The man behind Tarka, 138 East & Pier 138, Tehari Avenue and Haveli tells us about his plight as a serial entrepreneur and his obsession with food. We sat down with Ashfaq Rahman Asif and asked him a couple of questions. This is what he had to say:
1. Where did you go to school, college and university, and did you always plan on being a part of the food industry?
I started out schooling in Maple Leaf International School in Dhanmondi and eventually shifted to Mastermind School, for my O level and A Level Certifications. After finishing high school, I got admitted in IUB for getting my BBA degree. The BBA degree was my prerequisite for getting married, so I got done with it and forgot about any future degrees entirely.
2. How did you land on becoming one of the succesful names in the restaurant game today?
I wouldn't say I am the biggest name by any account, that is an outrageous exaggeration. Alright, so. Nobody else in my family before me has ventured into the food-chain, restaurant service industry. My father and his fore-fathers before him have always dealt in leather. My family has been dealing in leather since 1949. I am part of the ‘third generation’ of the leather business, so to speak.
It’s strange, really. I used to weigh 30 kilograms more than my current weight, so it’s safe to say that I really liked food, you know.
On a regular day, much like today, somebody I knew put forward the proposition of starting a restaurant together because he knew of a place we could use. I said yes. Just like that.
The person who planted the initial seed wanted to start a burger joint. But, up until that point, in 2013, I strongly felt that we had a very strong connection to Indian cuisine. Back then, the only good Indian food joints to go to where Dhaaba and Sajna, as far as I can recall.
I pushed the idea of an Indian restaurant forward, and was hell-bent on doing something truly authentic. I used to know a brilliant Indian Chef, Nawshad, so I talked to him and got him on-board and we started.
“When I first started Tarka in 2013, I was under the impression that all it takes to run a restaurant is the stove I have in my personal kitchen, nothing more. Boy, was I wrong”
So, it was evident that we would make mistakes. But, we focused on not making the same mistakes twice. We were exceedingly lucky, and within a matter of 6 months, people were lining up in front of Tarka. 60 seats were just not enough for all of the people coming into Tarka.
Running a restaurant is no less than running a factory. You have to take have supply-chain, production, timing, quality control and human resources into account.
I treated Tarka like an industry because of two things. For starters, I was passionate about Tarka and secondly I wanted it to go boom, go big, and just explode!
"We started out with 25 people, which has expanded to 150 people working together to bring the best experience possible today, Alhamdullilah."
3. What are some of the challenges you face on a regular basis?
Every day is a challenge in the restaurant business. You see, restaurants deal with the end-customer. Meaning, if they like the food, you’ll hear them appreciating it. But if they don’t, they will bring you down and let you really hear it.
What can I say, it’s very difficult dealing with this many people on a regular basis. Because every customer that walks into your restaurant views things entirely in his/her own way.
"1 restaurant serves 200-300 people every day, which means it has to deal with 300 personalities each day. Now imagine, owning 5 restaurants."
That’s keeping 1000-1500 people with entirely different personas happy every day.
Welcome to my world.
"The biggest thing I would say that I learnt would be filtering out opinions. You see, there is a fine line between a straight out negative comment and constructive criticism. I learnt who and what to listen to and make changes accordingly and understood who to just listen to and forget about."
Looking at it from an objective point of view, if you want to make it in the restaurant business, you have to be at your absolute best, every second. There is very little room for unprofessionalism, because the preparations for the people coming in at lunch must start from the night before.
You can’t be performing at any rate that is not the standard required by the market. If you snooze for even a day out of 365 days a year, you lose.
I have this theory that suggests that the entire city vents out on us service people. Everybody starting from the steward to the manager has to behave as if his life depends on the customer’s impression of him/her. So, it’s a real challenge, you know.
"Nobody cares if you are having a bad day. The entire city comes to you, to forget about their bad day. So, you must bear."
4. What is the main reason behind opening up so many restaurants?
Well, I usually joke around saying, I deal in food I personally like to eat, to save money.
But, in all honesty, I have only invested in food I like to eat personally.
How Tehari Avenue started is the most interesting story of them all. I was calorie counting for a long time, to lose the 30 kilograms I mentioned before. So, counting calories usually requires you to stop for some time. During the time I was allotted for stopping, I could eat anything and I craved for Tehari. And after counting calories for so long, you want nothing but the best. So, I ordered for the best tehari in town and guess what? It took them 3 and a half hours to deliver the Tehari.
That’s when I decided Gulshan deserves a premium ‘Tehari Avenue’, making the best Tehari accessible to everyone.
