Dubai is not an easy place to make it big. There’s no pot of gold handed out by immigration as soon as you clear customs. And for an expat living here, let me tell you personally, it’s hard.
Below is a journey of a little joint called Moti Roti, started by the ever so positive, Tahir Shah. It’s important that we know just exactly how hard it is to start a business in Dubai. He details the gruesome process behind it, and shares some pointers along the way too. You may think it relates only to the food business, but I’m positive there are general tips anyone can learn from. Relatively speaking, he is still a newbie among entrepreneurs, but his learning curve has been phenomenal.
Starting a food business on a diet
Let me introduce you to Tahir Shah, the founder and MD of Moti Roti, one of the region’s few gourmet curry popup shops.
Born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire to Pakistani parents, he grew up in a household rooted in a rich food culture where roti was shared at the table every night. Graduating in Computer Science he went to work for Nokia UK, eventually transferring to their Dubai office. Here, lamenting the lack of quality quick food options for office workers, he stumbled upon a new category of fast food from the States known as Fast-Casual. This instilled in him a desire to change the face of Pakistani food, which for too long had been associated with butter chicken, naan, biryani, overshadowing the true style of food enjoyed at home, especially the humble Roti. In 2012, after 12 years of the corporate grind, he bit the bullet and started up Moti Roti. Within 2 years he has got his pop-up shops into 3 locations, and was nominated Restaurateur of the Year 2014!
There is no easy to start a business, unless you’re a trust fund baby. In his own words, there are “ tons of books are out there on starting a business, normally with some dude you’ve never heard of on the cover, and unimaginatively titled ‘ THE 5 essential rules for…’ or ‘Winning: F$%! YEAH!’.”
[box] Did you know that even a simple take-away restaurant requires a start-up cost of half a million dirhams? Almost seven in ten restaurants fail within the first year of operation. That can be terribly demotivating to someone wanted to venture into this field.[/box]
5 things you can learn from Tahir Shah:
1- Testing the waters first is a great plan to start off with.
Don’t go about splurging cash like Mr. Money Bags. Be smart. You’ll need two things for this. A place to make it, and a place to sell it. Plenty of options for the latter, you’ve got markets, community events and few fairs. The former, now that’s hard. Dubai is strict on its hygiene and health regulations, no compromise there whatsoever. Enlist the help of a professional kitchen. He personally advised me, ‘If you need Help, ask for it. And then ask some more’. Don’t just ask friends for their opinions; make sure you get solid feedback from your initial customers. It’s important you be objective. Observe and carefully note down how your prospective customers like your menu, and carefully change what needs to be changed. If it’s not food it may be something else. Packaging, quantity, ingredients, maybe even the very way you or your staff interact with them.
2- Learning trade fair.
As a fledgling entrepreneur, learning concepts like operating costs and keeping stocks takes a while to get the knack of. But it’s absolutely necessary. What’s also necessary is to do your research. Not just reading the first page of Google search. Tahir was involved in the helping out another start-up, and he learned quite a bit during this time. A fancy location and a big marketing campaign mean nothing if you’re not smart about how you’re spending your money. It’s not just footfall that’s important, you have to visible and accessible too.
Take for example, opening a family dining restaurant in an area surrounded by offices. Simple logic dictates that a casual dining or fast food restaurant would make sense. Corporate folks value their lunch hours, and they have no patience waiting 20 to 30 minutes for their meal to arrive. In general terms, you should know exactly what you’re product is and who you’re selling to. A suggestion from Tahir himself, “don’t be afraid to reach out to the F&B community out there. Lots of wonderful people willing to help you at the cost of nothing but your time.”
3- Slow and steady wins the race.
After testing the waters, he decided to open his first pop-up shop in Carry-fresh supermarket, Tecom. A pop-up shop is different from a regular restaurant, mind you. They’re usually present in a small but visible manner in a location already branded by another entity. This makes sense if you have an idea of what you’re costs are and are aware of controlling other elements of the business, but want to test it out in practice.
There are times when you lose out to factors you cannot control. Footfall may not be good on some days, and on others it may be too much to handle that you may crash and burn. But that’s where you prove your mettle. You’re can’t call yourself a true entrepreneur if you can’t pick yourself up as soon as you fall. Your best chance is to learn and careful record whatever you do. Every single person you meet has something to share and something new to teach you.
So where is Moti Roti now?
As of now, there are three Moti Roti popups; two are prominent in Media City (Media One hotel and Aswaaq supermarket). And, this just in, a food-truck expected to be ready in one month!
A brick and mortar shop is on the pipeline, but may take a while. In the meanwhile, I’d recommend paying them a visit if you’re in Media City. I personally loved the Roti Wrap with the masala chicken and mint yogurt filling. The mango chutney is also worth mentioning here. Top it off with a Mango Lassi and you’re good to go.
The Secret formula to success?
There is none, and I doubt there will ever be. Nothing beats hard work, but you can make things easier on yourself but being smart about what you do. Whoever said money is all you need obviously isn’t aware of what positivity and a tenacity to hold on your dreams can do for you.
Special Mention: #FillingTheBlues
The ‘ Filling the Blues’ is a simple and delightful initiative, during the month of Ramadan, where the local businesses and start-ups of Dubai hand out food, a gift and a photo of the laborers to those finishing their shift.
Moti Roti is a part of it. Last year was the first, and I’m positive that it will continue this year as well. If food runs out, donations given by volunteers are used to provide biryani.
[box]Note: Tahir generously spared some precious time from his daily schedule to provide me a lot of the information and pointers here. This article has been written with info provided by him and also from his blog. Do check out Moti Roti’s official website if you’re interested in more updates from him.[/box]