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Dates with History

Sushmita Bose / 9 January 2009

Bateel has reinvented the humble date into a global gourmet brand — one 
with its roots firmly in the Middle East

Dr Ata Atmar, managing director of Bateel, recently took an “extraordinary” call sitting in Dubai. A gentleman telephoned him all the way from Makkah to say that his wife wanted to name their daughter ‘Bateel’: so could Dr Atmar please tell him what it meant? “I told him Bateel is Arabic for the young branch of a date palm — one that can be used to grow a new tree,” recalls Dr Atmar with a big smile, sitting in the Bateel office in Dubai Investment Park amid a great display of dates. There are just dates of course (various shapes, sizes and colours), and then there are sparkling date drinks (you’d be forgiven if you mistook them for bubbly bottles of champagne) on the shelves behind him, date cookies in colourful tin boxes, dates stuffed with orange peels, dates packed with fat almonds, dates coated with Belgian chocolates, date jams, and even date mustard.

That’s the multi-faceted personality of the date Bateel has managed to carve out. But getting back to the call from Makkah that Dr Atmar — originally from Afghanistan and a naturalised American — received, it served as a double whammy: Bateel seemed to be the perfect name to gift a newborn; and it endorsed “the power of branding”.

Branding has been the piece de resistance for a company that decided to take off from where the uncomplicated process of date manufacturing ended — and reinvent dates as gourmet fare, sold out of chic little boutiques, instead of being unceremoniously heaped up in souks and supermarkets.

This was back in 1992. “When we started our first date boutique, people thought we were crazy,” remembers Dr Atmar. The biggest challenge was: why would somebody pay 100-150 dirhams a kilo for dates when you could get them for 20 dirhams at a local shop?

Well, for two reasons, he explains.

One, obviously, was the given: quality. It helped that Bateel International — that has, over the past 16-odd years, grown its ‘branded’ retail presence across markets in 14 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa (it has 33 boutique stores in all markets, including 7 in Dubai — and one more coming up here shortly) — has always sourced its ‘raw material’ from its parent company that owns date groves in Al-Ghat, Saudi Arabia. Vivek Sharma, deputy general manager (sales & marketing), reveals that it was necessity that was the mother of invention. Before Bateel was formed, the wholesale pricing strategy was becoming unviable at the Al-Ghat date factory because state-of-the-art overhead costs were outstripping returns from mass market rates — one reason why the higher-priced ‘world’s only gourmet date experience’ was rolled out as a new strategy. What helped was that “there were many farming companies, but none that were producing such good quality products”.

The second reason why the premium idea clicked was positioning. The Bateel management asked itself a simple question: How do the Swiss sell their designer chocolates by creating a niche amidst the mass market brands?

The mantra, it was decided would be: Upgrade the experience so that when people walk into a Bateel store, they know it’s different, and they happily pay for it. Plus, as Sharma puts it, “we were not just selling dates, we were value-adding: there would be chocolate-coated dates (the fillip was that the chocolates, for instance, are flown in from Belgium, France and Italy, and recipes are customised), pastries, cookies, biscuits, preserves, the works”.

It worked. Growth has been 30 to 40 per cent for the last five years; in 2008 it was almost 40 per cent. In the last two years, sales have doubled. And in 2008 alone, 1.5 million kilo dates were sold. There are The Pretenders, companies who have tried to follow in Bateel’s footsteps, but they are irrelevant, laughs the proud managing director. “We are the real thing.” On the 14th of last month, Bateel was awarded the Arabian Business Achievement Award at the Atlantis, alongside companies like Emirates, Etisalat, Emaar and Nakheel.

Along the road, the company has indulged in brand extensions. A supermarket brand — Jomara — was introduced in 2007 to further bolster volume sales. “We are not trying to hive off the bad eggs,” Dr Atmar hastens to add (branded Bateel dates cost around two-and-a-half times more than Jomara dates). It’s just that Jomara, unlike Bateel, does not stand for an experience, does not have the exclusive trappings and is sold over the counter. In 2007, the company also launched its chain of exclusive cafes, Bateel Cafe, that serve the north Italian Umbrian cuisine along with a smattering of exotic Middle-Eastern fare.

In an era of downturn, Dr Atmar, an economist and a former professor at Boston, predicts that his company will be hit too, but there will not be any stopping the growth story. Continuous product development and portfolio expansion are on track and “we won’t cut corners in areas we are sure about”.

It’s a plan, definitely not a blind date.

Bateel Café: gourmet food experience

Tuck into Umbrian cuisine — from exotic locales in northern Italy — in the heart of Dubai. At a Bateel café, Europe meets the Middle East on table tops. Chef Dirk Friebel, from Germany, is presiding over foodie affairs at the Dubai International Financial Centre café. “Customers come up with suggestions — and critiques,” he says. The first Bateel Café opened at Souk Al Manzil in Burj Dubai, in 2007. Today, there are four cafés, and there are plans for more — both in the UAE and overseas.

Sample a few: Bateel Couscous (with apricot, Kholas date, baby zucchini & fava beans); The Levant (date olive tapenade, warm haloumi, tomato & fresh basil); Brezaola (thinly sliced cured beef with marinated antichokes, Bateel mustard & shaved Parmesan); Mushroom Risotto (with wild mushroom, garlic, onion, fresh parsley & labneh); Torcetti (pasta with black lentils, tomato sauce, cherry tomatoes, baby mozzarella & coriander).

sushmita@khaleejtimes.com

 
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