Taste managing a business idea

Updated: Nov 5 2003, 05:30am hrs
Fawzia Ahmed, 35, hated to do the routine daal-chawal-sabzi number. But she loved to stun her guests with exotic dishes which kept their taste buds tingling for more. Then, ever since she can remember, shes been mad about movies and has been collecting film posters. She has also kept her foot tapping to that popular number of the times. And, just for fun, she enrolled for an ice-cream-making course in the UK some years ago. So put all these fancies of Fawzia Ahmed together and you have Big Chill, an ultra-popular ice-cream cafe in Delhi. And a business success story that was simply a lot of fun to create.

The queues outside Big Chill are long indeed, getting a table could easily mean a half an hour wait, usually at any time in the day. Since it started three years ago, business has trebled.

Fawzia Ahmed: Pleasing palettes
The place offers Mediterranean food, ice-creams and desserts that are conjured up by Fawzia in the kitchen. The restaurant is plasteredwith film posters and the speakers drum out songs that both you and your uncle would recognise. Talk about seeing a fantasy come to life. As a customer once told Fawzia: Hey, you are getting away with a lot. But who cares, it works.

Fawzias is hardly a housewife-with-a-dream-to-rake-it-in-story. For eight years, she ran an Asian womens refuge in the UK. To take a break, she went on a holiday to Rwanda in Africa, where she met Aseem Grover, who was there on deputation from the Indian Army. Cupid went to work immediately and soon the two were married. Shortly after that, they were forced to live apart for three years, with Aseem getting an army posting in Dehradun.

Thats when the idea came to FawziaWhy not work on something together and, therefore, live together, rather than live apart after marriage So Big Chill was bornwith some advice from Fauzias cousin who had set up an ice-cream cafe in London.

Between Aseem and Fawzia, they sank in Rs 10 lakh and found a place to rent in New Delhis East of Kailash area. But they knew little about business matters. The first lesson was Patience: patience to deal with all kinds of government officials whose answer to any request was always: kal aana.

Fawzia says: Had it not been for Aseem, we would not have been able to cross these hurdles, because I have a nasty temper. I once threw out a policeman who was being difficult about the municipal corporation papers.

Starting a restaurant

One way to ensure many customers is to locate yourself in a market complex. But if you want people who specifically want to eat at your restaurant then it is better to be away from the markets. Let them see it as a special outing.

Most people plan their complete kitchen before they start out. Its cheaper to keep adding to your kitchen equipment as you go along.

Try as far as possible to spend your own money. Getting into loans can
be a tricky proposition initially.

Ultimately, only good food matters. Ambience and service come second. If your food is lousy, you cant succeed, no matter how fancy your decor.

Then came the crucial part. Since they were initially in the ice-cream and dessert business, their first purchases were ice-cream buckets. Fawzia explains: The best ice-creams are made in them. We looked all over Delhi, including exhibitions in Pragati Maidan for kitchen equipment, and finally bought them from Old Delhi.

They also needed a fridge and oven which they bought second-hand from a hotelier who was closing shop. Now they were rolling... The two of them took turns as cook, assistant, waiter, cleaner and cashier. If people asked them for a feasibility report on Big Chill, the couple drew a blank. They simply hadnt thought of drawing one up. Aseem says: We never made projections about the future and took it one step at a time. The most sensible thing we did was to spend on just the basics to begin with.

And every time they made some money, they would either invest in a kitchen counter, a second stove or a freezer. The mistake people make is they make huge investments right at the start, but are not able to get enough returns to break even after that, says Fawzia. Incidentally, they were making enough money by the end of two months to be able to pay the rent for the premises and salaries to their kitchen staff.

Business kept growing. Mostly it grew by word-of-mouth since they did no real publicity at all. And soon Fawzia was back in the kitchen, this time her palette consisting of three flavours she lovedolive oil, lemon and garlic.

The result was an entirely new range of Mediterranean pastas and salads with an authentic homemade taste. She says: If something on the menu is over by early evening, we just tell our customers it is over. Id rather give them 100 per cent of the recipe with all the authentic ingredients or nothing at all. Perhaps thats what reputation is all about.

Nor did they want the usual uniformed waiters serving their clients either. Their first waiter was one of their first customers! His deal was he would work from 8 pm to 11 pm and get a Colombian Mocha Shake free. The arrangement clicked and he soon worked full time. Then he roped in his friends too most of who were straight out of college. They were young, flexible and could chat with customers about things other than what was on the menu. This gave Big Chill a young, happy buzz.

Fawzia and Aseem added another chapter to their Big Chill story when they recently opened an outlet in the Khan Market shopping area as well. It was an instant success.

Their main kitchen continues to be at East of Kailash, but a lot of what they serve is freshly cooked on order. People are always asking them if they plan to now open a Big Chill chain but Aseem is emphatic: Not yet. We started off thinking this will be a family-run, roadside cafe. We never dreamt that we would grow the way we did. I dont think we can think of a chain of restaurants yet because we just wont be able to supervise them. For now, they are happy to just chill.