It’s grey and windy outside but Neco’s café is bright and bustling. The weather forecast predicts scattered thunderstorms throughout the day, yet every single table at this new eatery is full. It has couples, young and old, families with children in tow, and a group of friends, all deep in conversation. With rustic wooden tables and smoke wafting out of the open kitchen, not to mention the large tree springing from the flooring — every bit of this café looks as organic as the menu it offers.
Neco’s offers a specific and unique service; its chefs use only organic produce and olive oil to prepare their meals. The fact that they’re limited to organic material (and there isn’t much of it in Pakistan) is something of a surprise considering the variety offered in the menu, such as the brilliant pasta they make with organic flour, hormone-free poached eggs and their specialty French Toast, the most popular item on the menu. “Once you see the French Toast you might never eat breakfast anywhere else in Pakistan again, or in the northern hemisphere,” says a fan on the Neco’s facebook fan page, pretty much the only method of marketing the restaurant has employed other than printing a few fliers. The café that was opened only five months ago by Nilofer Saeed of Copper Kettle fame, is what all educated Karachi foodies seem to be talking about lately.
57-year-old Saeed is flitting about Neco’s this Sunday morning, chatting with her clients, giving her waiters instructions and getting updates from her merchandising director. On the outside Saeed is just what one would expect of a good Pakistani food-loving hostess –fair with rosy cheeks and a cozy maternal glow. But beneath that sweet, rustic charm is one of the sharpest minds in the local restaurant business. Saeed has turned her love of cooking into what is probably the most lucrative restaurant business in Pakistan to date. Her family’s chain of Copper Kettle restaurants is known throughout the country and was an essential part of the restaurant revolution of the 80s. Her dessert offshoot is the popular bakery HobNob, which has twelve outlets in Karachi alone. Now she returns with something that has again piqued everyone’s interest.
In a restaurant industry dominated by men, Saeed is the largest owner of non-franchised local restaurant chains in Pakistan. So, how did she do it?
“Copper Kettle was the first café when it opened in 1983, says Saeed, “before that people who had been abroad and wanted to eat burgers and sandwiches would have to rely solely on five star hotels. Copper Kettle bought the burger craze to everyone.” With its adapted, spicy dishes appealing to the nervous Pakistani palate, its large portions and family-friendly atmosphere, it proved a hit with people in Lahore and Karachi, and has managed to successfully ride out twenty-seven years, through some very trying times. HobNob similarly was something slightly different being offered to the regular Pakistani. “I wanted people to try something other then a cream roll you get at your local bakery, I wanted them to try fudge, and they liked it. Now there are 12 HobNob’s from 26th street to an outlet beyond Nazimabad.” Although Saeed has an unbelievable knack for conceptualising novel ideas in ways that have always seemed to work, this time she was a little unsure. “Although Copper Kettle was a new idea…the country was ready for it and it was just the right time to introduce it, and so was Hobnob,” she explains, “but with Neco’s I honestly didn’t know if our people were quite ready for something so new.”
Clearly it worked. This Sunday morning, like most Sunday mornings, there’s a full house. Saeed’s clients mostly consist of a limited class of Pakistanis, who’ve spent time abroad and who are aware of the concept of natural and organic food in the western sense. At the same time, Neco’s maintains fairly reasonable prices, in the hopes that the café will be accessible to most middle and upper-middle class families who want to eat healthier, better food.
“We’re beginning to build up a purely local clientele, who like the idea of organic produce and who want herbal makeup and slimming products,” says Saeed, smirking, “It was lucky for us, that educated and uneducated Pakistanis are both crazy about being fair and slim.” The Zoya skincare line, which Neco’s carries among others at their Natural Store section, is one of Pakistan’s leading natural skincare lines and as the sole retailers of Zoya products in Sindh, people from all classes come into Neco’s asking for her stuff. “It amuses me at times since the idea was to be internally cleansed, but people want to be beautiful and we have to cater to what the market wants.”
Saeed also vociferously insists that Neco’s is not a diet centre. “The idea is to eat healthy, live healthy, buy healthy, feel healthy,” she explains, “We don’t count the calories that go into your food. I don’t serve any fizzy drinks, no smoking is allowed, we open early at 8 am and fresh clean water is free.” The restaurant also has a deli section, where you can buy anything you enjoyed eating at the café. They sell organic frozen goods, oils, salt, sauces and a line of baked items, which include sugar free cookies and whole wheat pasta. Under the café there is also a store, which carries lines of natural and herbal products from all over Pakistan, the first of its kind. “It’s not merely another profit making business idea,” says Saeed, “but a platform to introduce the healthy lifestyle and a space where everybody in Pakistan who works towards that idea can sell their products.”
Although the café is now full, the first few months were a killer. Saeed opened in April, when most of the families she knew were either heading to Nathia Galli or further afield for their vacations. For five months Saeed tried to convince her team that things would pick up. “Instead of them trying to convince me that things would change, I was trying to coerce everyone into staying,” recalls Saeed smiling. “Everybody would tell me we should have opened up in Zamzama or had a bigger advertising budget. People would keep quitting, and I warned them ‘You’re making a mistake, things are going to pick up.’ I had a lot of faith in this idea.”
Things have picked up, but the café is still not close to breaking even. The store’s merchandising director, Mariam Saifuddin is also frustrated because her clients are very suspicious of their products. Somebody came back with rotten hormone free eggs and created a ruckus. “The don’t understand that when things are organic their shelf-life is that much shorter,” she claims, visibly upset. Saeed, on the other hand is not distressed, “Mariam is a young girl,” explains Saeed, “This is the first time she’s been exposed to these aspects of starting a business so she thinks these are problems. I think we have no problems. I’ve seen problems…once in Copper Kettle we had a full house, 300 people sitting inside and KESC cut our electricity off and we didn’t have a generator. That’s a problem. A problem is when a cake has been ordered for a wedding and the staff forget to order it. Those are problems. These are not problems, these are challenges.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2010.