Karachi is a city that over 15 million people call home. It is a melting pot of different cultures, ethnicities and beliefs, unlike any city in Pakistan. In this diversity Karachi is truly unique. Among the many things that unite us, is a deeply ingrained love of food which in itself captures the diversity on offer. From regional to eastern and western influences and fusion, Karachi has something for everyone.
Our love for food is so strong that in 2013, at a time when Pakistan was embroiled in internal conflict, a platform emerged that sought to unite all foodies under one banner: the Karachi Eat Food Festival. Even violence and socio-political turmoil was not enough to deter people in the thousands, including myself, from flocking to the first edition of KEFF. Today, KEFF is in its eight edition.
The first edition was a small yet happening affair, set in the backdrop of the magical Frere Hall. It was an event unlike anything I or many other Karachiites had seen before. On offer were small eateries, experimenting and trying to capture a share of mind and wallet of consumers. The second year was an even bigger success. To ensure the event wasn’t too heavy on the pocket, a price limit of Rs 300 to 350 was set and eateries were encouraged to keep their serving sizes small, allowing patrons to sample as much with minimal waste.
As the competition grew, it became harder and harder to get a coveted spot at the festival. Whereas, the food served was deliberated by a jury consisting of food critics, friends and families of the organizers, many critics (and potentially those who did not make the cut) believed that there was much to be desired in the selection process and that considering the scale of the event, the process should have been more transparent. The third event, according to many food enthusiasts, was when the festival peaked. It had the largest number of ‘independent’ vendors; restaurants and pop-ups which were innovating with food and testing new products.
The first few events witnessed organic growth, but by the fourth edition the event began to gain a lot of traction and came to the notice of big corporate entities, which saw it as an opportunity to showcase their brands. They brought bigger budgets, setups and more media spend. Whereas some may argue that this was beneficial to the event (bigger budgets meant more funds for larger venues, supplementary activities such as concerts and play areas), many of the early patrons felt this diluted the essence and charm of the festival.
From an entrepreneurial and marketing point of view, what made KEFF special, was the fact that it served as an incubator for eateries in Karachi, providing aspiring restaurateurs with a platform to test their products at a reasonable cost. Many restaurateurs used this as an opportunity to introduce various kinds of cuisines ranging from Turkish to Mexican and everything in between. All in all it served as a marketing exercise where the focus was on innovation, product testing and feedback, rather than on ROI or breaking even. As a result many restaurants successfully made the transition from a stall at the event to a bricks and mortar outlet.
There is no denying the fact that the festival has been extremely successful in revitalising the food scene in Karachi and fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. However, as the festival matured and became more commercialised, many feel it has lost its creative soul to capitalism. Increasingly, the focus was on scale, profitability and ROI at the expense of innovation and experimentation.
According to one food enthusiast, “This year I did not see anything that was out of the ordinary. It is the same conventional restaurants, serving their own menus – or maybe some mild iteration of their menu; nothing extraordinary or experimental. The bohemian has been replaced by the packet masala and that is how KEFF has evolved, and will eventually plateau now.”