Alumnus Finds Success in Saudi Arabia
To say that growing a restaurant chain in the Middle Eastern country of Saudi Arabia is challenging is an understatement. After all, no food is produced in Saudi Arabia and large-scale transportation and warehousing of food products are nonexistent.
Add to that the fact that most Saudis are not interested in working in restaurants despite that 70 percent of the population are under 30 with many unemployed. And, up until recently, most Saudis chose to eat at home instead of going out.
But for each challenge, Steve Skoien ’84, found a solution. After six years under his guidance, the ALPHA Restaurant Division of the Al-Faisaliah Group of Saudi Arabia is the country’s leading casual and fast-casual restaurant chain winning “Best Casual Dining Restaurants” Saudi Excellence in Tourism awards for each of the past five years. Skoien is the executive general manager and CEO of the company.
Today, the group has 42 restaurants divided among five brands from steakhouses to fresh Italian dining bringing in the equivalent of $100 million in annual sales. Expansion plans call for 200 restaurants in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries by 2020.
“We are building a great restaurant culture in ALFA and having fun or as I often say, playing in the ‘big sand box,’” Skoien says.
He started in the restaurant business as a dish washer for Marie Callender’s and over 30 years worked his way up to senior vice president and COO. Then, he spent a couple of years in a joint venture partnership with Wolfgang Puck developing the LA Bistro concept.
In 2010, Skoien was approached about being a consultant for Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which had just purchased a small steakhouse chain and didn’t know what to do with it. Six years later, Skoien is executive general manager and CEO of the Al-Faisaliah Group.
The differences in culture are dramatic. Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country by Western standards. Men and women are not allowed to eat or work in the same place. As a result, restaurants are typically double the size of U.S. restaurants with a singles section for men and a family section for women and families.
Because of the lack of locally grown food, Skoien imports beef from Australia and Italian staples come straight from Italy. He established a distribution and warehousing system, which is unique to Saudi Arabia and has enabled the company to outperform its many US competitors.
Skoien recruits his employees from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Bangladesh. Traditionally, Saudis do not work in restaurants, but that is changing. More than 100,000 Saudis a year are educated in U.S. colleges, and as they return to the kingdom they need jobs. Skoien is nurturing the expanding workforce through management training programs and entry-level internships. In fact, he hopes to start a partnership between The Collins College and the Saudi Ministries of Labor & Education.
“We’re making gradual progress in getting Saudis in different positions,” Skoien says. “Saudis are very hospitable people so there’s a bright future for them in the hospitality industry; they just need to get to the point of accepting work.”
In a country where movie theaters are banned and public music performances are frowned upon, the only entertainment available to Saudis is shopping and eating. Skoien capitalized on that by treating his guests to a dining entertainment experience. For example, the Italian restaurants have the look and feel of a Roman piazza complete with fountain, gelato bars, expresso bars, pizzerias and little shops.
“Part of our success was figuring out that piece of it,” Skoien says.
Throughout his career, Skoien had stayed in contact with teachers and students he met at Cal Poly Pomona including Barbara Jean Bruin, Bob Small and Margie Jones.
While at Marie Callender’s, Skoien started an internship and management training program for Cal Poly Pomona students. He was named Distinguished Alumni in 1997 and recently contributed to the donor wall outside the college’s new academic building.
“Me and my wife, who also is a graduate of the program, have always supported the school and are happy to support it now,” Skoien says.