(Published in Aurora, March-April, 2009)
In the ever-changing landscape of upmarket dining and coffee culture, success stories are few and far between, more often reading like a back catalogue of one hit wonders. Names such as Cafe Blue, Caffeine, and Kaldi have slipped from memory, and faded with the passage of time.
To stay both relevant and profitable in such an environment is a task which one local brand, Espresso has managed since its fledgling branch opened in Zamzama in 2004. Originally launched as a tiny 18 seat espresso bar, Espresso has now evolved into a successful coffee shop/bistro with 4 branches, including one based in Lahore, thanks in large part to the vision of Kamil Aziz Khan, Managing partner and founder of Espresso.
Having toyed with the notion of opening a coffee shop during his college days abroad, Khan says the realisation of Espresso and its success are directly tied to offering more than just an excellent cup of coffee: “We are in the business of delivering a lifestyle. We’re coffee culture, we’re meeting culture, hang out culture, work culture. We provide our customers a place where they can come in and feel comfortable.”
Building and cultivating this lifestyle proactively has played into Espresso’s success at establishing a loyal customer base, reflected in the early introduction of Wifi internet, loyalty cards, privilege cards and constantly evolving menus and services based on customer feedback – but that’s not all that has changed. For Espresso, the real challenge has been to constantly re-invent all aspects of the franchise to stay competitive, while still maintaining its core focus: coffee.
Having begun its life as an espresso bar focused only on serving coffee, Espresso quickly responded to customer demands and introduced multiple food items to the menu, evolving into a full-fledged coffee shop. It then further morphed into a bistro with the introduction of pastas on the menu.
Each stage of Espresso’s evolution was undertaken with a clear understanding of what the change in definition entailed, and how it applied to every aspect of the food retail business. Additionally, being able to correctly identify the mindset of each customer in this highly select class proved to be vitally important. From a very early stage, the team at Espresso focused on taking customer feedback seriously; reading and responding to individual comment cards and recently hiring a dedicated customer care representative to sift through the myriad of responses which formed the backbone of the business.
Keeping such close tabs on its customer base has also helped Espresso avoid the pitfall of mimicking trends which work in cafes abroad but fail locally – a pitfall Khan says local restaurant owners fall into due to disregarding the voice of the customer.
Khan is also quick to dismiss the constant threat of being overshadowed by a foreign franchise. “Being a local brand has actually helped in this business. We know the local personality. We can handle our own people better than someone who doesn’t know the culture. We are more in touch with the local norms and how to make the system work.” Espresso also has the additional advantage of not having to pay royalties for operating under a foreign franchise – a factor which inevitably plays into the lifespan of many foreign restaurants and cafes juggling profits with identity.
“It’s a fallacy that there are 100% profit margins in food,” says Khan, who maintains that the coming years will be doubly hard for Espresso and others in the food retail business, as operational costs continue to soar and new import duties on food items are introduced.
However, Khan maintains an optimistic, albeit realistic perspective for Espresso’s future: “In 10 years I would like to have a presence in every major city in Pakistan. My vision is that we become a coffee house, but we may evolve into a casual dining restaurant by then…Who knows? If you don’t change, you will die.”