(The article was first published in Mar-Apr 2018 edition of Aurora.)
AYESHA SHAIKH: What prompted you to set up a restaurant of your own at a time when fine-dining options in Pakistan were extremely limited?
AYAZ KHAN: After I finished school, I wanted to be a chef. I studied hospitality in the US and interned at hotels. I went on to work for the Sheraton Middle East and later, the Avari Towers. After working in hotels for almost 13 to 14 years, in Pakistan and internationally, I realised that I had no autonomy. I thought it would be better to work for myself because that way I could express myself more. After leaving Avari, I went on a two-year sabbatical and I was looking at possible career choices. I guess you end up doing what you really know, so in 1999, I started Okra. I wanted to offer people in Karachi the kind of food experience they had never had before. It was not an easy undertaking because I had worked all my life and running your own business is a scary proposition. You have to hire resources, manage accounts, handle operations and deal with supply side issues. It boils down to becoming a jack-of-all-trades.
"My focus was on the food and the quality of service, which is what keeps customers happy. The switch to Mediterranean cuisine came years later."
AS: What were the initial challenges you faced as an entrepreneur?
AK: When I did a feasibility study, I realised that I was short on finances even after investing my savings and borrowing from family. In retrospect, this came as a blessing, because when an entrepreneur doesn’t have enough money, you focus on minimising costs. People who think having an endless cash line is the key to successfully starting a restaurant are misguided. Several other restaurants were opening at the time with budgets to the tune of 30 million rupees, which left me wondering how I would ever compete with them. I bargained and negotiated on everything, from furniture to the restaurant design (which was done by my cousin Samar Khan, who is an architect). We ended up putting in terra cotta tiles, which I haven’t changed even now. I didn’t even install ACs at the start. People don’t understand that restaurants that are ideological and passion-driven, such as Okra, should always be opened on a ‘soft launch’ basis. I was already in business even before the construction of the restaurant was complete. Once the tandoor was working and the bhatti was on, I began making naans for the construction workers in Zamzama. In the early days, the menu was completely desi, because I wanted to stress test my kitchen and see if I was in a position to actually run a restaurant. It allowed me to keep prices low compared to the competition. I always advise people that before starting a restaurant, they must practise at home. If you start by hiring a cook and a restaurant manager without any hands-on experience, they will end up running you. If you acquire a franchise, that is a different story, because you have resource support and training.
The new restaurants or cafés I see opening are making the mistake of putting in too much money, which is making them top heavy. I started with a staff of two and took orders myself. When you are new, it is better not to have a capacity crowd or launch parties with invited guests (which is the trend these days), because you are not prepared to deal with crowds and serve them on time unless you are a franchise. What worked for Okra was that prices were low because making money was not the objective then. My focus was on the food and the quality of service, which is what keeps customers happy. The switch to Mediterranean cuisine came years later.
"Restaurant owners must realise that they need to make continuous investments even after they have become successful."
AS: Who is Okra’s target audience and how involved have you been in the operations over the years?
AK: My target audience has always been the niche market; upper-middle and higher income groups, people in their thirties and forties. I also wanted younger people to come because I knew they are the ones who will have higher disposable incomes in the years to come. Okra grew because despite being small, people enjoyed the consistent quality of the food and service. I set the tone for Okra and developed its culture and it took years. Discipline is essential; it ensures that everyone is working towards the common goal of making every aspect of the fine-dining service experience perfect, all the time, every time – and this is where the pressure comes in. Restaurants deal with ingredients and products that are perishable and food has to be served at a specific temperature. Another pressure is to ensure that the service expectations of our customers are exceeded. According to an international survey, guests want to be welcomed within three seconds of entering a restaurant, and in the next 40 seconds, they want to be seated and presented with the menu. Appetisers should arrive within eight or nine minutes. This means that timing is key and for this, your staff has to be disciplined. This is a challenge because most employees are here because they want a salary and not because they share my passion. This is why I try to induct people with culinary training because they understand the importance of following procedures and maintaining hygiene. In the future, I see more restaurants like Okra opening because of these graduates who are passionate and want to display their skill with new recipes.
AS: Does the fact that there are hardly any quality culinary or hospitality institutes in Pakistan make it a challenge to find and recruit trained people?
AK: It is a problem. There are hardly any trained restaurant resources and the ones who are certified end up going abroad because there are better opportunities there. Because of the lack of training, I have to supervise everything; from how the garbage is disposed to how the cutlery is cleaned. There is no sense of ownership among employees and I explain to waiters and supervisors that they must provide personalised service to create a bond with them. Many restaurants ignore the sanitation aspect and focus only on profits and this is what leads to failure. Restaurant owners must realise that they need to make continuous investments even after they have become successful.
The reason for Okra’s success is our culture. Our people are trained, we take complaints very seriously and spend hours researching storage techniques so that the food we serve is wholesome and fresh.
AS: How has the industry and the competitive landscape changed since you started in 1999?
AK: Most people didn’t know much about food at that time and so I didn’t offer anything too fancy except the Beef Carpaccio, which everyone thought was a delicacy. Now, people are well-travelled and aware about tastes and presentation and you can’t dupe them. I was one of the first to use fresh (and never frozen) asparagus and fish. A lot of my practices and recipes have been replicated by other restaurants. I believe that having competition is good; otherwise I would have become complacent.
AS: Looking ahead, how do you see the future of the industry and what lies in store for Okra?
AK: A simple rule of business is that if you don’t innovate and grow, the business will fizzle out. The reason for Okra’s success is our culture. Our people are trained, we take complaints very seriously and spend hours researching storage techniques so that the food we serve is wholesome and fresh. Despite demand, I don’t plan on expanding in terms of opening more branches or franchising, because it is a huge responsibility since I supervise every step of the food preparation process. If I manage to retain some of the staff whom I have trained personally, I might be able to open in Lahore and Islamabad. Since the food scene is evolving so dramatically the world over, I want to travel and see what new initiatives are possible and feasible for the Pakistani market. A trend that I see catching on is Peruvian food – especially ceviche. More restaurants will continue to open and it is only through innovation that we will be able to draw in more people.
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