KARACHI: It is not easy to stand out, let alone shine, in Dubai’s uber competitive restaurant industry, but Little Lahore has managed to make its place amid establishments offering high-end, authentic Pakistani cuisine.
The restaurant is the brainchild of entrepreneur Saira Ahmed, who moved to Dubai 15 years ago, when her husband was relocated from the UK.
She worked as a school administrator and had launched her own clothes business when she lived in Pakistan, but had no experience of running a restaurant. With a push from her loved ones though, she decided to take the plunge.
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“The concept of Little Lahore originated from my passion of cooking and baking,” she told Business Recorder. “I was always encouraged by family and friends to enhance my talent by opening something commercially – opening a restaurant was always my dream.”
Ahmed could also “see a burning need for a casual to high-end Pakistani restaurant which not only offered authentic, traditional cuisine but also has great service, warmth and hospitality, which is very typical to my hometown Lahore”.
A mother of three, it was one of her kids who helped her “capture the essence of Lahore in the restaurant through art”. Her daughter, artist Aiza Ahmed who is currently working in London, created a series of paintings called ‘Lahore, Lahore hai’ depicting “traditional characters” found in the city.
But the journey has not been easy. To begin with, “having no prior experience of running a business I had to come to grips with managing staff, complying with all operational and regulatory requirements,” Ahmed said. More recently, it was the pandemic that hit the business hard.
Covid-19 was not easy to navigate for Ahmed, an experience she described as “utterly traumatic”, all the while taking pride in the fact that she “went against the market and did not let go of any staff, or implement any pay cuts, despite not being able to make ends meet”.
“Dine-in was closed during lockdown but takeaway and delivery was very much in place,” she said, adding that she was faced with two options: close down or move into a smaller venue to survive.
“I opted for the latter,” she said. It took her seven months of paying rent at both places to ensure the restaurant did not close for even a day before the move was finally complete.
“Thankfully, we have been able to overcome these challenges with constant encouragement, positive feedback from customer plus perseverance, commitment and resilience.”
Her passion and dedication has landed her establishment on the list of the top five Pakistani restaurants in Dubai on Trip Advisor, between Karachi Darbar and Lal Qila — not an easy feat considering the list has some 200 establishments. Visitors describe it as offering “excellent culinary experience with food inspired from the heart of Pakistan”, and “a little gem with genuinely authentic Pakistani flavours”.
The menu includes classics like lachedar paratha, Lahori fish, nihari and karri pakora, as well as her very own concoction – kurkuri bhindi.
“Each and every dish is created by myself and I put a lot of thought into the menu but one dish I am most proud of is the bhindi, it’s my own creation and loved by everyone who visits the restaurant.”
Her customers appreciate the fact that they can get seasonal, much-loved Pakistani items like sarson ka saag and gajar ka halwa at Little Lahore, offering them a taste of home.
Those looking to open up a new restaurant in Dubai take note: Ahmed says they should ensure they have the ability “to differentiate in a highly competitive market, which has thousands of concepts to offer”.
She also said there can be absolutely no compromise on quality or service, and location is key. Online delivery portals are becoming very popular among residents, and restaurants need to know how to work them into their business models, she said.
Speaking of setting up businesses, Ahmed said there is no place quite like Dubai: “free zones like the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre have so many benefits for entrepreneurs, including infrastructure. The support from the government is among the best in the world.
“The city gives you ample opportunity to showcase your talent while being an ambassador of your own country.”
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022