Restaurateur reflects on the year of COVID-19

CEO and vice chairman of the ATICO Fakhreldin Group, Essam Fakhriddin, in his office in Amman on March 30, 2021. (Photo: Zoe Sottile/JNews)
AMMAN — The ATICO Fakhreldin Group, a premier Jordanian hospitality corporation managing a four-star hotel and several upscale restaurants, is now in its 31st year of operation. “And this is the worst year,” CEO Essam Fakhriddin said in an interview with Jordan News. اضافة اعلان

“We’ve seen so many problems. We’ve seen wars in Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, the financial market collapse. But to be honest, this is absolutely the worst.”

Fakhriddin, who holds graduate degrees in marketing, human resources, and hotel management, came to Jordan from Kuwait in 1990, where he began investing in what was then a “small, shabby rundown hotel.” When the Kuwaiti owners of the hotel decided to sell it due to the Gulf War, “this is how we started in the food business.”

Since then, the group has expanded to encompass fourteen properties, which include cafes, bars, restaurants, and hotels throughout Amman.

“We like risks; calculated risk,” he said. “So we introduced always new ideas to Jordan. At the time people were very conservative. They don’t like to take risks.”

According to Fakhriddin, the restaurant industry was challenging for business-owners even before the pandemic. “We had so many challenges before (the pandemic) that we were trying to address through the Jordan Restaurant Association,” he said.

Fakhriddin has previously served as president of the Jordan Restaurant Association and vice president of the Jordan Hotel Association.

Many restaurants and other small businesses have no financial safety net in case of disasters, Fakhriddin explained. “Statistically speaking, SMEs cannot survive in our industry for 20 days without cash flow,” he said. “So this is where the pandemic hit us. There was suffering before. They (SMEs) were not rich in cash, they had loans and so forth. And then suddenly, no income. So they were left on their own to fight.”

He went on to describe the government response: “Some people claim that the government has not done anything to support (us). No, they have done so. But not enough.”

He also criticized the government for not providing rent relief for small businesses, many of which rent their locations — but are unable to do so without their usual income. “Yes, they offer loans,” he said. “But still, loans are a burden.”

Fakhriddin explained that his company’s properties have been hardest hit by the lack of tourists in the country. “Some of the local shops that depend on local business, probably 95 percent of their business came back, like the pubs, small bars, cafes,” he said. “The high-end (businesses) depend on weddings, expats, foreigners coming, corporate business trips. We’ve lost all this. And this was the biggest challenge.”

“During the pandemic, people are scared to go out. Very, very scared,” he added. “And what changed as well is, people don’t have money to spend. And also psychologically speaking, the people who have money, they’re so worried that they don’t spend.”

Throughout the interview, Fakhriddin emphasized the crucial role the intertwined tourism and hospitality industries play in the Jordanian economy. “Every prime minister we met for the past ten years, the first thing he says about tourism is ‘this is the petrol — the oil (of Jordan)’,” Fakhriddin said.

He pointed out that countries as diverse as the United Arab Emirates, Finland, and Ireland, are developing tourism, framing it as a powerful and sustainable economic sector.

He estimated that the restaurant business in Jordan employs around 20,000 workers directly; his own company employed around 500 employees before the pandemic. “Tourism is labor intensive,” he pointed out. “We have to depend on creative and skilled human resources.”

He said that beyond the employees the restaurant business directly employs in Jordan, it also indirectly supports employment through other industries, such as businesses that supply seafood or other ingredients.

“If I was a minister, and I believe that tourism is the most important industry to Jordan, I would give it full support,” Fakhriddin said. “Full support. This would be my top priority, because I’m telling you again, if tourism stays healthy, all other industries will stay healthy.”

Despite the challenges faced by many industries during COVID-19 and the subsequent economic crisis, he also described the pandemic as an opportunity to disrupt old routines and initiate change. “We were in our comfort zone,” he said.

Fakhriddin explained a new concept the group is cooking up, customized for the COVID-19 era: “We will create a new brand with comfort food and affordable food,” he said. Customers have turned to comfort food — mainly local Levantine cuisine — during the pandemic instead of high-end dishes.

Fakhriddin described his business as “lucky” to have stayed afloat during the pandemic. “We’re still surviving. Hopefully we can get through this,” he said. “We are lucky in the sense that we own our places; we don’t have to pay rent. But we cannot sustain (ourselves) forever.”