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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Dubai-based entrepreneur has comfort food all wrapped up

The Life: Tahir Shah's two Moti Roti restaurants, which opened this year, promise "the best thing long before sliced bread".
Tahir Shah at his Moti Roti stand in Aswaaq Supermarket in Dubai Media City. The National / Sarah Dea
Tahir Shah at his Moti Roti stand in Aswaaq Supermarket in Dubai Media City. The National / Sarah Dea

Tahir Shah, a computer engineer, would like to believe that a day will come when a Pakistani cabbie plying the streets of London will be able to say, "Let's pick up a roti wrap".

"It is so important to take pride in your origins," says Mr Shah, who was born and raised in the small town of Doncaster in the United Kingdom and lived in London for university and work.

He loves to cook and likes enterprises that make a cultural statement.

So when Mr Shah, who is based in Dubai, was made redundant by Nokia Siemens in August 2011 after 12 years of service, he knew he would venture into something different, despite the shock of losing his job.

The British-Pakistani opened his first pop-up store, Moti Roti, which loosely translates as "fat flatbread", in a Dubai supermarket in July this year and followed it up with another last month. It serves vegetables or a meat option rolled inside a roti, made of wheat flour, along with lassi, or a yoghurt drink.

The motto for his business? "The best thing long before sliced bread".

While every culture and region has its own version of a wrap - from doner kebabs in Turkey and Greece to kati rolls in India - Mr Shah wanted to bring back the humble roti.

It is a homely version of the better-known naans and tandoori rotis and is ubiquitous in north Indian and Pakistani homes.

While the food sector in the UAE has diversified and become highly competitive, Mr Shah has found a formula: keep overhead costs low and go slow on dreams of opening a restaurant.

"Anything new and innovative is welcome, but it can only sustain if it has quality and price should be commensurate with the target customers," says Jitendra Gianchandani, the chairman and managing partner of Jitendra Consulting Group, a company that offers advice to start-ups.

The UAE is becoming more start-up friendly. It has improved its rank to number 26, behind Singapore, Latvia and Saudi Arabia, in the Doing Business 2013 Index of the International Finance Corporation, an affiliate of the World Bank.

Although Mr Shah had to close his first pop-up store because of lowfootfall, the 35-year-old has already recouped his initial investment of Dh25,000 (US$6,806).

The daily running costs for both the pop-up stores came to about Dh1,000.

His monthly sales turnover from his remaining pop-up store at Aswaaq Supermarket, in Dubai Media City, is Dh15,000.

The demand for roti wraps calls for longer hours, says Mr Shah. He is also in talks with another Aswaaq branch in Umm Suqeim and plans to open a store there by January.

The concept, says Mr Shah, is to give a homely touch to wraps.

"Roti was so much a part of growing up," he says. "To me, it is home and old times with sepia tones around it."

The store is open on weekdays from 11am to 3pm, but the stuffing often runs out long before closing time.

"We are yet to figure out the amounts," says Mansoor Ahmed, Mr Shah's stepfather, who runs a family catering business in Lahore and is a partner in Moti Roti.

There are two fillings a day: a vegetarian and a meat choice that includes chicken and spinach or minced mutton, or smoked eggplant and courgettes. Each wrap combo sells for Dh25.

Mr Shah has kept his overheads low by restricting the company to two staff and a part-time employee. He has a licence to cook at a friend's restaurant and has engaged a bike delivery company on a per-run basis. In case of emergencies, Mr Shah makes the runs himself or drives the food truck in the morning.

Other entrepreneurs in the Dubai food sector have been supportive, advising him not to rush into opening a restaurant because it would be too expensive and increase his business risks.

"This is an educational experience outside the schools," says Mr Shah. "I am learning as I am going."

ssahoo@thenational.ae