‘We just like to do our own thing.’

In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with En­ter­prise, Rasikh Is­mail talks about Koel Café.

Enterprise - - Interview -

How was Koel Café estab­lished?

From my per­spec­tive, Koel Café was estab­lished as a re­sult of my want and need to have a place that I could fre­quent, which pro­vides a ‘ to­tal’ ex­pe­ri­ence i. e. bal­ances sooth­ing am­biance; food and ex­pe­ri­ence in gen­eral had to be A+ and yet af­ford­able.

I re­mem­ber that the court­yard just talked to me when I first saw it!

Noor­je­han Bil­grami who ran her clothes busi­ness there and owned the lo­ca­tion was game to open a café too. We went into a part­ner­ship soon after and Koel Café was born.

Koel has re­ceived cov­er­age in lo­cal as well as for­eign me­dia. What fac­tors have made it prom­i­nent and suc­cess­ful?

Koel Café is a small restau­rant; it is very lucky to have at­tracted like-minded peo­ple who ap­pre­ci­ate the same things as us. We have not ad­ver­tised the café and its low pro­file po­si­tion­ing is very de­lib­er­ate. We are not in com­pe­ti­tion with any­one and just like to do our own thing. I reckon this ‘ do­ing our own thing’ got no­ticed by the likes of Chris Jenk­ins who la­beled the café as the best eatery in the re­gion. The fact is that, although I per­son­ally ap­pre­ci­ate our cov­er­age in the first is­sue of Turk­ish Vogue but even without that hap­pen­ing we would con­tinue to do what we en­joy and what Koel Café stands for… giv­ing ex­cep­tional ex­pe­ri­ences day in and out … that’s what makes me happy… that’s the kick I get from the busi­ness.

In your opin­ion, which mea­sures will help you stay ahead of com­pe­ti­tion?

There are some great places in town to visit de­pend­ing on your mood and abil­ity to spend; Koel Café gen­uinely does not view them as com­peti­tors, rather it is a fra­ter­nity of some very ta­lented peo­ple run­ning great joints. We also have wit­nessed a lot of clo­sures in re­cent times; con­cepts that do not take off or die after the nov­elty wears off. The dif­fer­ence is con­sis­tency in ex­pe­ri­ence and not only prod­uct; Koel Café might not be some­body’s cup of tea but it is con­sis­tent in what it is and that’s what works for us. Days of cut and paste menus and recipes are gone; guests ex­pect more now!

Strate­gi­cally, in­no­va­tion is important to us. I don’t be­lieve in a huge menu, but I as­sure that we of­fer new flavours and dishes. If the dishes are liked by our guest base, we in­cor­po­rate it into our menu. We lis­ten care­fully to what our guests have to say to stay fo­cused.

Gen­er­ally speaking, what are the crit­i­cal suc­cess fac­tors in this busi­ness and the ma­jor risks in­volved?

The most important fac­tor in this busi­ness is peo­ple… peo­ple that work for you and peo­ple who fre­quent you.

Sec­ond is lo­ca­tion and as in any other busi­ness, the tri­an­gle of peo­ple and sales and profit needs to be bal­anced for sur­vival. Risks in our en­vi­ron­ment in­clude se­cu­rity; avail­abil­ity of util­i­ties and hu­man resource trained in culi­nary skills on a macro level and ig­no­rance of food safety and san­i­ta­tion on a mi­cro level.

Koel Café has been a mini school for about 40 em­ploy­ees… we train them on skills, dis­ci­pline, tol­er­ance, lis­ten­ing skills and some ba­sics like per­sonal hy­giene, food safety and san­i­ta­tion.

What are your fu­ture plans for the Café? Do you plan to open more out­lets else­where in Karachi or in other cities?

Open­ing more is al­ways an op­tion, but cur­rently my plate is full, jug­gling be­ing the owner of a Café and Deputy Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer for the MCR group ( Pak­istan and Over­seas). Hav­ing said that, to­mor­row Noor­je­han or I can come across a lo­ca­tion that we fall for and will surely open Koel Café 2.

What im­pact have the global re­ces­sion and eco­nomic woes of Pak­istan had on restau­rants in the coun­try? Are peo­ple spend­ing less while eat­ing out? What about this in­dus­try world­wide?

Re­ces­sion hit and changed the world’s eat­ing habits! Peo­ple in­ter­na­tion­ally are still eat­ing out as much but have traded down on the type of restau­rants i. e. ca­sual din­ing base has moved to fast food and fast food to hawk­ers and off the counter foods. The least amount of im­pact was on the fine din­ing seg­ment as the rich were still rich enough to af­ford to eat out at their favourite joints.

This was not a pain­less tran­si­tion though, as a lot of ef­fort went into the fast food con­cepts to work on be­ing fast, ca­sual and ca­sual din­ing con­cepts tweak­ing down and of­fer­ing more value ori­ented deals, etc.

How do you see the mar­ket in Pak­istan shap­ing up? Will there be more fast food chains, small cafes or fancy restau­rants?

It is tough. My advice is to do your home­work and do not just open a restau­rant

be­cause you can of­fer 10k more to the chef of the next door out­let; it is more com­pli­cated than that.

In the cur­rent sce­nario, big name fran­chises are shy of com­mit­ting to Pak­istan for ob­vi­ous se­cu­rity threats and they want to pro­tect their brands. The sec­ond tier brands are al­ways will­ing to move in to new mar­kets and they might. We will con­tinue to see new lo­cal con­cepts come in and hope­fully stick around.

Any tips for as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs, es­pe­cially those who want to en­ter the food busi­ness?

Talk to peo­ple who are al­ready run­ning suc­cess­ful restau­rants. You will be sur­prised how open this fra­ter­nity is in help­ing peo­ple do the right thing

Pho­tog­ra­phy by: Ja­mal Ashiqain

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