La Mamma Restaurant at Sheraton Montazah Photo courtesy of Sheraton Montazah
In a few short years, the Sheraton Montazah’s F&B and PR team has turned around the iconic hotel to become one of the most successful hospitality properties this side of the Mediterranean.
Oh yes, I saw you at La Mamma last night. Outside on the terrace, first table in front of the TV.” I am a little thrown off as I am introduced to El-Husseiny Fathy, the food and beverage director and executive chef at the Sheraton Montazah. It’s my last morning at the hotel and I’m sitting in a recently opened venue called The View overlooking the lush landscapes of the Montazah Palace gardens framed by the waves of the Mediterranean as far as the eye can see. It’s an impressive vista, one that Fathy, who has been with the hotel for the past three years, surely never tires of. He’s lucky to be staying in a room with the exact same view—not that he’s free to sit back and indulge in it. The f&b guru has made it his mission to turn the property around and, hand in hand with Sheraton Montazah Hotel Manager Islam Mahrous and energetic PR and marketing manager Heba Abou-El-Ella, has been working 24/7 to position the Sheraton as one of the premier properties on the Alexandrian coast.
Having arrived two nights earlier to a packed lobby and a wedding party in full swing, I am surprised that, among the sea of faces, he remembers me so vividly. “I just happened to be enjoying my tea while you were there,” he says demurely, but it is clear that Fathy’s strategy is dedicated personalization and that he has trained his staff well in the art of hospitality. Everything about the Montazah’s approach screams personalization, from the chatty valet to the smiling waitstaff and room service team.
Mahrous has been quietly rolling out an upgrade project across the property’s rooms and suites and corridors, adding new TV sets and expanding the lobby by moving the Pastry Corner to the Mezzanine floor. Authentic artworks now grace the lobby while Caesar Bar, the Fitness Center and Club Lounge have all been revamped. Other than The View, Mahrous has opened up outlets such as The Grass, added a new seating area at the private beach, and refurbished the façade.
Mr. Islam Mahrous Photo courtesy of Sheraton Montazah
Their signature restaurant La Mamma has long had a reputation as one of the homiest restaurants in the coastal city, with its charming exposed brick walls decorated with framed pictures of Italian celebrities and copper cooking utensils, and of course a classic open kitchen.
“My life is all about kitchens. I live for kitchens,” says Fathy recalling how he took up work as a steward in the US after graduating because he wanted to immerse himself in the industry to learn. At La Mamma and across the hotel’s venues he’s caused quite a storm. “I change my menus every year, completely, so that when guests arrive the following season they find something new. There has to be menu engineering. Every quarter I ask for an analysis so I can monitor which dishes were popular. Even if there is a signature dish that [we become famous for] then the least we can do is change the presentation. And it’s this approach that’s set us apart,” Fathy says.
Upon joining the Sheraton, Fathy immediately started to focus on the food and the weddings. “We revamped the menu which is Italian but we also merged flavors to ensure the dishes feel homemade. We do most things ourselves—even down to smoked items. We know, for example, that at the bar and disco guests want something to go along with their drink so we make our own homemade smoked sausage,” Fathy says.
Chef El Husseiny Fathy Photo courtesy of Sheraton Montazah
The kitchen guru explains that changing cuisine is both easy and difficult at the same time. “It’s easy for someone who has experience of cuisine worldwide and who can create new dishes using healthy recipes and ingredients. Healthy is the new trend. Everyone wants to know what’s in their food and that it’s 100 percent natural,” says Fathy who adds that “it’s these natural and healthy components that produce a good dish. Take our risotto for example—we have clients come from neighboring hotels to sample it—it’s no different than risotto made in any Rome or Milan kitchen. We use the right rice, not our traditional rice, fresh cream, fresh herbs, Parmesan; that’s what makes it stand out.”
But to revamp the menu, Fathy first had to overhaul the hotel kitchen facility. “[Mr. Mahrous asked us to] completely change the kitchen, blow out the walls, without anybody knowing or feeling that we’d relocated the kitchen to the 15th floor. It’s a piece of art. Everyone looks for quality of food and hygiene and food circulation in the kitchen.”
According to the hotel’s strategy inhouse guests cannot bring food onto the premises. “So we thought of something new and different—we created a home delivery menu in the rooms. Molokheya, hammam and everything people could possibly want, even combos! They are really delicious and we offer them at very special rates too,” Abou-El-Ella highlights. And though he realizes that this sometimes takes away business from hotel outlets, Fathy says it’s the only way they can guarantee guests are healthy and safe. “We once had a nightmare, a doctor husband and wife here were attending a conference. They ate out and came down with a horrific bug. At 1am we were called to tend to them and their kids who were extremely sick. Luckily we have a doctor 24/7 but the kids had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance. The guests admitted they’d eaten out at a well-known fish restaurant outside the hotel and from then on we decided we had to make sure everyone is well during their stay. A week later we’d introduced the delivery option so that it’s all under our supervision.”
Working closely with Abou-El-Ella, Fathy applied the same strategy of personalizing cuisine and catering to individual needs over to their weddings. “What we’ve done is merge existing offers and give people the option of bringing in something from outside, items that the bride and groom would like to choose. When we changed the trend, we were able to bring in more weddings. So for example this season we didn’t have a single day that wasn’t booked. In the past three and a half months there have been some days where we had three at a time—one inside in the main ballroom, one by the pool and another by the beach. . . . It’s quite amazing what we have achieved; sometimes we have so much business, so many clients that we have to cover the pool and use it as a platform,” Fathy says proudly.
Abou-El-Ella picks up enthusiastically and describes the decoration at the beach as “very modern and stylish,” explaining that they planted date palms and added a large patch of grass where they put up romantic gazebos for guests. “We have some set items like the decorations and the centerpiece but for the kosha there are two options and our packages really are suitable for all categories. The beach used to close at 6 or 7pm but now it’s open longer because the Beach Café, with its inviting beanbags and good food, has actually become a popular afternoon hangout.”
The surging occupancy rates and all-round satisfaction come down to one key strategy. “We made people feel that we are willing to change to a better facility, to offer more activities. So on Halloween we give a great party, on Mother’s Day we make custom cakes and we’ve designed entertainment around the pool plus tannoura shows at the Café Trottoir and so almost double our sales are F&B,” Abou-El-Ella adds.
Hotel Exterior Photo courtesy of Sheraton Montazah