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The essence of a good business? Always the same

The croissant is a commonplace food these days, made all over the world. But a great croissant, it must be said, is difficult to find, even in the capitals of Europe. The best examples of the delicacy have a lightness in the hand, a fineness in the texture, a fluffiness in the mouth that only elite patisseries can pull off.

I found one of those croissants the other day, when I wandered into one of those small coffee bars for which the warren of central London was once famous. Just off Oxford street sits the Kula Café. I was of course intrigued by the name, thinking I had found an eatery run by one of my fellow Kenyans abroad. But no, this place has no Kenyan connection. 

It is run by Najeeb Mir, originally from Karachi. Mr Mir is a Pakistani who can turn out lovely croissants, day after day. Mr Mir explained that the pastries and cakes at the café are courtesy of his wife, also of Pakistani origin. A French delicacy is therefore being produced to a very high standard in the heart of Britain by a couple who are both British and Pakistani. This world is truly becoming a delightful kaleidoscope of mixed origins and newfound identities.

But I am not here today to discuss matters culinary or migratory. I observed Mr Mir at work for a good couple of hours, and wish to share some impressions and reflections.

This proprietor was busy with his crew behind the counter, serving up breakfasts and lattes, pancakes and smoothies. It began to rain outside (which should not surprise any regular visitors to those squelchy isles), and more bedraggled customers came into the small café to escape the downpour. Quick as a flash, the Mr Mir had shed his apron and come out from behind the counter, to personally rearrange tables and make more space.

He then visited each table in turn, chatting and laughing with his multifarious customers and spotting dishes and items to offer them. At my table he looked me in the eye and with a twinkle asked if I might wish to partake of his special Karachi Masala Omelette. Well discerned, sir! Though I had only come in to have a coffee, the thought of a favourite dish was too tempting. Mr Mir then went back to the griddle to make the omelette himself and served it to us with obvious delight. It was delicious.

As we left, I spent a few minutes chatting with this interesting man. I praised his hard work and endeavour. He replied with utter honesty by immediately passing the accolade to his team of workers, and took pains to introduce all of them to me by name. I would achieve nothing without these excellent individuals, he said. And as he explained this, he noticed from the corner of his eye that a family with children at one of the tables was paying its bill, and quickly picked up some lollipops from the counter and walked over to present them to the young children before they departed.

That’s what I’m here to share this Sunday. 

The United Kingdom these days, let it be said, is suffering a serious dearth of simple human service. The food business is dominated by big chains, serving up a sameness everywhere—identical menus, brutal over-automation, plasticky over-trained smiles, brisk and brusque customer conversations. How should a single outlet strategize against this onslaught? By doing exactly what the Kula Café is doing. Serve up a quirky menu full of very tasty dishes. Humanize and personalize the service to the hilt—fill it with laughter and conversations. Food is always about feelings, and if your competitors remove feelings from their offerings, make sure you exploit that growing gap.

Next, be as hands-on as you possibly can, even as your business grows and scales. A great leader is always close to the action, not barking out commands from some distant location. Never, ever, lose personal knowledge of your customers’ needs and peculiarities. Never reduce them just to data points. Feel your customers’ feelings, and your banker will eventually rejoice with you.

The best entrepreneurs have always known this. Make sure you stand out from your crowd of competitors—no matter how well-resourced—by doing the things they find most difficult. Make your business personal, by staying close to the frontline and close to the details. And even when you succeed, understand and acknowledge the undoubted contribution of the team around you. Don’t get high on your own supply and start believing you are superhuman. It’s never just about you; your success actually comes from your ability to make others perform with willingness and enthusiasm, and to develop them diligently.

You don’t need a fancy MBA to know that. Whether you run a busy bistro or a bustling behemoth, the essence is the same. Next time you have a great customer experience, take a close look at what is going on. You will see the exact same basic practices at work: smart positioning; honest endeavour; and a hands-on, can-do attitude.

(Sunday Nation, 14 April 2024)

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