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Cutting down on dates, Saudi food firm seeks long-term relationship with western tastes

From Leone Lakhani, CNN
updated 10:33 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
  • Bateel is a Saudi gourmet food company founded in 1992
  • Company started by manufacturing dates but now has numerous food products in its line
  • CEO says aim is to become major international brand

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(CNN) -- French baguettes and pastries aren't the traditional bread of choice in the Middle East.

But a bakery opened by a one of the region's foremost gourmet food companies is aiming to change that.

Saudi Arabian firm, Bateel, hopes that by providing an international flavor to their offerings they will be able to further entice customers to their branded stores and cafes across the Middle East.

The group has certainly come a long way from its early days as a humble date producer.

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Bateel first started manufacturing gourmet dates in 1992, adding nuts and chocolate to the traditionally popular fruit and selling them in upmarket boutique stores.

"At that time dates were being sold in supermarkets and souks," said Bateel CEO, Ata Atmar. "But we decided that we wanted to market dates like Swiss chocolates."

"We took essentially an agricultural product and turned it into a luxury food item and in the process created an entire new industry."

A little more than 20 years later and Bateel is now operating in 17 countries with Saudi Arabia and the UAE representing its biggest markets.

Drinks, oils and jams have also been added to its product repertoire during this time.

"Surprisingly, dates is not as big of a business for us (any more)," said Atmar. "We are now a very much integrated premium food company. About 25% to 30% of our business comes from dates."

To help market its food products the company launched the Bateel Cafe in 2007, featuring its ingredients on the menu.

It also carried on selling its goods through its shops and other outlets like hotels and airports.

This carefully calculated strategy of diversification has paid dividends.

"We just signed with Qatar, the new terminal, so in a way the airport is an extension of our retail business," Atmar said.

"In the (Dubai Duty Free) we are the number one food market here ... so there is a major presence."

Atmar says Bateel has seen 20% to 30% growth in the past five years. But he said that this is not enough for what he eventually envisions for the company.

"Outside the Middle East, or outside the Gulf, we are going on a franchise business," he said.

"I'd like to see when you go to Beijing, you say it's time to go out and have a cup of coffee and you say 'oh, there's a Bateel here, let's go to Bateel.' Just as you do that in Dubai or Abu Dhabi."

Perhaps this is the next stage of the Bateel story, transforming a homegrown Middle Eastern group into a truly global brand.

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