The days of relative poverty have given Aftab Ali a desire to succeed and the relaunch of a much-loved curry brand could be the start of something big. He spoke to Ismail Mulla.
For the first seven years of his life, Aftab Ali herded sheep in Kashmir. He then followed his father, who moved to Bradford to work in textiles, to this country.
When he did make it to these shores, Mr Ali was sent to a special centre to help him acclimatise and learn a totally alien language.
Speaking to him today you wouldn’t ever guess these humble beginnings but it’s those days of relative poverty that have given him the desire to succeed.
Mr Ali has taken over much loved Indian street food restaurant and craft beer bar Cat’s Pyjamas in Headingley.
Until earlier this year the restaurant had a chain of sites but it ran into trouble and the administrators brought in.
“There’s so much love for the brand,” Mr Ali explains. “You just need to come in here on an evening. All the Millenials love it, all the students love it and I feel like I have a responsibility to look after it for them.”
Having a popular brand is not enough. If it was then the business wouldn’t have run into trouble leaving just the one restaurant in Headingley standing, and under different ownership.
Mr Ali says he plans to run the business “very prudently” being a numbers man himself.
While he harbours ambitions to expand, Mr Ali has a keen eye on the LS1 postcode, any decision will be underpinned by sound economics.
“I’ve got a head for numbers,” he says. “I can make sense of the world looking at spreadsheets more than I can talking to people sometimes.”
This approach comes down to his background in business. He is an economics graduate who initially started off in the world of banking.
He dealt healthcare assets for private equity firms.
He was eventually headhunted by the NHS for its graduate scheme. He began by managing in-patient services before moving onto commissioning services
“It was the first time that I had access to the cold realities of people’s lives and living conditions,” Mr Ali said. “It really grounded me after a couple of years in banking.”
Mr Ali then moved to the Department of Health and has since spent time in Qatar and Saudi Arabia as a healthcare infrastructure adviser to the respective governments of those countries.
Today, he sits inside his restaurant surrounded by posters of classic Bollywood films such as Sholay, a personal favourite of Mr Ali.
He wants a mural of the film painted on one of the restaurant’s walls but he admits that he’s likely to be vetoed by his staff who want the highly decorative Cat’s Pyjamas artwork up there.
“I see myself as a bit of a custodian as opposed to an owner,” Mr Ali says. “I’ll make sure it’s steered carefully.”
This is reflected by the fact that three of his staff have been given equity in the business with Mr Ali maintaining a stake of 70 per cent.
“That keeps me grounded,” says Mr Ali. “Everybody gets a say in what we do next.”
It also motivates staff to deliver. In Mr Ali’s eyes it is a win-win situation and something that he would look to replicate across other sites when Cat’s Pyjamas expands.
Mr Ali said: “We’ve got 10 to 14 who are full-time salaried staff. We’ve another five who are trainee chefs.
“We basically have enough people to manage another site now so we’re ready to expand.
“We’re looking ideally for the next site to be in LS1. Then we would look to target university cities either near campuses, residences or train stations.”
The business recently held long negotiations on a site near the new John Lewis development in Leeds city centre but was unable to come to an agreement.
However, Mr Ali says the business is after a similar site.
How will he avoid overreaching himself and stop the business making the same mistakes it did previously that left Cat’s Pyjamas in administration?
“I completely have control of the numbers,” says Mr Ali. “This is going to make sound really boring but I understand the margins on absolutely everything we sell here.”
He concedes that competition is fierce with Indian restaurants now joined by a plethora of other eateries offering different cuisines.
Several high profile restaurant chains such as Jamie’s Italian have also run into trouble.
Business rates coupled with the trend of people eating at home add to the challenging market.
However, Cat’s Pyjamas has identified Millennials as its core audience.
Cat’s Pyjamas has partnered with Just Eat to provide a delivery option as well.
The restaurant is also continually adding variety to the menu. It also recently launched its own Thalis, a selection of dishes for people to try.
Mr Ali added: “We’re trying to get every Indian state on to the menu in a calendar year so it changes every quarter.
“There is a lot of competition now but a well cooked curry still ranks in the top two or three in my opinion.”
Cat’s Pyjamas also has specialist chefs providing the regional variations of Indian cooking ranging from Punjabi to Goan cuisine.
Alongside Cat’s Pyjamas, Mr Ali also owns the craft beer bar down the road called Growlers. Mr Ali says he also has a stake in lots of other food businesses as a silent partner.
It’s fair to say that since making the move over from Kashmir, Mr Ali has proven himself in business. So how does he feel looking back on his journey thus far?
“I have a lot to be thankful towards my parents for,” he says. “They just instilled a hard work ethic in me.
“I think if you work hard you can make it anywhere. Would I have forecast being here? No. Who knows what the future holds? But there’s no limits.”
Mr Ali says that the entrepreneurial streak in a lot of South Asians, from a similar background to his, comes from hunger and poverty.
He added: “A lot of us have experienced that when we were younger. When people are hungry and destitute they try harder. I don’t think there’s any other genius reason for it.
“It was instilled in us to work hard because that’s how you initially pay for your meals, that’s how you achieve. You just put your head down and go for it.”
Date of birth: February 28, 1976
Favourite holiday destination: Nashville
Last book read: The Great Economists
Favourite film: A Christmas Tale
Favourite song: Meatloaf, Bat out of Hell
Car driven: Jaguar XF S
Most proud of: My children