Few giants of the hotel industry actively claim that their empires are built on a solid foundation of tamales. Yet what would become Marriott International in fact started out as a nine-stool bar on 14th Street in Washington DC, known locally for its formidable array of Mexican menu items. From there, the business would eventually evolve into a network of cafeterias, drive-ins and airport restaurants. Only in the 1950s, when Marriott had amassed a formidable catering network stretching the length and breadth of the US, did opening a hotel seem the next logical step.

These days, of course, the group is known more for its pre-eminence in the hospitality sector than its refried beans. Yet that doesn’t mean Marriott has forgotten its roots, nor the potential to be found in enhancing the prospects of a hotel by hosting a dynamic F&B offering. Such a combination has proven increasingly enticing for the operator as it seeks to benefit from its newest generation of customers’ interest in not only the quality but also the variety of the cuisine on offer to them during their hotel experience.


Pop culture

The result is Project Canvas, a rolling competition taking place in Singapore, the US, Europe and Dubai to award a tender of up to $50,000 to the most innovative restaurant and bar ideas in the local area. Making use of any empty space the constituent hotel is able to practically convert, the settings for these new concepts have proven anything but conventional.

In Tokyo, a new restaurant is being proposed to be run out of what used to be a patisserie. In Budapest, 100m2 is being offered for transformation alongside the Danube Promenade. And back in the company’s spiritual home in the District of Columbia, a bar run out of old shipping containers is set to be hauled into the grounds of the Gaithersburg Marriott Washington Center.

Four of the competition’s beneficiaries have already begun implementing their proposals in Dubai. First is the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel’s ‘Nawarra Lifestyle Choices’ space is playing host to three of them, including a Peruvian restaurant, a nightclub and an outdoor lounge area due to open later this year. The nightclub, Square, incorporates design elements reminiscent of the smoky cabaret bars of Weimar-era Berlin to create a space ready-made to host the world’s most famous DJs. Meanwhile, at the Garden restaurant above, "weathered wood tables, greenery, background house music [and] dimmed lights" provide a suitably becalmed atmosphere for guests to enjoy authentic Peruvian cuisine.

The second, which was scheduled to open in late August, is The Croft, residing in the Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites. The restaurant incorporates a British design theme and menu inspired by its creator’s upbringing in the decidedly rural environs of north-east Berkshire. Presumably to circumvent the difficulties associated with importing ingredients for a substantially English-based menu, Darren Velvick, formerly of Table 9 by Darren Velvick at the Hilton Dubai Creek, has chosen to source many of his ingredients from local suppliers.

This isn’t the first time that Marriott has ventured into the world of pop-up restaurants. In July 2013, the operator unveiled the Goji Kitchen & Bar in its hotels in Asia, comprising a primary restaurant and a secondary concept space with a menu that changed every few months. Through the latest digital accoutrements, the companion pop-up could change its walls and ceilings to reflect the latest menu offering.

In a recent interview, Marriott senior vice-president Paul Cahill confirmed that the Goji concept was a straightforward way to diversify a constituent hotel’s restaurant offering against local competition without the associated cost.

"In the next 20 years, there will be more individual restaurants built in the shopping centres in the communities around our hotels, which then puts pressure on the hotel’s performance because they have almost too many F&B outlets given the surroundings," he said. "So the Goji Kitchen gives us the ability to have two restaurants where maybe we had three before."

The roaring trade enjoyed by a ten-seater bar run out of a disused luggage room at the Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square that year also gave the operator encouragement. Its success revealed to Marriott the potential of restaurant pop-ups in shoring up the operator’s popularity among the invaluable millennial demographic, according to its global head of food and beverage, Wolfgang Lindlbauer.

"Our consumer so far has been the baby boomer, and they felt comfortable getting the same experience over and over again," said Lindlebauer, speaking to the Washington Post. "With this new interest in local and sustainable food [among millennial customers], that is changing. People want to know who’s cooking their food and making their drink."

Festival spirit

This is an especially attractive concept throughout the Gulf. Although no world city is worth its salt if it doesn’t host restaurants offering Italian, Chinese, Indian and all the et ceteras in terms of cuisine, the UAE and its neighbours have been enjoying a comparative renaissance in global tastes, as well as a revival of its locally inspired menus.

Marriott is not the first operator to take full advantage of this fact. This year, Jumeirah hosted its fourth annual Restaurant Week in the UAE, featuring over 40 restaurants located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These included Pierchic, Pai Thai and The Noodle House at Madinat Jumeirah; Junsui and Al Iwan at Burj Al Arab Jumeirah; and The Ivy, The Rib Room and Alfie’s at Jumeirah Emirates Towers.

Residents of Abu Dhabi and Dubai were encouraged to rediscover favourite Jumeirah restaurants and sample new brands during this annual ten-day event, which offered diners three-course set menus showcasing the best of each restaurant’s cuisine at promotional pricing levels.

"Jumeirah Restaurant Week is aimed at welcoming UAE residents and visitors to experience the best of what we offer, at a great price," explains Chris Lester, group executive chef at Jumeirah Restaurant Group Dubai. "It also celebrates the UAE’s reputation as a culinary hub, a status we are very proud to contribute to as we focus on developing home-grown brands for the local and expatriate markets."

The brand has also heavily invested in pop-ups across its portfolio, most prominently within the Ottoman-themed Jumeirah Zabeel Saray. Since 2012, the property has temporarily hosted such internationally renowned chefs as the Galvin brothers and Vivek Singh.

It is in this world that Square and The Croft will be expected to flourish. It is, nevertheless, clearly a challenge that Marriott is relishing.

"We are incredibly pleased with the results that we have seen so far along the journey of Project Canvas," said the senior director of operations for Marriott’s Middle East and Africa division, Markus Roeder, speaking to TradeArabia.com. "The creative contribution and the project management abilities we have seen show just how much talent and inspiration there is in our region.

"We truly hope that Project Canvas will encourage other businesses and individuals to explore their own ability to bring exciting new home-grown concepts to the market."