Founder and CEO of Monal Group Luqman Ali Afzal gave an exclusive interview to CENTRELINE and DNA news agency. Luqman, in a very short span of time, has excelled in the hospitality business. In recognition of his services, the President of Pakistan Arif Alvi bestowed upon him the prestigious Pride of Performance award. He has given the best period of his life in promoting and cultivating a new breed in culinary and hospitality industry.
As an entrepreneur, he believes that the way forward for upcoming professionals is to indulge in mechanizing their product and opting for unique selling products. Let me share with you that he is the first Pakistani businessman who has been awarded Pride of Performance by the President of Pakistan on ‘’Entrepreneurship’’ this March. At 40, he has achieved what many strive for in the experimenting hospitality industry of Pakistan. Here are excerpts from his interview.
Q1: Please tell us something about your background and struggle that led you to be a leading figure in the hospitality industry?
I won the bid for Monal restaurant at Pir-Sohawa in 2006 and today Alhamdulillah I am running more than six outlets in different cities and many more to come” … there is no looking back for this entrepreneur. It was during my days at LUMS as an undergraduate student of BSC Honors that I developed interest in the food business and partnered to run a Convenient Store in LUMS as a student.
At the time of my graduation, I sold the Convenient Store on 4 times profit and with 10 times’s larger customer base thus validating myself as a successful businessman. After winning the bid for Monal Restaurant in Islamabad, I faced an uphill task. It was a big gamble for me as I had to move from Lahore to Islamabad, hire staff, rent accommodations and deal with bureaucracy and on top of it market the eatery which was located on a deserted hill.
Let me also point out here that the hospitality industry is contributing significantly to the national economy therefore this industry needs special attention of the government, for better facilitation from the government would ostensibly help this industry serve customers in a better way.
Q2: Did you face any hurdles in the start and how did you overcome those hurdles?
There was a barricade at the entry point of Pir Sohawa and only locals were allowed to travel after 6:00pm. Due to increasing crime rate, general public was very reluctant to go even to Daman-Koh leave alone Pir Sohawa. It was the full use of my educational knowledge and experience of running an eatery at LUMS which came handy and I started to make entry in the power circles of the capital.
One needs to understand the requirement of the customers, their behavior, their needs and then manage accordingly. I learnt it while at LUMS when I was handling 1200 students per day, from different cities and backgrounds coming to my Convenient Store as customers. In no time, I managed to convince the then Inspector General of Police, Islamabad to monitor smooth flow of traffic to Pir Sohawa so that the denizens of the city can dine out at the new locale even late at night when half of Islamabad was asleep and only a five star hotel was available for food or coffee.
Leaving no stone unturned, I also made inroads into the diplomatic circles convincing them to enjoy sumptuous Lahori food in a serene environment on a hill top with a breathtaking view of the city. My efforts paid-off and Monal restaurant became a must visit site for not only the diplomats living in Islamabad but also the foreign visiting dignitaries and delegations.
Monal started operating at a time when Islamabad was getting a major face lift, courtesy of the then Chairman CDA Kamran Lashari. Saidpur village was being remodeled, Arts and Craft Village plan was laid out, parks were being cleaned along with up gradation of many neglected sites… the task team of CDA was in full swing and Islamabad was all set to become a tourist hub.
Q3: How important is the role of hospitality industry in promotion of tourism?
There is no doubt that Pakistan has a lot of potential in tourism but in order to attract tourists, we need to set our house in order. For example, leave alone a foreign tourist, even if a local tourist wants to travel from Islamabad to Hunza, will he find decent clean toilets on this long journey? will there be a nice restaurant where a family can eat or a workshop where he can fix his car if the breaks fail? So the answer is, unless and until we have our basic infrastructure in place, the volume of tourists will not increase. Our infrastructure has to be looked into before we open our areas to foreign tourists.
If taken care of properly, the tourism and hospitality industry has the potential of contributing to national economy to great proportions. Look at our regional countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal and even Uzbekistan, where tourism and hospitality industries contribute significantly to the national exchequer.
Q4: What kinds of measures are needed to attract more and more tourists to the touristic places?
Roads, clean toilets, descent restaurants, rest areas and health facilities along the tourist belts need to be in place for tourists to facilitate them on a smooth journey. This is the basic requirement. There cannot be two opinions on the fact that in order to boost tourism, the industry needs professionals to run it and the government has to play its role in the struggling services sector.
There is a dearth of professionals in Service industry because we discourage our children to go to universities to learn how to become a professional chef or a restaurant manager. We call them waiters and cooks and do not give them the same respect that we give to an IT professional or a banker. Until and unless we accept this as a respectable field or profession, it is very difficult for professionals to work in the hospitality industry. We need to get away with this stigma.
Q5: It is generally believed that hotel business is a profitable business. Is that true?
People usually in Pakistan open a restaurant on misconceptions that it is a money minting business and they go ahead without any study or survey.
Those who advise are either paid employees who also believe that the owner is already in profit within one month of opening or chefs who believe that their product will sell like hot cakes. After 6 months of launch, the Italian restaurants add Chicken Biryani and chicken Karahi to their menu and a Chinese eatery starts selling pizza and burgers along with Chinese dishes.
This fiasco and lack of expertise results in either shut down of the restaurant or a handover to another unprofessional business man of the same sort. I have put in almost 20 years of my life in the service industry. Starting with two employees at LUMS Convenient Store, today my staff volume has swelled Alhamdulillah to 2700. If one wants to sell Roll Paratha then he should open Franchises all over the country and the Roll Paratha should taste the same wherever you eat. It’s about time that we promote our own desi products and be proud of it.