Dubai Dispatch:Interview with Sardar Abdul Qayyum, Owner of BBQ Tonight
The famous Pakistani food franchise, Barbecue Tonight or BBQ Tonight can surely be recognised as Pakistan’s biggest success story in the restaurant business. Founded by the two brothers Sardar Abdul Qayyum and Sardar Abdul Rahim in 1988 in Karachi, the restaurant has since then turned into an eatery-giant with high standards of excellence. With a straightforward but delectable desi menu, warm and impeccable service and a snug feel inspite of its sprawling size, BBQ Tonight is the restaurant of choice for most on a night out in the city.
On a busy weekend the branch in Karachi caters to a whopping 4,000 customers. A newly opened branch in Dubai adds to the restaurant’s impressive repertoire and Newsline caught up recently with Sardar Abdul Qayyum, the enterprising, yet shy owner of this unique Pakistani success story.
How did the idea and consequently the restaurant come about back in 1988?
My elder brother, Sardar Abdul Rahim, returned from Kuwait in 1986 and we bought a small place, just 12,000 square feet, in the Boating Basin to open a restaurant. We thought of Boating Basin because of its popularity as a food street with many eateries but none that had the hygienic environment and good quality food that we planned to provide. We thought it would do well.
What were some of the hurdles you faced while setting up BBQ Tonight?
It took a while to develop a routine as it would with any new business, but there were no major problems. We owned a supermarket called ‘Hassan Store’ and ‘Star Video’ movie rental outlets before opening the restaurant. We made BBQ Tonight customers in hand from these two businesses as we had made a trusted name because of those small ventures. The name spread through word of mouth and initially we only attracted customers from Defence and Clifton. Initially, finding efficient, trustworthy staff was a bit of a hurdle. That problem was solved later when we started our own training sessions for the staff we hired.
BBQ Tonight is now a world-wide franchise with outlets in Dubai, Nairobi, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. What is the secret behind the success of the restaurant?
The secret behind our success is vision, commitment, timely updated growth and teamwork. We have a very efficient team of workers.
BBQ Tonight opened its branch in Dubai last year but one would have expected an earlier opening with the high number of Asian population here. What happened?
My brother was a partner at BBQ Delight and we did not want to open BBQ Tonight to compete with his restaurant. Now, he is no longer a partner there.
Is the menu in Dubai exactly the same as the one offered in Karachi or have you made any changes to cater to taste palettes in Dubai?
Yes, the menu does vary a bit. We have more basic, homely foods for Pakistanis living abroad, especially those who miss traditional meals. Items such as, Daal Makhani, Curry Bazaar Bengan are included in the menu of our Dubai franchise as well as all the other franchises abroad. We also included novelty dessert items such as Gulab Jamans and Jalebis at our Dubai branch for the same reasons.
BBQ tonight in Dubai has a capacity of about 250 people and it caters to approximately 600 people on a busy weekend.
Which has been the most challenging franchise to set-up so far?
The Singapore franchise definitely. Chefs and waiters need to be college graduates to work in Singapore. Hardly any of our staff in Pakistan are graduates and it was difficult for us to find the qualified staff for that franchise. There were also restrictions on obtaining work visas and we were initially only allowed to send three workers. After some time, when the restaurant became slightly popular, we got permission to send three more workers.
Do you maintain complete control over the franchises?
Yes, we are trying to maintain control over the franchises. We do this through technological softwares such as point of sales software. It is important for us to keep a strict surveillance over our franchises for quality control. We have special staff hired in all the locations of our franchises and they keep a regular check over the operations. We take complaints very seriously and we go into deep details to rectify any complaints.
Much has been said about the almost ‘family-like’ treatment of your employees such as provision of quality medical facilities. How important is the employee to BBQ Tonight’s success?
