Curating delightful dining experiences – an interview with Gemma Llewellyn, the General Manager of BMMI’s restaurants division

In the late 1990s, Gemma Llewellyn fell into the dining business by coincidence when she was looking for a job to support herself. Starting out as a hostess in a restaurant in London, Gemma began taking on more challenges, seizing opportunities that saw her work in the industry as a waitress, bartender and trainer to her colleagues. Noting her growing dedication and talent, she was approached to take management training.

Fast forward to today with over 20 years of experience, Gemma is now the General Manager of our restaurants division at BMMI, overseeing our Spanish restaurant, La Vinoteca Barcelona, our rooftop Middle Eastern lounge, Alto and coffee shops, Elios Craft Cafe and Delilah’s. The Corporate Communications and Marketing team recently sat down with Gemma to learn more about her and the role she and her team plays in delighting our customers.

So tell us more about your experience starting in the industry?

It started out as a job, but it has become a career. It was a lot of fun and once you’re involved in the business, I believe you naturally start to develop a passion for it. I might not have initially gone in with an urge to learn about food and beverage, but as time goes by it becomes more interesting and exciting, with new experiences and opportunities to travel. You come to realise that dining is something that brings a lot of people a lot of joy, so I find myself very passionate about making that happen for them. Thankfully I’ve had the chance to do this in more than one country. I began my career in London, but I’ve also worked in Beirut and Dubai, and now, Bahrain!

So, what does an average day look like?

My day usually starts with me getting up at 6am to take my son to school, and then I stop by Elios Craft Cafe for coffee and to catch up on my emails. After that, my day can go anywhere! Restaurants are very dynamic and things change from minute to minute. The fact that our dining outlets consist of brands that are very different from each other presents a unique set of challenges. One moment, you find yourself sitting with the finance team, the other moment you are with the HR team, for example. Then you are worrying about costing, recipes or the like. Before you know it, it’s 5pm, and while most people are wrapping up their work day and heading home, that’s the time two of our restaurants come alive. So I then visit La Vinoteca Barcelona and Alto during the evening, checking up on our service, meeting our guests and networking, and making sure that operations are running as smoothly as the should be.

You mentioned the diverse dining brands we have – how do you manage juggling them effectively?

Each person has their own approach, but for me it’s about getting into the zone. For example, I tell myself that for the next few hours I will be focusing on Delilah’s, and the next day will be booked as an Alto day. Or at least that’s what you intend – but with such a versatile industry, things pop up and change. However, I always try my best to give myself space in the week to think about what needs to happen. Sometimes I do that by brand basis as I’ve mentioned, but at other times, I break it up according to need. So I would say okay, now I’m just going to focus on what needs to happen in marketing across all outlets, or I’d work on a plan to support and improve employee welfare.

You’ve joined the team under a year ago - how has your experience been working with BMMI?

At BMMI, it’s my first time working for a corporate entity. My previous work experience has been with exclusively restaurant companies whose outlets could vary from one to two outlets, up to even 30. However, working with a diverse group like BMMI also presents many advantages. You have other divisions that sit alongside the restaurants, such as supermarkets, beverages and supply chain. This creates much more opportunities for all of us to work together and explore mutual benefits. In that sense it’s exciting and it gives you the opportunity to interact with a much more diverse and wider range of people.

What are your thoughts on Bahrain’s dining scene?

I haven’t had as much time to go out and see everything out there, but I feel like the country definitely has a lot of good concepts and a lot of opportunity for growth. In some more established dinning scenes in the region, such as in Dubai for example, it’s about doing what’s bigger, crazier, shinier – the newer the better. But that doesn’t always necessarily translate to a good quality operation. People might get caught up in the bright lights of it, but at the end of the day it is about how good the food and experience are. What’s most important is the quality of your product rather than the shininess of your venue – it’s all about the heart behind hospitality, and there is a lot of opportunity for that here.

Keeping that in mind, what is your approach and vision for our restaurants?

In a nutshell: getting amazing products delivered by passionate people that are knowledgeable and friendly. If you know you have a good outlet, offering and brand, then you don’t need the bells and whistles. What you need is quality people and quality products at the right price. Thankfully, we have a lot of great people working with us.

In terms of vision, well we have some great concepts but there’s still a lot that can be done. We will be working on strengthening our concepts, fine tuning them further and enhancing our business model even more. Once we have solidified those foundations some more, then we want to work on expanding and spreading our love for good food and drink even further in the country.

You mentioned that you have some great people working in the team. Can you tell us more about them?

There’s no doubt that we have some very talented people on board, and when I first joined, I made it my mission to make sure to prioritise employee welfare. You have to realize that in the hospitality industry, you need happy employees or else you could really be hurting your business. You rely on your people to prepare and sell your products for you and to create a welcoming experience for your customer. If they’re unhappy, that undoubtedly comes across. So, the team’s morale is very important to me, and I am very happy to see the team feeling more gratified. We’ve also brought in new faces with a wealth of knowledge and experience. This has all contributed to the team being a pleasure to work with and great brand ambassadors.

Do you feel that your experience in different positions in the dining industry has been an advantage?

Absolutely! Good management means understanding every aspect of the business. If you’re going to ask people to do something, you have to be open to understanding whether it’s possible or not. You have to keep in mind that in a restaurant there are different pressures on different sections that happen at different times. You have to understand this flow and the potential pressure points so that you can best support and try to map out future service to the best of your ability. At the end of the day, experience really gives you the power of knowledge, and it’s really important that when people ask you questions you have the solution. You need to be trusted, and you need to be a role model.

Finally, can you share with us what you believe makes our venues special?

I believe that our restaurants and coffee shops have unique things to offer, with many more improvements currently on the way and exciting changes to come!

With La Vinoteca Barcelona, we are truly the only authentic Spanish food outlet of note in the island. We have some great personalities working there, such as Marina Diaz, our Restaurant Manager, and Executive Chef, Joan Gomez. They bring knowledge, passion and creativity to the table. I particularly love our garden space outside and the warm and inviting interiors, as well.

When it comes to Alto, well the rooftop view from our terrace on the 25th floor is unbeatable. Furthermore the team is super friendly and welcoming. Our oriental fusion music draws in a crowd and has become one of our signatures. I think our contemporary take on Middle Eastern hospitality, food and cocktails sets us apart.

Delilah’s offers our customers with two cozy locations in prime locations. Their traditional food with a modern twist is truly delicious, with a wide variety or comfort foods for all day dining. For me, I personally love Elios Craft Cafe and it is where I usually start my day with coffee. I love the availability and variety of the fresh and nutritious food. I also love its location in the BMMI Tower in the Seef District, because it is truly a central and social place to come hang out, catch up and have something great to eat or drink.