‘We just like to do our own thing.’
In an exclusive interview with Enterprise, Rasikh Ismail talks about Koel Café.
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