But, Tehari is not the most feasible thing to sell considering the immense amount of rent in Gulshan, Banani area. But I was adamant. Almost instantaneously, my friend told me about this place in Gulshan-2 that was up for grabs. So, we went to check it out. It was barely a place, you know, it had very little space. But, we still went for it. Because godmannit, I wanted good Tehari!
I have always had a tongue for tasting stuff. I might not know how to cook, but I can suggest insane recipes. So, I met up with the chef for Tehari Avenue and it took us 7 days to land on the perfect recipe. For 7 days straight, he fed me Tehari, and I asked him to add and subtract stuff from it until we got it just right.
Since, I believe in inter-connecting businesses, the raw materials used for Tehari Avenue’s packaging is sourced from my own plastic company. If you were to do a cost-analysis for my businesses, they wouldn’t make sense because we travel to China back and forth to source raw materials for our restaurants. See, if you wish to expand like crazy, it’s always nice to have subsidiary businesses to provide you with support.
I also believe in expanding opportunities. See, most officials at restaurants end up having a sluggish career because they reach the pinnacle of success in one restaurant, and then that’s it, you know. There’s no room for growth. If there are subsidiary industries to help out each restaurant and new restaurants opening up under single ownership, a person applying as a cleaner for any of my restaurants can move up the ranks because the higher officials can come in handy for other restaurants under my wing.
5. How do you manage 5 restaurants and 9 branches every day?
I don’t really cope. I survive. We expand to survive, do better to survive, By God’s grace, we have 9 branches for 5 restaurants so far. In Sha Allah, we will open up a 10th one by August. And that’s all there’s to it.
Ultimately, it is just the food that brings people back.
"The restaurant game is so interesting because if you know how to successfully run one restaurant, you know how to run 10."
They call it an industry’s ‘nerve’ in layman’s terms. If you understand the nerve of the industry, you can handle multiple businesses.
6. How do you feel about the sudden boom in the number of restaurants despite the fact that, the number of customers are not increasing in the same pace?
This is what we call a mushroom problem. We jump at an industry doing well, without calculating why it’s doing well.
With the increasing amount of restaurants in the market, not everybody is making a profit. It is a cut-throat business.
"A day in losses in the restaurant business takes 4 days to recover if you make 25 % more money than what you made on the day you made losses. And that is just to break-even."
7. If there was one thing you could change about the food industry, what would it be?
I would change unethical practices, where kitchen staff and owners deliberately hamper quality control and blatantly lie to customers to increase profits. I mean, these are the same restaurants our kids go to. Why put them in danger?
Asif's children having their favourite meal at 138 East.
8. What are your favorite dishes from your restaurants?
i. Tarka – Afghani Kabab, Lajawab Makhani, Matar Paneer, Pallak Paneer
ii. Tehari Avenue - Jaali Kabab
iii. 138 East – Fish and Chips, Beef Ribs (Slow-cooked for 14 hours, it falls off from the bone)
iv. Pier 138 – Salmon (Imported directly from Norway)
v. Haveli – Bangla Chinese
9. What are some of the restaurants in Dhaka, that you regularly visit, but do not own.
i. Pit Grill (To have their Steak and Burger)
ii. Yama Hot Pot & Grill
10. What are your future plans, as an entrepreneur in the food industry?
Right now, I aspire to build a franchise that goes worldwide. KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, all foreign chains. I want to own a home-grown franchise that opens up in foreign countries worldwide. A taste so unique, a service so pure and food made with so much love that transcends borders.
And I want to do it in a proper manner. The way international franchises did it. We are working on making our restaurants go through a proper franchise module to make ourselves prepared for going global. We had a pretty good start, and are ever-growing, let’s see how far we can go. One can dream, right?
My first step would be testing out the market for the coming 2 years. We aim to expand all of our businesses and see how the waters really are. If it all goes well, we will think about the next step towards making a global franchise. But, right now, I just want to get a better understanding of how things work.
11. What is one dish that you feel would absolutely steal the show in Dhaka, but it’s just not possible making it here?
Jewish Kosher Beef, Kosher is just not possible in Bangladesh. Our breed of cows does not contain the necessary amount of fat required to produce Kosher, and if we were to import beef, the dish would cost a fortune!
Additionally, we do not for the life of us, know how to make it. So, we need proper training and imported beef to get a Kosher right.
12. What are you doing next, what is next in line?
A Lebanese takeaway place is in the works in Unimart in partnership with somebody from Lebanon. That’s all I can tell you, at the moment.