Published in Nov-Dec 2019
Indulgence comes in all varieties; a mouthful of gourmet chocolate, a hot stone massage, 20 uninterrupted minutes to get lost in a book or a week in Paris,” wrote Gina Greenlee.
True! But for us Pakistanis, there is only one indulgence. Food! Pay a random visit to any eatery, any day of the week and you will see it thronged with customers waiting to satiate their palates, which only goes to show that inflation has not yet bitten into our gastronomic habits and that the business of food has thus far been recession resilient and will probably continue to be so.
Similar is the case at Café Chatterbox this afternoon. It is bustling with activity as guests enjoy their meals and the black-clad waiters rush around managing orders at different tables. Music plays in the background, intermittently disrupted by the noise of blenders, while a scent of coffee brewing fills the air.
I am sitting on the top floor across Naila Naqvi, the founder of Pie In the Sky, Café Chatterbox, Aztec Chocolate & Cake Boutique and Chatterbox Deli, sipping a frappuccino and listening intently (amid the noise and chatter) to her story. Of how as a young girl she had no idea what career path she would take, what led her into the culinary business and now that she has become a successful businesswoman, what plans she has in mind in terms of expansion and diversity.
“I kind of stumbled upon it I suppose,” she says, recalling the time when she had finished her A Levels from Karachi Grammar School and had a six month gap before beginning university.
“My mother worked for Behram Avari as his personal assistant and she asked him if he could fit me in somewhere as she didn’t want me sitting at home doing nothing.”
Avari Towers, back then had just opened. Their British Training Manager (“a very good guy”) developed a two-year management training programme, which Naqvi became a part of in January 1985. The programme entailed working in each and every department of the hotel; therefore, Naqvi worked in the laundry store, butcher shop, kitchen, the restaurants, front office, sales and even made beds and cleaned toilets.
“It was a complete course.”
Upon completion of the course, she accepted an offer to work at the hotel. However, she then won a scholarship to study hotel management in Singapore (Singapore Hotel Association, affiliated with L’ Ecole Hôteliére de Lausanne) and left for three years. She also did a certification in food and beverage management.
Three months on, she returned and resumed her job at Avari Towers, this time as food and beverage manager, working in banquets. It was during this time that she began supplying desserts she made at home to some of the restaurants.
“I had had my training, I knew about food cost and selling prices. I sort of got into desserts and people liked them.”
Naqvi married in 1999, after which she found it difficult to continue working at Avari.
“The hotel industry is very demanding; you could be working 15 hours a day at a stretch, which is very stressful.”
This was when her husband suggested she go into the baking business. She launched Pie in the Sky in 2001, offering a variety of cakes, brownies, pastries, basic white and brown breads, biscuits and chicken patties. Naqvi worked along other bakers she hired, using her own recipes, some of which are used to this day.
“The brownie recipe we use at Pie In The Sky is the same one I used as a child with my mum. A long time ago I gave my niece a cookbook and we baked a fudge cake and we still use that recipe as well as the one for sponge cake.”
Today, Pie In The Sky has 20 branches (19 across Karachi and one in Hyderabad). Upon asking why she didn’t branch out to other cities, Naqvi says she is not averse to the idea, but there is just so much to do in Karachi.
The bakery (which will celebrate 19 years in January) is close to her heart and she does not trust the franchise laws in Pakistan to do this just yet.
“I have worked very hard to build Pie In The Sky into what it is today. I was seven months pregnant with my son when I opened the first bakery and I sometimes wonder whether Pie In The Sky is my first baby!”
Long before she launched her bakery (even while in Singapore), she was mulling over the idea of opening a small café.
“I always thought it would be nice to have one at some point.”
Once the bakery opened its second and third branch, the kitchen moved out from Zamzama, leaving sufficient seating space, allowing Naqvi to launch her bakery café concept (a novel idea in Pakistan back then), which she named Café Chatterbox in 2008. For the café, she hired a consultant to develop the initial recipes, but beyond that she says a lot of the inspiration comes from travelling, which she does frequently.
“Now it is a very collaborative effort; chefs come up with ideas, give me something to taste and if it works we put it on the menu.”
Aztec Chocolate, her next project, was a natural progression as she had been doing desserts anyway.
“Our truffles at Pie In The Sky are very popular; we prepare them in the thousands for weddings, so I thought why not explore this option.”
Although she does agree that the retail market for chocolate is still not as developed as it is abroad and people here prefer mithai. This, in fact, led to the change in concept and now, Aztec is not just a chocolate shop but has expanded to a cake boutique plus a gifting solution. Their cakes and chocolates, along with fresh, imported flowers and macarons can be picked up for any occasion.
“We cater a lot to the corporate sector on Eid or New Year or when a company has reached a milestone; most are looking for an option other than mithai.”
Her most recent project is the Chatterbox Deli, a restaurant she opened 18 months ago and where she has tried to shift the focus towards healthier options. Talking about the current economic situation, Naqvi says that in terms of food they have not suffered as much as they thought they would, because we are a foodie nation, although at the back of everyone’s mind prices are an important consideration.
“No one is willing to pay Rs 200 for a chicken patty or Rs 500 for a chicken tikka. They would rather go somewhere cheaper.”
She adds that at Pie In The Sky, the focus remains on giving customers the best possible quality at the best cost and they try to absorb a lot of the inflation as competition is intense.
Expansion plans may not be immediate owing to volatile economic changes, but it’s on the cards; perhaps in another 18 to 20 months.
“In the meantime we will consolidate and weather out the storm.”
As for women who aspire to be the next Naila Naqvi, her advice is that passion is imperative.
“People don’t see the hard work, time and sacrifice one has to give. They don’t see the times when your outlet is open and the plates are ready but nothing is sold.”
Her advice is be patient, take baby steps and do not expect to make it big overnight.
A mother of two sons, one of whom has just started university, Naqvi tries to balance work and life as much as possible and in this respect pays tribute to her husband for always supporting her. She remembers missing her son’s first Eid because there were cakes to prepare (although her husband and the rest of the family joined her there), but she does not regret it.
“I did what I had to do and if I had to do it again I would. If you make a commitment to something like this, then you have to give it as much time as you must.”