When 25,000-student New York University wanted to open a branch campus in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the university leaned on its experts in education and operations. Owen Moore, director of dining services, was put in charge of housing and dining for the new campus. FSD spoke to Moore about his experience managing an operation half a world away.
How did you get involved with this project?
The Sheikh of United Emirates of Abu Dhabi wanted a Western university of stature in the city, so that’s how NYU got involved. I got involved because the university started pulling people together—all the existing experts at the university to say OK, how are we going to do housing over there, how are we going to do dining, bookstores and all these things? There are actually two campuses in Abu Dhabi. There is the downtown campus, which is for lack of a better term, a temporary campus that will be operational for four years. It’s about two blocks away from a residential building and several blocks away from some labs.
The other campus will be built on Saadiyat Island, which is an island that is being developed. It’s literally like building downtown Manhattan. In the next four years, they will do a huge cultural development on the island, one aspect of which is NYU Abu Dhabi. But first, we needed to establish the temporary campus, which opens in August of this year.
I went to Abu Dhabi last February. Prior to that, I had to do the research and see who were the foodservice players in that sector. I had to identify what’s different in services in that part of the world versus here. When I went there I interviewed all the potential organizations from hotels to foodservices to supermarket groups that expressed an interest in being involved. We narrowed that down to who we thought could do the work. Simultaneously I worked with the developers on kitchen design, equipment specs—very similar to what my role would be here. Right now we’re building the residential facility for the downtown campus. This downtown campus will have this large residential dining hall, a small retail operation and some foodservice for the labs.
What are some of the differences in developing a foodservice operation in Abu Dhabi versus here?
Honestly, it’s not really that much different from the U.S. in the fact that you report to the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, just like you’d report to the state departments here. You can’t open a business without them approving your business plan, kitchen layout and procurement. As for the menu, there is a higher influence on Middle East and Eastern cuisines. For example, in Abu Dhabi rice and vegetarian options are the standard. Unless you’re in a Western hotel, you wouldn’t serve pork products. Everything is halal, with a high emphasis on produce. There is not a lot of fish. There is really not a lot of meat, but you’re still pulling from all the traditional cuisines of Pacific Rim and Mediterranean.
What surprised you the most when you visited?
I was surprised with the quickness that they can build and develop a project. I’ve seen skyscrapers be fully completed in 24 months. They can do that because there is vast amount of cheap labor. One of the things I was also impressed with was the level of detail that the craftsmen put into their work compared to how quickly they can do it. We had to get some millworking done and normally you hear that can take anywhere from five days to a couple of weeks. They actually did it in less than three days with a very high quality of work.
What are some of the biggest challenges involved with this project?
The time difference is a bit of a challenge. They are nine hours ahead of us so we have a lot of early morning conference calls. It’s not uncommon to have calls from 6:00 to 8:00 in the morning. Also, the weekend in Abu Dhabi is Friday and Saturday as opposed to Saturday and Sunday. So there is essentially three days where we’re not communicating.
The other challenging piece in there is a no public transportation. It’s too expensive for the workers to live in Abu Dhabi—it’s actually 25% more expensive than living in Manhattan. So the labor force all live outside the city in labor villages. Since there is no public transportation, we are responsible for the workers transportation from the labor villages to the location. So when you hire an employee you’re not just paying an hourly rate and medical but also transportation to and from work, a stipend for rent and twice a year, roundtrip airplane tickets home for them to visit their family. Since you don’t have public transportation and there’s a lack of real estate space, there’s a tremendous amount of traffic and no place to park. It makes Hoboken, N.J., look good. What you might think would be a 10-minute trip could take over an hour. Just from a delivery standpoint, that’s a challenge so we have to anticipate these types of problems that can happen.
Also, in Abu Dhabi, every food station in the dining facility has to be separate because of cross contamination concerns. Each station has its own wall, cooking equipment, etc., so that becomes a challenge because your production spaces require a lot of space. The other extreme challenge is the heat. It’s oppressive so transporting food becomes critical. Your window in between danger zones is very small. Just trying to get from one building to another building, if you don’t have that properly cooled down or insulated, you could have a real problem on your hands.
What do you enjoy most about being involved with this project?
I really enjoyed that there is a high level of international involvement. I love the fact that I’m working in a Middle Eastern culture. It’s interesting that the individuals that I interact with and most of the people there, are expatriate so there’s a tremendous European, South African and Australian influence of experts and managers. You’re working in the Middle East, but you’re all representing different aspects of the world. You get a really great cultural experience and you get to learn how things are done differently in Europe versus Australia versus China versus the U.S. and you’re all making this work in Abu Dhabi.