37 year old Tahir Shah started off in technology at the world famous phone company, Nokia. Born and raised in Doncaster, England Tahir is currently living in Dubai and now runs an up and coming healthy fast food business inspired by his love of home cooked goodness. He left the high flying world of technology after 12 years to build his own company, Moti Roti, meaning “fat roti”. They started with community fairs in Feb 2012 before experimenting with pop-up shops in retail spaces throughout Dubai. Tahir talks to us about his success and struggles.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of Moti Roti and what was your inspiration behind it?
A: Interestingly it was this new movement in Mexican food that got my attention. I remember clearly, a few years ago when Baja Fresh opened in Dubai Mall they had these big signs above their fast-food counter saying “NO FREEZERS”, “NO MICROWAVES”, “NO ADDITIVES”, and I learned of other such brands like Chipotle who do the same thing. There were various names for this movement (Fresh-Mex, Fast-Casual) but in those days that was a revelation to think fast food could be served at a high quality. Inspired by this I pictured our home made tawa rotis instead of tortillas, stuffed with lighter versions of our mum’s curries styled after burritos.
Q: When you decided you wanted to start this business what was your first step to achieving it?
A: At that time I was working for Nokia, and very honestly although I tried testing the idea by bringing samples to the office, corporate life had firmly ensconced me with its secure salary and comfy lifestyle. I needed a kick and it came later in the form of a redundancy. I then came to a very important crossroads, I had been given two job offers elsewhere, and was toying with the idea of going it alone. I took a random week in Nepal where I decided I would go bungee jumping (as you do!). It was there on the edge of that bridge that it all flashed in front of me. It mirrored so much of my mental state, I had all these thoughts and doubts rushing through my head looking at the ravine way down below. So I just stopped thinking, and jumped. And that was exactly my first step when I started Moti Roti, I switched off my thoughts, and just “did”.
Q: You’ve just got a new food truck which is great, where and how did you sell before?
A: Over the course of the last 2-3 years we have been selling through the popup shops, deliveries and events/catering. My first pop-up shop was actually in the very same supermarket downstairs from my old office. The food business in Dubai is extremely difficult – in that space of time I have opened six pop-ups and closed three. The ones doing well are in Media City.
Q: What events has Moti Roti been involved in?
A: The great thing about the popup model is that we are very agile and mobile and totally suited for events. We are all over the Dubai Food Festival taking part in the Beach Canteen, Street Nights (where they close off a street in industrial Al Quoz and invite street artists), in REDFest, and we will be part of the Truck Convoy once our truck arrives.
We are also a regular feature of the famous Ripe Farmer’s Market, which this year is in Zabeel Park every Friday. That has been a great platform, and it has been awesome growing with them over the last two years when they were just starting out too. Now there are a regular “rat pack” of us homegrowns (Moti Roti, Melt, Taqado, Bookmuch and many more) who are getting invited to concerts and events in UAE, it’s refreshing to see organisers giving the little guy a chance and not always the big brands.
Q: Do you make the wraps yourself?
A: I’m no cook! We have a kitchen we outsource to (it’s extremely expensive to have your own restaurant in Dubai and I’ve never had that kind of capital) and my mum came and spent time with their chef to go over the recipes. They cook the rotis and fillings, then these are sent to our pop-ups where the staff there set up kind of like a Subway counter so you can pick and choose what you want.
Q: What’s your flavour profile?
A: Our flavour profile is Asian (typically Pakistani/Indian) cuisine. Roti is a traditional flatbread that I grew up with. The food should be exactly as if you came round to my mum’s house and sat at our table. Fresh roti, and REAL food you get at home such as maash daal (lentils), aloo gosht (potato and meat), kofta (meatballs) and not that butter chicken and naan rubbish you get in most Asian restaurants. As it’s fast counter food, we have to keep the curries non-greasy by cooking lightly in Canola oil and using brown basmati for the rice box so it’s not starchy or heavy.
Q: What’s your best seller?
A: From our roti fillings the Chicken Spinach is a favourite with many and in the markets the breakfast roti (masala scrambled eggs in roti) and the rice box go a long way.
Q: Why do people like Moti Roti?
A: Actually the thing I struggle the most with is bringing people over to my kiosks and stands. It’s a very new-age concept – home curries re-imagined into something like Subway and Chipotle. People like to go to what they are familiar with (burgers, pizzas etc), so the biggest thing I have in my favour is the theatre of roti-making itself. Many people have never seen home style roti being made from dough and then cooked on a tawa (flat pan) with fire, they stand around taking photos of it and are amazed. Once they try one of the curries wrapped up in a roti which has been just-baked in front of them, they come again with friends and that builds our popularity.
Q: What advice can you share with people who are looking to start their own business?
A: Do it because you believe in something not because you have cash lying around to burn or because you want to be rich, do it because you have a vision you want to attain.
Find good talented people to be by your side because people are everything in business, people! Food businesses are far from easy so you have to be prepared to go through a tough couple of years, it takes time to build ideas from scratch.