Our workers are our strength and we work hard to keep them motivated. Various types of uniforms are appointed to represent authority, each post such as waiters, head waiters, floor captains and supervisors have a different coloured uniform to motivate them to strive for the better. We provide several motivational prizes such as employee of the month etc. Mainly, we ensure that our employees get medical facilities, transportation, housing, and unlimited food for their daily meals. Advances are given when required and we not only have hygienic toilets for our staff, we even have bathrooms and changing rooms in case they want to shower. We hire our staff by shifts; there is a morning shift and an evening shift. Our restaurant is open from 12 noon till 2 am and it would get very tiring for our staff to be there around the clock. Our morning shift starts from 8am and ends at 4pm. While our evening shift is from 4 pm to 2 am.
We have no staff union. We share things and we take employee advice. Every member of our team is a key player and without a good team you cannot do business.
How have you employed manpower in the restaurant in Dubai?
We have sent the staff from Karachi itself. We over-staff in Karachi,which just requires 500 workers but we have 700, just so that we can train staff to send them to our franchises. We make sure that we hire professionals to train our staff.
Can you describe the employee hiring and training process?
Whenever we want to hire a new cook we have a three-month trial period to do dishwashing. This is a very physically trying job and we want to see if the employee is tough enough to handle it. We prefer to hire fresh, raw employees for chefs who do not have experience from other places so that we can train them our way. It often happens that if we hire some over- qualified, the employee has their own accustomed way of handling themselves and they are rigid and not accepting of our methods.
If we see that the applicant is educated and has passed his matriculation exams, we prefer to hire them to be waiters as they will present themselves well to the customers. The basic traits we look for while hiring is that the employee should be tough and determined. We look for physically fit and young candidates who can pick up things easily. We observe the employees we have hired for 3-6 months when they are washing dishes and we evaluate if they have the potential to move forward. The best way to judge someone is by giving them responsibility. If we see the potential, then we start training and we promote the employee. We have many different tasks to be done in the restaurant, for example, cooking, cleaning, driving, waiting on tables, and managing. It is important for us to hire the right person for the right job. Things begin to get messed up if we make the wrong decision while delegating.
The restaurant business must feel like home to you. What advice would you give to aspiring restaurateurs on what it takes to not just develop the popularity you enjoy but also to maintain it? What is the ‘right-mix’ for a successful restaurant?
The key to success is that we make our customers feel at home from the minute they enter parking till the time they have finished their dinner. Most of our regular customers know us personally and they patronise us. They have told us that they actually get a feeling of ownership when they eat at BBQ Tonight. Apart from quality of food, we have provided other services to make our customers feel special. We were the first ones to start valet parking at a restaurant in Pakistan. We have provided wheelchair, ramps and toilets for the handicapped. We have a clean and hygienic environment with good, healthy food. BBQ Tonight mainly caters to families and big groups. Customers are most concerned about atmosphere these days more than anything else. We make sure that there is no rowdy crowd and no disturbance. We feel that it is our responsibility to make our customers feel safe and comfortable.
My suggestion to aspiring restaurateurs would be to take care of their staff, not compromise on raw material and make the customers feel very special.
What are your favorite restaurants in Karachi and Dubai?
In Karachi it’s Fuchsia. I am fond of the Shabestan, an Iranian restaurant at the Radisson Blue Hotel in Dubai.
What is your personal favorite BBQ Tonight menu item?
The Fish Tikka.
What does the future hold for BBQ Tonight?
We have plans to expand to Jeddah, Mecca, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Manchester, Birmingham, London, Toronto, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in the next two years. Mostly when people open Pakistani restaurants abroad they deviate from their origins and give it an Indian or Mughal name. Wherever we have opened, we have maintained our Pakistani identity and by the grace of God we have done well. We have a huge Pakistani flag lit up on the facade of our Karachi branch and we have the flag printed on our parcel boxes too. Our goal is to not only make our restaurant famous but also make our country proud. Whatever we are today is because of Pakistan.
A meal you could eat every day if you had the choice?
That would be a nice and simple Chicken Tikka.
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