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Bahrain Restauranteur Roaya Saleh

If there’s one thing common among the people who toil away in the F&B industry, it’s passion for what they are doing. And passion is certainly something spotted when talking to Bahraini restaurateur Roaya Saleh, who founded Villa Mamas, a restaurant that serves local cuisine with Mediterranean influences in the Saar suburb of Bahrain. With a lilt in her voice, and a determined crinkle in her eye, Saleh has promoted Bahraini food, not only in her country, but across the GCC. Without a marketing plan in place, Villa Mamas’ success is even more phenomenal to consider. With over 25,000 followers on the restaurant’s Instagram account as just one example, Saleh’s restaurant has been accepted with full fervour. She says the concept developed when she realised that Bahraini food had so far been underestimated and largely undiscovered by people in the F&B industry. Over the years, as Bahrain progressed, many international franchises entered the country. “But what about the identity of Bahrain? As a Bahraini, I crave to go to a restaurant that has beautiful surroundings and enjoy good quality Bahraini food,” she says. Saleh admits that while there are some venues offering local cuisine, it is not cooked in an authentic manner. This needed to change, she thought. “The need [for a Bahraini restaurant] was there, 100%.” Facing obstacles: However, Saleh has had an uphill task in realising her dream. Formerly a banker, she had no experience in the culinary industry before dipping her toes into the business. She explains: “When setting up I didn’t know about the restaurant business or what to expect from a professional kitchen; I knew how to cook and I knew all about my ingredients. “It took a lot of energy from me because I haven’t done restaurants before; I was a banker. I just knew that this was my dream and I had a mission which I wanted to accomplish in spite of all the negativity at the time. When I opened Villa Mamas in 2011, we had a severe political situation in Bahrain.” Saleh didn’t predict the overwhelming success of Villa Mamas. She never aggressively pursued marketing the brand and did not, as is the current norm, hold a soft opening. Saleh says she was focused on the quality of her food and had to juggle her need for perfection with the pressure of receiving orders with a quick turnaround time. In the initial days, her husband and children used to help serve the food in the restaurant. She did not have the necessary number of employees as she was pressured to hire locals, when “there are no Bahrainis in this field”. She reminisces: “So at one time I had 100-130 people, and I was preparing the dishes with just two more chefs.” Another issue Saleh has been dealing with from the very start is the lack of electricity and water — an issue which continues today. She has handled this by working with generators and water tanks. When I ask why, she says: “Because the owner didn’t fulfil his promise. When I signed the contract, he was supposed to connect us to electricity and water after two months. After I signed the contract I started taking loans, started implementing my business plans and every time this got delayed. I couldn’t go back because I had invested money in the restaurant. If I had given up and said I’m not going to start work until the problem was fixed, I would have lost everything. Forty million dinars (US $106 million) would have gone. I just had to start work.” Menu and ingredients: The restaurant, which has a seating capacity of 120-130 people, is located in the north-east the country next to the Bahrain-Saudi Arabia causeway, with a fertile soil that allows Saleh to grow some vegetables in the area. She picked a villa as the site to further convey the message of home-cooked food. She explains: “I wanted to develop something that was truly home, not just a fa├žade of this being home cooked.” Saleh says she works with local farms when she can and grows certain items around the villa. “People can go the farm and see what we grow there; they can see that we are growing items in our villa.” The fruits and vegetables start appearing in October, and while the harvesting depends on each item, these are picked until the end of May. She says this only supports them for half the year, and so she has to import items for the remainder of the time. “Our capability isn’t sustainable to support us for the full year because of the weather conditions in Bahrain. If we want to sustain our farming we need a huge investment from the government, as well as our own. We are waiting on this to continue, so we can have farms that can control the temperature in order to have sustainable, local, and organic fruits. But we continue supporting ourselves by using farmers in Saudi Arabia for example.” Saleh has accounted for these variables and has created two menus — a fixed menu, and one that changes according to the season. “My menu is changeable according to what I find fresh in the market. Don’t expect to have something specific — if it is not fresh I am not going to serve it to you.”

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