The entrepreneur who took Kashmir’s restaurant business by storm

With creating brand Amigo’s, Tariq Bhat popularised pizza in valley

A successful entrepreneurial venture generally has a small beginning. It starts with an idea and grows with the addition of right ingredients. Then it is the constant tinkering with the recipe to make it the best. But for Tariq Ahmed Bhat venturing into restaurant business and making Amigo’s city’s most sought-after eat-out place among the youth was to completely provide a new menu. He has to popularise Italian pizza in Wazwan-loving Kashmir.

Within 10 years of his ‘humble’ beginning, this 33-year-old not only developed Kashmir’s appetite for pizza but has been able to also disrupt the traditional restaurant business of the valley with providing an alternative successfully.

Started with two people, three serving tables and Rs 1.2 lakh investment in 2008 as a ‘kind-of-a’ sub-franchise of a ‘not-so popular’ Indian pizza chain outside Amar Singh College in Gogji Bagh area of city, which would see hardly any customer during the initial days, is now the most popular pizzeria of Srinagar. Amigo’s, as the restaurant was later named, besides serving about 50 varieties of pizza, is now offering Lebanese, continental, Indian, Chinese, fast foods and other Italian dishes with staff support of 150 people in its three outlets. With a daily business of about half a million, Amigo’s gets to have the biggest piece of pie on pizza’s Kashmir sales.

A 2006 science graduate from Amar Singh College, Tariq like any other youth of Kashmir wanted to go for some government job after completing his education.

“My father was a government officer and I was expecting he would help me in getting some job. But he did not,” says Tariq. “I had never thought of doing a business. It was sheer coincidence of being at the right place at the right time, which became reason for me to venture into this business.”

A family friend suggested Tariq’s father that to make use of their two idle shops outside their home in Gogji Bagh they should open some kind of a business. The family friend was also friends with the owner of a pizza franchise in Srinagar, which was recently opened then, he helped the family to make an arrangement for selling the pizzas at their shop.

While a semi-trained chef and a waiter was hired to run the pizza shop, Tariq was asked to sit at the counter as he was not doing anything at that time.

“The franchise-owner would supply us semi-prepared stuff and we just had to put it in the oven and provide to a customer. But we could not make any mark with this arrangement,” says Tariq. “Daily sales would not be more than Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500. I would pull out the money from the drawer 10 times a day and count it. We would be sitting mostly idle. Not many people would visit initially.”

Those days friends and relatives would visit Tariq’s family and suggest them many businesses, like opening a stationery or a photocopying shop as the place was located outside a popular city college.

“There would be hardly anyone from this side those days,” says Tariq, pointing towards the area his restaurant is situated in. “Sometimes some college going boys would come inside and ask for mobile recharge. When we would tell them that we make pizzas, most of them would not know and they will ask what is that.”

“It was a very difficult thing earlier and we had to be extremely patient due to non-popularity of the pizza here in Srinagar city. It is very difficult to introduce a new idea in a place like Kashmir, which is already facing many challenges,” he adds.

Finally, Tariq, who was not initially that much interested in the business, took the lead and started to look for the ways to make it work. After, observing for some time and thinking about different aspects of it, Tariq found that, besides pizza not being that popular, the stuff they provide is not also quality wise that good. So as a first step towards the improvement, Tariq hired a well-trained chef.

“The chef was highly trained and very sharp but would throw lot of tantrums. So it was very hard to work with him. But I would deal very patiently with him. We started to prepare the pizzas on our own instead taking the semi-prepared stuff and within sometime things started improving,” says Tariq.

Explaining, how unpopular the pizza in Kashmir was those day, Tariq has a number of anecdotes to share.

“Once a doctor came here, and ordered a roast chicken pizza. When we prepared the pizza and put it on his table, he refused to eat and said that he had ordered a roasted chicken, which we were not serving at that time. We had to take back the order,” says Tariq.

He says within the span of next two years, when Tariq started to give attention to all aspects of the restaurant personally, daily sales reached Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 and the clientele increased day-by-day.

Besides his hard work and stress on quality of his product, Tariq says there was an invisible hand in his success.

