ISLAMABAD-Luqman Ali Afzal is first Pakistani businessman awarded Pride of Performance by President on entrepreneurship this March. At 40, he has achieved what many strive for in the experimenting hospitality industry of Pakistan.

“I won the bid for Monal restaurant at Pir-Sohawa in 2006 and today I am running more than 6 outlets in different cities and many more to come”. There is no looking back for this entrepreneur.

It was during his days at LUMS as an undergraduate student of BSC Honors that he developed interest in the food business and partnered to run a Convenient Store in LUMS as a student. “At the time of his graduation, he sold the Convenient Store on 4-time profit and with 10-time larger customer base, thus validating himself as a successful businessman.

After winning the bid for Monal Restaurant in Islamabad, Luqman faced an uphill task. It was a big gamble for him as he had to move from Lahore to Islamabad; hire staff; rent accommodations and deal with bureaucracy and on top of it, market the eatery located on a deserted hill. “There was a barricade at the entry point of Pir Sohawa and only locals were allowed to travel after 6:00pm. Due to crime rate, general public was very reluctant to go even to Daman-Koh, leave alone Pir Sohawa, explains Luqman, reminiscing his days of struggle.

It was full use of his educational knowledge and experience of running an eatery at LUMS which came handy and Luqman started to make entry in the power circles of the capital. “One needs to understand the requirements of the customers; their behavior; their needs and then manage accordingly. I learnt it while at LUMS when I was handling 1,200 students per day; from different cities and backgrounds coming to my Convenient Store as customers”, he explains.

In no time, he managed to convince the then Inspector General of Police, Islamabad to monitor smooth flow of traffic to Pir Sohawa so that the denizens of the city could dine out at the new locale even late at night when half of Islamabad was asleep and only a five star hotel was available for food or coffee.

Leaving no stone unturned, he also made inroads in diplomatic circles convincing them to enjoy sumptuous Lahori food in a serene environment on a hill top with a breathtaking view of the city.

His efforts paid off and Monal restaurant became a must visit site for not only diplomats living in Islamabad but also the foreign visiting dignitaries and delegations.

Monal started operating at a time when Islamabad was getting a major face lift, courtesy then Chairman CDA Kamran Lashari. Saidpur village was being remodeled, Arts and Craft Village plan was laid out, parks were being cleaned along with up-gradation of many neglected sites… the task team of CDA was in full swing and Islamabad was all set to become a tourist hub.

Coming back to his contribution to the hospitality industry, the entrepreneur believes that it has miles to go. “Our infrastructure to facilitate tourism industry has to be looked into before we open our areas to foreign tourists. Roads, clean toilets, descent restaurants, rest areas, health facilities along with tourist belts need to be in place for a tourist to facilitate him or her on a smooth journey. This is the basic requirement”, he adds from his experience as a frequent traveler. There cannot be two opinions on the fact that in order to boost tourism, the industry needs professionals to run it and the government has to play its role in the struggling services sector.

“There is a dearth of professionals in services industry because we discourage our children to go to universities to learn how to become a professional chef or a restaurant manager. We call them waiters and cooks and do not give same respect that we give to an IT professional or a banker. Until and unless we accept this as a respectable field or profession, it is very difficult for professionals to work in the hospitality industry. We need to get away with this stigma”, said Luqman, who also teaches a course at LUMS now.

Answering to the questions as to why there is so much growth of restaurants when there are not many professionals to run, the hotelier said that usually in Pakistan, restaurant is opened on misconceptions that it is a money minting business and without a study or a survey. Those who advice are either paid employees who also believe that the owner is already in profit within one month of opening or chefs who believe that their product will sell like hot cakes. After 6 months of launch, the Italian restaurant adds Chicken Biryani and chicken Karahi to their menu and a Chinese eatery starts selling pizza and burgers along with Chinese dishes.

This fiasco and lack of expertise results in either shut down of the restaurant or a handover to another unprofessional businessman of the same sort.

Luqman Ali Afzal has put in almost 20 years of his life to the services industry. Starting with two employees at LUMS Convenient Store, today his staff volume has swelled to 2,700.

He has given the best period of his life in promoting and cultivating a new breed in culinary and hospitality industry. As an entrepreneur, he believes that the way forward for upcoming professionals is to indulge in mechanizing their product and opting for unique selling products.

“If one wants to sell ‘roll paratha’, then he should open franchises all over the country and that the ‘roll paratha’ should taste the same wherever you eat. “It’s about time that we promote our open ‘desi’ products and be proud of it”, says the Pride of Performance recipient.

–The writer is a freelance contributor.