As an artistic type, Sameena Ahmed had always dreamt of having her own cafe where she could combine her passion for cooking and decor. When the right opportunity came in 2013, Mrs Ahmed created a Parisian-style cafe in the heart of Dubai’s World Trade Centre.
Having a husband who is a management consultant helped. Her husband had spent more than a decade in the food business, where he owns Barbecue Delights, a Dubai restaurant chain. Mrs Ahmed still helps her husband with the interiors of his restaurants.
“I was in the food business, but the cafe has always been in my mind. My husband was offered this space in the World Trade Centre, so this is how it really came about,” she says.
“We tried to create something that is not very pretentious, something that you can find in any street in Paris – causal but still cute. We had a very good response. We slowly built a clientele.”
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Sasha’s Cafe broke even about 10 months after it opened in August 2013.
Speaking about the location, Mrs Ahmed says the restaurants at World Trade Centre cater mainly to exhibition traffic – last year it received 2.45 million visitors, up from 2.2 million in 2013.
“We are very busy during exhibitions. Some are so huge. At that time we feel we can’t even cope, but then there’s a steady flow.”
Some of the biggest events her restaurant has handled include Arab Health and the electronics show Gitex.
“In the summer, it is challenging. From June to September is a slow period, but we plan to cope,” she said.
“We are developing a plan this year. We want to work more on deliveries. We haven’t advertised yet the home delivery, but this is the next step.”
One of the challenges that Mrs Ahmed faces is the high cost of rent, which constitutes almost 30 per cent of her expenses.
“I would think twice if I want to get a bigger place, because I know that the rents have gone up in the past two years. You have to justify it with the business,” she says.
Another challenge for Mrs Ahmed is human resources, especially amid the tough competition in the food business as many cafes and restaurants open in the city.
“After getting the right people and training them from scratch, you tend to sometimes lose them for bigger salaries. Being a small business, it is hard to compete with the big ones,” she says.
On the other hand, Mrs Ahmed said that one of the reasons people feel encouraged to start a small business in Dubai is the licensing process.
“The government and the laws and regulations, they make things a lot easier than a lot of places that I can think of. It’s very supportive of starting a business.”
Mrs Ahmed said she was lucky to still receive a lot of support from her husband’s business, especially when it comes to suppliers and importing ingredients.
“Some of the French products are expensive. But that’s not a big problem, because we price our products accordingly,” she says.
“Some products like croissants, especially almond croissants, are really tasty; we make sure not to scrimp on some of the ingredients. If you don’t want to compromise on quality, then you have to go for it,” she says.
“Everything here is fresh. We bake our own bread and croissants, and all the bakery items.”
In the future, Mrs Ahmed wants to market her cafe on social media, especially during the slow summer months.
“We want to be active more on Instagram and Facebook. It is a good pay-off. Today’s market is getting influenced by social media.”
She also intends to introduce “more healthy” options in her menu, as she thinks there is a niche of healthy eaters out there.
“Eating trends have changed. There’s a lot of awareness about healthy food. A lot of people are going gluten-free and dairy-free. They are getting more aware of food intolerance.”
Asked about opportunities that she sees for her business, she says”: “I think Dubai’s population is growing. Although competition is tough with all the new places opening up, I think it is also more rewarding once we go on the social media and start advertising.
“We are quite proud because we don’t compromise on quality. Everything is fresh. We have people who were here last year for an exhibition and they come back to us.
“People get a homey and a cosy feel here. This attracts many people who like the feel of the place.”
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