“Those days there were lot of advertisements of Pizza Hut and Domino’s (two American pizza restaurant chains) on television. Kids and teenagers would be curious to eat a pizza. So they would demand pizza from their parents. As these brands were not here in Kashmir, they would come to Amigo’s,” says Tariq.

Most of Amigo’s customers even these days are kids and youngsters from 6 years to 30 years of age as they want to taste new things and do not just want to stick to traditional stuff only, he says.

“Now we have reached a stage when I see children holding hand of their grandparents bringing them in to eat pizza here. Pizza has made Amigo’s popular in Kashmir and Amigo’s popularised pizza here,” Tariq says, with a smile on his face.

Amigo’s in real sense has become the friend, as it means in Spanish, of the youth in Kashmir. “Besides tasting their favourite food, it is the entertainment place for them. Amigo’s provided this new place to youngsters of Kashmir, where they are able to enjoy something different. Kashmir undoubtedly has some great restaurants but for the youngsters you won’t find anything attractive and Amigo’s filled that gap,” says Tariq.

Besides its main restaurant in Gogji Bagh, Amigo’s Foods and Hospitalities has now two more self-owned restaurants, one outside Kashmir University campus in Hazratbal area of the city and another in southern Kashmir’s Anantnag town. It also has home delivery facilities in most of the areas of Srinagar city.

Tariq says Amigo’s clients are not Srinagarties only but people from far-off places like Kupwara, Bandipore and Shopian come to eat at the restaurants or takeaway.

“The Anantnag restaurant of Amigo’s has been first such place in the second largest town of Kashmir, after Srinagar city. Before, opening Amigo’s in the town there was no such place for people to go out. It has developed the culture of eating-out in the town, which is good for overall business of the town,” says Tariq.

However, for opening more such outlets in the other towns of Kashmir, Tariq has a strict plan. He won’t be awarding any franchises. “We will have our own outlet were will have full control over quality. We won’t harm our brand name, which we have earned with lot of hard work. It happens most of time, when you provide franchises. Maintaining food quality is our primary objective,” he says.

For Tariq, there is no compromise on quality and hygiene of food, and services even if that comes at a cost.

To keep grip over things and maintain quality, Tariq has learned all the technical aspects of the trade himself. He has even received training in the pizza making. “So there is no chance for things to go out of hand. I take charge of things myself, whenever there is need,” he says.

The biggest challenge for Tariq is availability of skilled staff locally. He has to bring the chefs and other skilled service providers from outside, while as his majority workers are hired locally.

While there are no immediate plans of opening new outlets, Tariq is working on some other projects in the food industry.

The first project is a mechanised bakery unit, which Amigo’s is setting up at Khanmoh Industrial Estates. “This project is near completion and we will be providing all items of bakery, biscuits, cakes, confectionary etc from the coming Eid. Presently about 40 people are working on this project and our outlets would be spread in all the towns of Kashmir,” says Tariq.

Amigo’s second project is from farm to table. On experimental basis, Tariq says, he rented a poultry farm and started rearing chicken on his own. “The aim is to have control over quality and know what you are feeding your customers,” says Tariq, adding that all the chicken consumed this year by Amigo’s was self produced. “When there are so many apprehensions about the chicken, we know what we have fed them and can provide assurance to our customers.”

However, Tariq wants to take a leap in the sector, which can lead to lot of employment generation and help empower local farmers. But he rues that there is no policy support for such initiatives from the government.

Tariq says he has never used social media or advertising for promoting Amigo’s. “Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can introduce you in the market but you cannot sustain. I have not given a single advertisement so far. It is only through word of the mouth and our quality of food,” he says.

Tariq claims that he has never taken a loan from bank or received any other financial support except for the initial investment of Rs 1.2 lakh from his father.

“However, whatever I earned, I reinvested it in my business instead of buying properties or spending on buying expensive cars,” he says.

But he says it needs lot of family support. He thanks his father and brothers for taking responsibilities and making Amigo’s what it is today.

His advice to youth is that money or finances can never be a roadblock for becoming an entrepreneur. Business is not about money, it is about an idea and its execution with a rebel attitude to do it, he says.

The Article Was First Published in Kashmir’s Leading NewsPaper Greater Kashmir