The People’s Person -Nilofer Saeed

  • 27 Jul - 02 Aug, 2019
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

A snippet from my conversation with Nilofer Saeed went viral on food groups, before this interview came out.

“Pakistaniun kay liye ek buhat acha mashwara hai...” she said, adding, “When you walk into any restaurant in Pakistan, try to converse with waiters in Urdu. Take the cue – if he’s uncomfortable or fumbles, switch to Urdu… and no, he’s not a dumbo. He’s here to earn and just because he serves you, you absolutely cannot be disrespectful towards him,” she concludes with a smile. Nilofer Saeed is colossus and extremely humble – two traits which are often paradoxical and unfound in humans who have achieved as much as she has. But more than being her own, she’s a people’s person. “I love people and to be surrounded by them. I want to be in the hustle and bustle of life. I want to be involved with them, their stories and their problems. Being a restaurateur was the perfect fit for me.”

Nilofer Saeed

Chronicling her achievements is a task in itself. Pioneer and trendsetter of sorts, as a neophyte Saeed laid the edifice of first-of-its-kind coffee shop Copper Kettle, back in 1993. A vision and establishment which over the years became the giant bakery we know today as Hobnob. It would be an understatement to say, she’s a trailblazer and pioneer of the café culture in the metropolitan. At present she is the proprietor at her relatively new venture, N’eco’s Natural Store and Café, having a place of pride in prime locations across the city. Perhaps, the biggest of her feats is the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, which was awarded to her last year for her restless work for The Citizen’s Foundation. As we sip into steaming cups of Moringa tea, she reminisces and dispels her journey spanning over two decades, in the food business and a life she lives for people.

How would you define yourself as a person?

I am a very positive human being. Whatever I set my mind to do, I do go after it and try to do it. And by the grace of Allah, I have managed to do most things I wanted out of life. Being earnest, working hard on your goals and staying true to your craft, always pays off. Nothing comes easy in life and you need to have a strong drive to achieve it. I would also describe myself as a very proud grandmother to four children I absolutely adore. My twin daughters used to be my top priority, till the grandchildren came along. [laughs] I have spent a lifetime working with The Citizen's Foundation as a volunteer, raising funds for the underprivileged children of Pakistan. That is my passion, food is my business. I find my head bustling with ideas and at my age, I have to calm and contain myself. Telling myself, I have to leave these to the youth.

I love people and to be surrounded by them. I want to be in the hustle and bustle of life. I want to be involved with them, their stories and their problems

How did things begin for you?

Copper Kettle came when coffee shops and restaurants were few. It was a huge success and everyone loved the desserts. Soon, it was getting difficult for CK to cater to just desserts so we revamped into a small bakery, Hobnob close to it. Hobnob became an unstoppable hosteller and it kept branching out. With Copper Kettle, I learnt on the job but then working with Hobnob was tough.

As a pioneer of cafe culture in the city, navigate us through your journey of over two decades in the food business? How have things evolved and changed during the times?

Looking back 20 years ago, people in general were so accommodating, be it the customers or the people I was working with. Generally in Pakistan, things were so wonderful with everyone being tolerant and nice to working women. Whenever I needed any favour or work done, people would go out of their way to help me. Sifting through my journey over the years, it is unfortunate to see people become badlehaaz, a sharp contrast to the times before. It is observed that we are inspired by the west, magar wahan bhi log thoda lehaz kar kay badtameezi kartay hain, magar yahan tau we go beyond the badtamezi bar. This is a negative aspect of my journey because I have seen people to be extremely caring about women. They would open car doors for me, change my flat tires and show a measure of respect. And now when men see a working woman, they feel they have a license to be rude and discourteous to her. In my lifetime, I had many opportunities to move abroad yet I chose to stay in my country because I thought it was the best place for a working woman. I felt like a Queen here. And now, I don’t even feel like going and talking to a customer, because some of them are extremely discourteous. I remember when Copper Kettle opened, two days later we didn't have electricity and I had put candles on. When I turned away customers because of the situation, all of them were so cooperative and chose to stay. At present, if you tell a customer to cooperate they will pull a long face. Taleem tau zaruri hai, magar tarbiyat uss seh ziada zaruri hai, I wish some people had a stronger grip on the latter. It is disconcerting how some of them treat the waiters. One day I put up a poster in my restaurant at Bukhari that read, “If you are not nice to my waiter, you are not a nice person.”

People believe that they have the right to be rude to waiters just because they are serving them. Whenever I talk to my staff, I tell them to sit down wherever I am sitting, so we are on an equal level. These are some negative aspects of the society. But there are many positives too. When I go collect funds for the underprivileged children for TCF, nobody says no. If you are hungry, you can go to a mazaar and eat. Even the poorest give sadqa and zaqat. When a beggar approaches me in the car and if I tell him off, my driver will fish out Rs 10. It is endearing the lengths many go to to help others at times.

Why did you sell Hobnob?

I sold Hobnob last year to a very young, enterprising couple because it became a giant and it needed to grow further. I felt since none of my kids are coming back to Pakistan to take care of the business, I had no successor and I also wanted to be more hands on with Necos, since it was my new baby. I needed the flexibility to travel more. Then this young couple approached me and it was the perfect time. I got a shock when I had sold it. I went like, “Oh my god! What have I done? Have I done the right thing? Have I made a mistake by doing this?” But once I saw the couple doing well, I was satisfied. It has been 20 years since Copper Kettle and now they have given Hobnob another life.

When you walk into any restaurant in Pakistan, try to converse with waiters in Urdu. Take the cue – if he’s uncomfortable or fumbles, switch to Urdu… and no, he’s not a dumbo. He’s here to earn and just because he serves you, you absolutely cannot be disrespectful towards him

Can you recall any defining moment in your life?

Your struggles and plights make you who you are as a human being. Looking back, I would say my defining moment was opening Copper Kettle. It gave me financial independence. Once you have that, your mind is open. When you earn you can make your own decisions, bear your own losses and gains.

As a woman entrepreneur, did you have difficulty calling the shots at any point in your life?

Initially, 25 years ago, never. But now, yes I have encountered difficulty, particularly because I speak my mind. As a woman, if I dictate my terms or tell someone to do something, I get odd quizzical looks from men in particular, and who wonder if something is wrong with me. If a man goes and tells another on the table to do something, they would listen without judgement. However, if a woman of your age goes and tells them to maintain calm, they would not like it.

As an entrepreneur, who has birthed two commercially successful ventures, how do you manage to juggle it along with your personal life?

I feel the person who has suffered the most in this regard would be my husband. By that time my children had gone to college so it was all good with them. My house suffered, in a way that I was fanatic about cleaning and couldn’t give much time to it. Coming back from a long day of work, I would have a nervous breakdown bustling around, keeping things prim and perfect. Then my husband advised me to calm down and not ask for perfection at home. Recently, I underwent my cataracts surgery and can now see dust miles away! My husband was warning my servants to expect trouble [laughs]. My husband is the most supportive, undemanding, under-the-radar type of a man. I am the earthquake in his life!