The valley of Kashmir has seen tremendous growth in tourist industry being a popular tourist destination. Although, it is engulfed with the ongoing conflict but even within that the visitors flock to the valley and lately a new trend of café culture in the summer capital, Srinagar, has been flourishing.
Several new places are converted into cafe – be it a place to eat wazwaan or have a coffee. Not only this, several fast food joints have been opened, with a few following KFC or McDonalds style. In the city centre Lal Chowk, various places like such have been started by the local entrepreneurs – mostly young graduates who choose not to work in a job for someone else. These new cafes have come up in various localities including malls, tourist spots and even residential areas where the visitors are frequent.
In Srinagar, Tao Cafe situated near the General Post Office in Lal Chowk, was one of the first cafes started some thirty years ago. Started by Javaid Ahmad Wani, 72, the original concept for the cafe to this day has been different from those that have come up in recent years.
Tao is a classical style café, set in a lush private garden, seating for eight tables, open air, the fragrance of the blooming flowers welcomes the visitors, tourists and locals alike. They come for the ambience, the privacy, and the service. Wani’s innovative idea of introducing Kehwa – a Kashmiri drink, established his business as tourists enjoy to drink it and even today foreigners ask for it.
Wani believes that it is a good idea to open a cafe. “When I started there was no such cafe here. To open a cafe all you need is to have is a small space, a good location and a few thousand rupees to develop your interiors. The rest depends on the proprietor and how he wants to make it,” he says, sitting in his cafe lawn.
The location plays an important role when it comes to establishing a cafe, he says, because customers will require easy access and opportunity to visit regularly so that business can generate an income and run smoothly. “If people don’t visit the place where your cafe is, then what will happen to your business? This is the reason people look for a good location,” Wani adds.
Another cafe owner Usamah Burza, 32, operates “14th Avenue” café which is in a residential area of Rajbagh, Srinagar. Unlike Tao, Burza’s cafe is small, set upstairs, with a glass wall overviewing the River Jehlum. The interior is a stark contrast to other cafes in the city. It has more like a western look with modern interior design. One can see that the interior creates an ambience that attracts customers.
“Before starting my own business I did a full-fledged survey and customer research. I visited different cafes and researched what people love to eat and apart from that I observed carefully that the ambience matters, because people like to sit and relax in a comfortable environment,” Burza tells The Kashmir Walla.
The cafe interiors are made of natural elements and objects such as bamboo, wood and bricks. “We are receiving positive feedback from people and they visit again and again and recommend 14th Avenue to others,” he adds.
Burza believes that the competition is increasing with every passing day so cafe owners need to have something different that can expand their business. His cafe has cakes, Indian, Continental, Lebanese, and Italian cuisines. This has been one of the x-factors that people like and come to visit from different places. It also has home delivery.
14th Avenue’s target market is higher income earners, professionals and students, being located in an affluent region of the capital’s residential enclave. “I can say that we are targeting this certain section of the society but at the same time I don’t want to sound elite. Who so ever is ready to pay the given prices on the menu, the door is open for them,” Burza adds.
In the city centre, another aspiring entrepreneur, Mir Muneeb, came up with an idea of a cafe after finishing his studies. A young businessman who is very passionate about food, Muneeb, started his café, The Other Side, three months ago. It is located in Sarah City Centre shopping mall near Exhibition Crossing, Srinagar.
Before setting a cafe Muneeb approached many companies like Cafe Coffee Day, Lavazza, and Barista to present his plan of starting a business in order to obtain franchise license but they refused to provide him with any support claiming their reluctance because Kashmir is a conflict region. “When I returned I decided why should I follow others and why not to give Kashmir its own brand? Later when The Other Side started functioning I provided jobs to Kashmiri chefs,” Muneeb, the managing director of the cafe, told The Kashmir Walla.
The cafe has been designed in a modern way, with Kashmiri hospitality. People visit here not only for food but to “discover their other side” – the motto of the cafe. “During the initial stages we introduced a small menu and collected daily feedback from every customer to know how we can improve our services. We evaluated this research and started adding new things to our menu,” adds Muneeb.
The trend is picking fast, as can be seen from a 26-year-old Kashmiri, Javid Parsa, from Bandipora. Parsa is another aspirant businessman who returned to Kashmir after finishing MBA programme from Maulana Azad University, Hyderabad. After finishing his education, Parsa worked at Amazon India – an online business giant. He was all set to go to Dubai to join a new firm but he changed his plans, only to return and start his own business. Finalising a franchise deal with a popular fast food chain, Kathi Junction, Parsa is setting it up in the Sarah Centre Mall. The place is currently getting the interior work done and will be thrown open for public next month.
“I always wanted to work for my own dreams, rather helping others to fulfill their dreams. I resigned and decided to return and start my own business here that will help me to serve my own people and live my dreams,” says Parsa.
Before choosing the location, Parsa, also like Muneeb and Burza, spent most of his time surveying various markets of the city and observing people trying out new food. “I have decided to introduce new varieties of food at cheaper cost. Price hiking has become an issue and I want middle class people too to visit Kathi Junction and enjoy the quality of the food,” he adds.
With this rise in the cafes and fast food places in the city, people are finding it easy to substitute other international food chains with their local brands. This is not only the trend to set up food businesses but it also shows that despite the violent conflict and siege like atmosphere, the region is trying to create a new social space and is the beginning of the path towards economic independence.