Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2018

The restless restaurateur

Sikander Rizvi, CEO, Xander's, in profile.

Prior to meeting Sikander Rizvi, I had seen him a couple of times at his restaurant, Xander’s. He had been in conversation with his staff members then and appeared to be rather serious, as he directed them to do things in a certain way. I was therefore expecting to meet someone who was rather reserved and economical with his words. However, within a few minutes of our meeting at the third branch of Xander’s at Tipu Sultan Road, I realised that Rizvi is anything but serious or sombre. He is extremely talkative, and for lack of a better word, rather fidgety, and brimming with an almost child-like energy and enthusiasm.

Given that Rizvi’s mother, Florence Villiers, is the owner of Café Flo, one of Karachi’s most popular restaurants, I ask him whether opening his own restaurant was something he had wanted to do. The answer is surprisingly a ‘no’. He says that he wanted to do something creative and even considered architecture as a profession, but given that his math skills were limited, he decided against it. What he did realise was that he wanted to be in the hospitality business, which is why, after completing his A’ levels, he studied at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland, one of the leading hospitality schools in the world. After graduating, he worked at various hotels in the Netherlands and South Africa and was all set to join a hotel in New York when during a trip to Karachi, an opportunity arose that he didn’t want to miss out on.

“Ensemble asked my mother to open a tea room on their premises (where the first branch of Xander’s is located) but she wasn’t keen, so I decided to open a café there. That is how Xander’s came into being.”

His reasoning, he says, was the gap in Karachi as far as restaurants were concerned. At the time, there were either high-end ones or coffee shops; there were not many restaurants in between that catered to the younger set. “I saw this gap in the market – actually it was more of a black hole.”

Xander’s began to function in October 2011, and the rest, as they say, is history. In a relatively short space of time, it became the ‘it’ place for many people in Karachi despite the fact that at the time, most of the trendy restaurants were located in Zamzama and not E Street which, following Xander’s success, has become a foodie hub with several restaurants opening there in quick succession.

Despite Rizvi’s casual demeanour, it is clear that he has an insight into business, which is best illustrated by the fact that since 2011, he has established two other branches of Xander’s in Karachi. Furthermore, in partnership with Kamil Rahim and Shameera Mapara, he has opened another restaurant called Evergreen which specialises in healthy food; he plans to expand this restaurant as well.

Yet, Rizvi is not one to harp on about his achievements and this is apparent when I ask him about the challenges he faces when it came to providing quality food in Karachi. “Cooking isn’t rocket science. You can simply YouTube a recipe and follow it until you get it right.” This, he claims, is how he trains his chefs, although he adds that “we never hire chefs; we hire cooks whom we can teach and who are malleable.”

Rizvi clearly loves food and he attributes this to something other than his time at hospitality school. “Food has always been in my genes. I remember we used to spend two to three months a year in the south of France at my grandmother’s house, and all our family members would have lunch together. This would begin at 12:30 p.m. and end at 4:30 p.m. During that time, we used to talk about what we would have for dinner, among other things.”

Although he is a self-confessed extrovert, Rizvi says that he doesn’t like the limelight and “hates giving interviews.” When not working, he likes to spend time with his mum and has a lot of friends thanks to whom he has an extremely active social life.

Despite his happy-go-lucky demeanour, it is clear that despite his privileged background, Rizvi is not afraid to get his hands dirty, literally or figuratively. He recalls that during his days at the hospitality school, he did everything from making beds and cleaning toilets to bussing tables and washing dishes. He also points out that the school doesn’t necessarily churn out chefs, but rather, entrepreneurs or management professionals. He is honest enough to admit that having the backing of his mother helped him establish his business; he says that she helped him financially when the time came to open Xander’s, even though he had a job waiting for him in New York. He comments with a laugh that this was probably her way of keeping him in Karachi.

Furthermore, he attributes the success of Xander’s to the days he spent at Café Flo before going to the hospitality school, which served as a training ground for him.

“I think I deal with my staff very well. I can discipline them, train them, be friends with them and be their boss at the same time, thanks to the training I received at an early age. And that is why my staff is still with me.”

He says Xander’s has a low staff turnover compared to other restaurants and that many of his team members are better than him when it comes to handling various aspects of the business, such as purchases or deliveries. He attributes this to the fact that he gives his staff the freedom to work their way up, as a result of which, “some of my chefs began as dishwashers... a few of my managers began as waiters or cashiers.”

In addition to being a restaurateur, Rizvi has dabbled in films. He played the lead in Asad-ul-Haq’s Dekh Magar Pyar Se in 2015; prior to this, he had been featured in a commercial directed by Haq for Olper’s, and since then, he has endorsed other brands such as Coke and Pepe Jeans. The reason for doing the film, he says, is that he wanted to do something new and move out of his comfort zone. “I learnt a lot and had a great time; the film didn’t do too well but I don’t care. It was great working with Asad and his team and I enjoyed the process.”

Although he is a self-confessed extrovert, Rizvi says that he doesn’t like the limelight and “hates giving interviews.” When not working, he likes to spend time with his mum and has a lot of friends thanks to whom he has an extremely active social life.

The next big project exercising his mind is to open a boutique hotel in Karachi, although he realises that given the investment involved, realising this idea will be a challenge.

This doesn’t mean that Rizvi doesn’t love what he does, mainly because running Xander’s gives him the opportunity to do different things – from poring over Excel sheets one minute to overseeing the kitchen the next. Meeting people from various walks of life also fuels his extrovert personality – and is something that keeps him going given his rather restless nature, something that is visible in his demeanour and his accomplishments.