereas on weekend dawns we had up to 50% added revenue (with as much as 80 cover a dawn) – this, in a hotel restaurant that was fully packed throughout Ramadan. Not too shabby earning one-third of our daily revenue before sunrise, especially considering that all we had to do was essentially extend our operating hours. Similarly, Westin’s Sehri Sensation, in partnership with Food Bank, pre-sold 200+ tickets for their one-day event – further strengthening my belief in the success of sehris in Dhaka.

However, it is far from plateauing. As evident, from an operation and sales and marketing sense sehris are win-win situations for hotels and restaurants. For customers too, having a wide array of delicious options and the opportunity to visit their favourite restaurants without the hustle and bustle of daily Dhaka life is a definite win. Customers and businesses both find shared value, and its not everyday that you get a win-win-win scenario. Consequently, it will not be a surprise to see even more effort and thought being put into sehris by restaurant and hotel owners. When that happens, we will even see some laggards show up for sehris in the coming years.

About the Author

Kazi Aaquib Shams
Director, Six Seasons Hotel
MBA, Oxford University (Said Business School)
HBA, Ivey Business School (University of Western Ontario)

 

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