A Pakistani success story: Entrepreneur's journey from small food stall to restaurant will inspire you

Ahsan Irshad, 26-year-old computer science graduate, started from the bottom with a small food stall in Islamabad

Shahjahan Khurram

It isn't every day that you encounter an entrepreneur who has blended his many passions to excel in life.

Ahsan Irshad, 'The Guy Who Cooks', is a Pakistani success story about someone who worked from the ground up to excel at what he loves best. 

Combining his love for travelling and adventure with his culinary skills, Arshad successfully managed to grow his small food stall in Islamabad into a brick-and-mortar cafe that will soon open its doors.

His story went viral on social media when he posted before and after photos of his business on Twitter as part of a popular trend. 

The 'How it started, How it's going' trend invites people to share before and after photos. Most of the entries are funny memes; but, sometimes, people also share inspiring and positive stories about personal success. 

"I started pursuing my passion for cooking over the last two years," the 26-year-old computer science graduate from COMSATS told Geo.tv

He worked in IT for a year before giving it up for a much more exciting career in food.

Started from the bottom: Ahsan Irshad operates his food stall in Islamabad. 

"I felt that there was no passion in my job," said Arshad. "When a person does not have his heart in something, he doesn't have the necessary drive for it. My passion lay in food and adventure cooking."

However, he did not have the money required to set up a large business.

"To set up a cafe in Islamabad, you need Rs10 to 15 lakhs (Rs1-1.5 million) at least," he explained. 

"However, I decided that if I was throwing myself into the fire, I should start somewhere small. I felt that I needed to learn all the tricks of the trade at the very beginning since I had no prior knowledge of the food business. 

"Also, people who start from the very basic tend to care and love their business all the more," he explained.

'Breaking taboos'

Leaving your career to start up a small food stall is not easy, especially in the society we live. 

Arshad encountered similar challenges and decided he needed to break the mould.

"One of the challenges that I faced while setting up my own stall was that the career I wanted to pursue was looked down on. I really wanted to get into it and break this taboo," he explained. 

Another wish of his was to inspire others to pursue their passions and interests in food, especially as, he feels, the culinary arts are pretty much undiscovered in Pakistan.

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The begining of a brand.

A post shared by Ahsan irshad. (@daguywhocooks) on

Another challenge that he faced early on was a demotivating fear that kept him from succeeding with his stall. 

"When you start off in a business like this, having no prior experience, you become exhausted by the end of the day and have little success to show for it. You wonder many times whether you did the right thing by taking the leap," he said.

"However, I was adamant that this is my passion and this is what I wanted to do. It is therefore very important that you keep on going despite the hurdles and keep yourself motivated," Arshad advised.

His one-man operation bore the brunt of the coronavirus lockdown as well, when businesses were shuttered and restaurants were ordered to remain closed until the pandemic slowed down.

‘I built it with my own hands’

While explaining how he arranged the finances and cut down the expenses to a minimum, Arshad said he had savings which he used to establish the café and also borrowed money from his friends and father.

“I built it with my own hands. More than 50% of labour is mine. We made wooden stalls, plastered walls, cut wooden beams for the ceiling.”

The young entrepreneur shared that he had purchased some of the kitchen equipement earlier like a fryer, hot plate, grill etc.

My investment in the café would not be more than seven to eight lacs rupees, he said. 

What does the future hold for him?

Speaking about his future, Arshad said that he wanted to take his local brand and turn into into an international one in the next 10 years or so. 

"I want people to know that someone from Pakistan has established his name in the international market," he said. "I want to take my name, my brand's name and identity, to the international stage so that people can know that a product [of excellent standard] can also originate from Pakistan," he said. 

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Let me present "pizza stacker" Pizzay uttay pizza xD . Here is a ️RECIPE ️ on popular demand. Written version is following, swipe left for visual representation. . You can make this is 6 steps. Step 1: pizza dough 200g All purpose flour ( maida ) 2tbs yeast 1 cup milk warm Pinch of sugar & salt. 1 tbsp oil Method: Mix yeast & sugar in the milk. Mix the oil & salt in the flour, mix & crumble the flour with ur fingers. Then add activated yeast milk, knead the dough untill it stops sticking to ur hand. I added chopped coriander aswell for flavor, it's upto u whether u like doing it or not. Put it aside under warm cloth & let it rise for a 1 hour. After that make 4 equal pieces, flat them up into 6 inch round rotis and bake them for about 5 min oven at 200 deg c. Step2: chicken mix 200g mince chciken 2tbsp tikka masala 50g chopped onion and mushrooms. Stir fry onions and mushrooms in oil for couple of min, add chciken and masala fry for 5 more min and you're done. Step 3: pizza sauce Tomatoe puree/paste of 4 tomatoes med Pinch of Basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Mix them and cook the paste for a while till it gets thick. Step 4: white sauce. Butter 50g Milk 300ml 1.5 tbsp flour ( maida ) Couple of pinches of salt, pepper and oregano Chciken stock or chciken cube. Melt the butter in pan, add the 1.5 tbsp of flour, brown it, slowly whisk in the milk and stir, mash the forming lumps with spatula or use bowl whisker, add all the spices, herbs and stock or cube and keep stiring till it gets a good consistency and texture. Step 5: Assembling. Take one pice of dough you baked and layer it with pizza sauce, chicken, cheese ( mix of cheddar and mozeralla ) and add a final layer of white sauce Stack it with another piece of dough, do the same layering 2 more time. And on top of fourth piece of dough, layer it with tomatoes sauce, lots of cheese and add some onions, capsicum and olives. Step 6: baking Bake it for 15 min in the pre heated oven on 220°c Take it out, let it rest for 10 min, then you can slice it like a cake. Swipe up for the visual representation of each step. Shake recipe will be in the separate post so wait for it.

A post shared by Ahsan irshad. (@daguywhocooks) on

When asked about the ingredients to his success, the restauranteur said that "honest intentions" and hard work were the key driving factors for his success. 

"There is no substitute for hard work," he said. "Also, you must always harbour honest intentions. Often times, people forget why — when they start a business — they got into it in the first place: what were their aims and intentions? It is important that you never lose sight of that."

Saying that there will never be a "full stop in your path" if you keep going, Arshad urged entrepreneurs to never fall victim to negative thinking. 

"If you think positive, you will always achieve something that is positive."

'Modernise yourself'

For all the budding entrepreneurs and restauranteurs out there, Arshad has a simple piece of advice: modernise yourselves. 

"For all the restauranteurs out there who want a career in the culinary field, make sure you keep up with the times," he said. 

"Social media is big nowadays and is immensely helpful in spreading the word about your venture or restaurant. Make sure you do not lose out on it," he said.

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Caption it . Best caption will get a shoutout.

A post shared by Ahsan irshad. (@daguywhocooks) on

Secondly, he told potential entrepreneurs or those who want to try their hand at a startup not to lose hope. 

"You must not lose heart in whatever you try your hand at," he said. 

Arshad said that it was better to be a businessman as compared to a salaried person. 

"When you start a business, you offer others the opportunity to do something for themselves," he said. 

"Businesses become the source of employment for many others and hence God helps them with His blessings."

Arshad intends to help other businesses as well who are facing the struggles he faced while starting out as a budding entrepreneur. 

"I will invite a friend of mine, who is a baker, to sell his products at my cafe," he said. "I will also ask another friend who is in the photography business to hang his photos at my cafe. This is how I intend to help other people starting out," Ahsan added. 

"Work hard and help others. Lift yourself and lift others who are struggling as well."