British-Pakistani chef Zahra Khan's Instagrammable cafés landed her a spot on Forbes 30 Under 30

Published 03 May, 2021 03:05pm

Sheharyar Rizwan

The mother of two has three cafés in London but isn't slowing down anytime soon.

British-Pakistani chef Zahra Khan has been featured on Forbes annual 30 Under 30 Europe List as one of “the retail industry’s rising stars who have defied a pandemic to transform how Europe shops”.

The mother of two runs Feya cafés and shops in London where she employs 30 full-time staff, hires female illustrators to design packaging and donates 10% of her retail profit towards professional coaching for women, according to Forbes.

What got her a spot on the list is her infant chain of cafés, Feya. Through her entrepreneurial endeavour, she not only realised her childhood dream of baking but also fulfilled her years-long desire to break gender stereotypes and empower and employ women who otherwise may not get the opportunity.

Khan started baking at the tender age of eight alongside her mother, which is when she developed an interest in the craft. “One of the first things I baked was cupcakes because they looked easier than a whole cake. The feedback was definitely not good," she laughed. "Lots of mistakes and lots of disasters is how you learn,” she said while talking to Images.

Khan never lost this passion or patience. Even while studying medicine in Canada, she was baking as a hobby and running a small business making wedding cakes, which garnered her a great response. This motivated her to follow her dream, and after completing her pre-medical degree, she decided to take up baking as a career.

This decision took her to London in 2015 where she enrolled into the legendary Gordon Ramsay’s Tante Marie Culinary Academy for a year-long course. Two years of site-searching after graduation led to the birth of the first Feya café in May 2018 — named after her first baby girl born a few months before the launch — on the upscale Bond Street in central London.

“It was literally everything I dreamed of as a child. Pastel interiors, butterflies, florals. Besides baking, I was really passionate about art as well and painted as a hobby, so art has been a huge inspiration in designing the Feya menu," she explained. "One of the main things I wanted was that people shouldn’t just come and get plain food; they should take pictures and feel good looking at it. It’s been very uniquely designed, and everything is a piece of art. It was all very Instagramable so got us quite viral and popular there,” Khan said.

A year after a very encouraging response to Feya came Dyce, right next door and just a week after she gave birth to her second daughter, as well as a second Feya café in Knightsbridge in December 2019.

Dyce is a more millennial DIY café with an all-pink interior where one can design their own ice cream with a host of bases (brownie, doughnut, cookie and baklava among them), 12 flavours and 15 toppings to choose from. Its uniqueness and customisability also caught on and it even won a Restaurant and Bar Design Award 2020 for its interior. “Our baklava sandwich is one of the most popular items on the menu, but the menu has been designed in such a way that it offers something for everyone,” Khan said.

The ambitious entrepreneur didn’t just stop there. When the UK, like most of the world, went under a lockdown last year due to Covid-19, Khan came up with an alternative business plan to generate another stream of income, and launched a retail line of Feya products online — from jams, chocolates, teas, and coffees to truffle boxes.

“Every product carries a unique motivational message for women: teas are promoting self-care, truffles promoting diversity, the theme for chocolate bars is reach for the stars. We’re also working with female illustrators to design the packaging.”

Khan had also always wanted to make a difference and give back to society by reducing gender imbalances in workplaces, fighting stereotypes around women, empowering them and creating awareness about the issues women are faced with. To turn this vision into reality, she launched Feya Cares last year, under which 10 per cent of the profits earned from the Feya retail line are funnelled into helping women and children internationally.

This is something that this fearless woman has wanted to do all her life. But that’s not all she’s up to. “Once I was in the position that I could help other women, I made it a mission that I want to make a difference in women’s lives. Since I became a mother right around the time we launched, I hired a lot of young mothers, who didn’t have the hospitality industry experience. I wanted to groom and nurture and teach them, help them gain skills so they can go on and launch their own businesses. That has been one of the missions at Feya.”

Having been born and raised in Lahore, she saw first-hand the issues women faced and that a lot of families did not allow women to work. “There’s a lot of talent in our society, but because of a lot of restrictions placed on women, that talent goes to waste. Gender bias, cultural and societal pressures, all of this shaped the idea of the business and social initiative," she explained.

"That’s also the reason 75 to 80 per cent of my workforce is female. I wanted to highlight that when you become a mother you don’t have to put your career on hold, or put motherhood on hold for career. I want women to learn to do both simultaneously.”

Khan may have been able to launch three cafés in just three years, but all of this came with its own set of challenges. The biggest being her two babies born just before or after two of the cafés opened up. “I had no maternity break and had to manage. One of the biggest challenges was raising an infant and setting up a new business in London’s competitive, male-dominated hospitality market," she explained.

"This is also a stereotype I wanted to break. Then, when I hired the staff, a lot of young mothers didn’t have the experience, so I was training them, becoming a barista, checking the kitchen, playing hostess. But I had to lead by example. In the case of Dyce also, I was at the café up until I went into labour. After the birth, I took a day off and was back the next day. The work-family balance has been the biggest challenge.”

Because of their prominent locations and quirky interiors, the cafés attract a large younger crowd. “We get a mix of tourists, young professionals and local office workers. But generally, our clientele ranges between 18 and 40 years because the concept appeals to them. Then Dyce gets much younger clients because of the ice cream.”

The colourful, hip, youthful interior comes from Khan's own love for pastel hues, and she has managed to get the right amalgamation of food and art. “I wanted it to stand out. People walking by should stop and look and be tempted to come inside. I wanted the interiors and food to match, and people to get photo opportunities. For this we have collaborated with big influencers, British Vogue, Jennifer Lopez’s makeup artist, Royal Ascot, major beauty and makeup brands.”

While she may own a few fancy cafés serving pretty, fusion delicacies, at home Khan prefers simple Italian comfort food: pizza and pasta! However, at Feya, her favourite is avocado on toast and pancakes and waffles to satiate her cravings for something sweet. At Dyce, she swears by her bubble tea as she’s been a huge fan of the drink.

With her roots in Lahore, how could Khan not be a foodie! Every time she visits her hometown, she makes it a point to check out the latest restaurants. “When I left Lahore in 2007, there were limited choices in terms of dining, but food trends have really evolved overtime. You can get good quality sushi here now, which was uncommon back then. It makes me really happy. Then there are options among culinary schools to choose from too. Cuisines have also evolved; there’s more innovation and a lot more options, international trends are catching up. Of course, the most I miss is the Lahori food that I don’t get there.”

The future is looking bright for the go-getter businesswoman. She not only plans to expand the line of cafés within the UK, but also franchise internationally and place the retail products internationally. Besides, she says there has been a significant interest about franchising from Pakistan as well, so “Feya will be opening up here in the upcoming years”.

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