Arabic sweets are a staple of Middle Eastern culture, but their influence remains mostly confined to the region. We talk to one of the Gulf’s biggest sweet producers about the industry and where it’s going.
Wissam El Cheikh’s business, Al Dar Sweets, was started by his grandfather in Abu Dhabi, in 1975. Originally a restaurant and sweet shop, it eventually moved exclusively into sweets.
“Food in general plays has a very important cultural role, and I think the most important would be sweets,” says Wissam. “Just look at the impact that sweets have on language, emotions and words of endearment such as sweetie, sugar, honeybun and the like. I mean, nobody calls their loved one after a salad!” (We’re in total agreement. It would be a very foolish man who called his wife Fatoush or Tabbouleh…)
The foundation of Wissam’s business at the moment is in bulk sales and catering. “We have three branches, and a factory in Mussaffah that can produce up to three tonnes of sweets a day. For the past two years we’ve been focusing on the catering side of the business, but that is now on hard ground, so I want to turn my attention to retail.”
This itself brings its own challenges. Whilst certain confectionery concepts such as cupcakes and cookies, or Mars Bars and M&Ms, have a global reach, the popularity of Arabic sweets has usually been limited to the Middle East. According to Wissam,this is largely due to cultural and economic conditions prevalent in the world today, rather than the appeal of the product itself.
One of Wissam’s key product lines is Baklava, a hugely popular treat in the region consisting of baked sweets made from pastry and nuts soaked in sugar syrup. “Historically, Baklava was invented in Turkey but then spread across the region thanks to the Ottoman Empire, changing slightly from country to country,” explains Wissam. “Parts of Eastern Europe also have Baklava, and you see similar products throughout Europe. However, there has been a downwards trend in the popularity of it. It’s not fashionable any more, and this is part of the globalisation process, where big international names in confectionary are seen as more attractive.”
Wissam aims to increase the appeal of his products by blending the traditional offerings with new concepts and recipes that bridge the cultural divide between the West and the East, and introducing flavours that are more globally recognised. “I want to evolve and promote the product to compete with international products. I want to create that bridge with flavours like Macadamia nuts and Mocha flavoured Baklava that connects West and Middle East. The Macadamia nut sweet I’m already doing, and it’s very popular.”
Wissam also plans to focus on presentation to improve the appeal. “I think if you package it right, position it right, and try new things to refresh the product, you can sell. As far as the presentation goes, we’re going through a whole rebranding of our shops, revising how the products look, and how they’re displayed. The shop is going to have a much more upmarket presentation, very elegant, with a wider selection on smaller trays.”
With these plans in mind, Wissam sees great potential in the product. “The potential in the industry is there, the sweets are rich and need craftsmanship to prepare, it is isn’t something someone can do out of their own home, not like a cookie or a cup cake, it is intricate and needs balance and care.” It’s this kind of passion that underpins the success of any product. Look out for Al Dar Sweets, they’ll be the next big thing!
GO: Visit Al Dar Sweets on Al Falah St. Call (0)2 632 0210 for more information.