- “People come to Espresso to talk... and we thought: let’s talk to our customers about the stuff they come to Espresso to talk about. Our intention is to be funny, intelligent and insightful; however, there has to be some depth and there is a level of sophistication that is important to us. Espresso is an aspirational brand; it is not cheap to hang out there and we want our customers to see the brand as their peer.” – Ahsan Shami, Owner of Barely Average Design
In the last 10 years, one can safely say that the coffee culture has well and truly emerged in Pakistan’s metropolitan cities. It would also not be amiss to say that Espresso had a lot to do with this.
The story of Espresso began in 2003, when two brothers, Adam Halai (Director and CEO, Espresso) and Irfan Halai (Director), who were running a successful digital printing business called Horizon Graphics (still in place today), were told by their head of marketing, Kamil Aziz Khan (he now runs Rowtisserie) that he was off for a meeting to discuss the possibility of establishing a coffee shop in Karachi.
The brothers jumped at the idea, as they had always been interested in establishing a food business. The trio spent a year searching for a location for their coffee shop and eventually opted for 10th Commercial Lane in Zamzama, which at the time was a relatively quiet spot. And so it was that in 2004, Espresso’s first branch opened there.
Although the response to the initiative was promising, the team realised that because Pakistanis are avid tea drinkers, the menu (which included sandwiches and appetisers) would have to be expanded to draw in the crowds. They added fast food and comfort food and such was their success, that within 18 months, they opened their second branch on Khayaban-e-Shahbaz and then a third at The Forum in 2007.
In the meantime, sensing that a coffee culture was well and truly brewing (in Karachi at least), a clutch of other coffee shops came into being, including Café Coffee Day, Ciao, Costa and Lattétude. All eventually closed down, and were followed by several others, many of which still exist. One example is FLOC (For the Love Of Coffee), which is located in the same lane as Espresso’s Zamzama branch.
In the opinion of the brothers, one of the reasons Espresso has succeeded, despite the competition is the fact that they had an established running business in Pakistan, and this gave them both support and experience as far as supply chain and human resource management were concerned. Furthermore, when they set up Espresso, they had a business plan in place.
“People come to Espresso to talk... and we thought: let’s talk to our customers about the stuff they come to Espresso to talk about. Our intention is to be funny, intelligent and insightful; however, there has to be some depth and there is a level of sophistication that is important to us. Espresso is an aspirational brand; it is not cheap to hang out there and we want our customers to see the brand as their peer.” – Ahsan Shami, Owner of Barely Average Design
“We wanted to continue to evolve and expand, and not be a brand that would fizzle out,” says Adam Halai.
Another factor that gave them an edge was the emphasis they placed on putting an experienced team in place – this included leveraging Khan’s expertise in the food business (he had previously worked at Nando’s and TGIF).
In 2011, the partnership with Khan dissolved but by then, Espresso had opened a branch in Lahore and rapid expansion was taking place in Karachi.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Along the way, several outlets were shut down or relocated. One of them was at The Place which didn’t work out mainly because the mall did not deliver the projected footfall.
“Our strategy is now to stay away from malls – despite our Dolmen Mall branch being a success – because they generally don’t draw a lot of traffic for restaurants,” says Irfan Halai.
He points out that an Espresso branch at The Forum closed down recently because the team felt that the mall was losing a large chunk of their customers.
“We realised that a lot of offices and businesses were moving from The Forum, and although our outlet was doing relatively well, we didn’t want to be sentimental and thought it best to close before business began to suffer.”
With time and expansion, Espresso’s customer composition has diversified; whereas in the earlier years, the majority of patrons were young professionals, a lot more families are now coming in and the number of customers has grown from approximately 100 a day (when Espresso had a single branch) to nearly 2,500 across seven outlets (four in Karachi and three in Lahore). Furthermore, coffee may not be the beverage of choice for all customers; however, consumption has increased substantially. In 2011, Espresso was using nearly 150,000 kilos of coffee beans; today, they use almost 250,000 kilos per month.
What has also changed is the way in which Espresso promote themselves. In the early years, they relied on word-of-mouth, and then began advertising in a few magazines. Today, advertising is restricted to Facebook, where the style of promotion is to create content that is timely and engaging – and sometimes controversial. (This differentiates them from other restaurants and cafés, which post photographs of food.)
The idea for these posts, says Ahsan Shami, Owner of Barely Average Design (which handles the Espresso account), came from an insight.
“People come to Espresso to talk... and we thought: let’s talk to our customers about the stuff they come to Espresso to talk about. Our intention is to be funny, intelligent and insightful; however, there has to be some depth and there is a level of sophistication that is important to us. Espresso is an aspirational brand; it is not cheap to hang out there and we want our customers to see the brand as their peer.”
Although since they first opened in 2004, a lot of things have changed along the way, several have remained constant and continue to contribute to Espresso’s success. Firstly, the emphasis on customer service, which is reflected by the tagline ‘Feels Like Home’. Shami says it is “more than a tagline – it serves as a mission statement for the staff and reminds them to be welcoming and to encourage people to stay as long as they want.”
Secondly, it is the attention to the quality of the coffee. According to Adam Halai, “we use the same coffee beans other places do. The difference is our baristas – the training and the knowledge they have about what goes into making a good cup of coffee.” The same emphasis on quality is placed on the food, and customer feedback is taken seriously.
A recent innovation was establishing an in-house bakery for their breads and the hiring of a pastry chef so that most of their desserts are made on their premises instead of being outsourced. Irfan Halai says that his son is studying culinary management abroad, and when he returns, he will be able to add new recipes to the menu.
As for the future, the brothers say seven branches are not enough. They are planning to establish another outlet in northern Karachi, and explore possibilities of opening up in other cities. All of which means that with a little luck, the Espresso brand may be well-known throughout Pakistan instead of only in the metropolitan cities.