Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Run to Remember

“It’s not how hard you’ve pushed along the way it’s having something left in the finish.” -- MJ, Gatorade commercial

On Sunday, November 21st I did something that only a few years ago I would have considered improbable, if not impossible: I completed my first half-marathon! To many I’m sure running long distance comes easy, but for me that’s hardly the case. I’ve used every excuse in the book, from my short legs, to my below average athleticism, to rationalize why running for me is so unbelievably painful and boring.

However, this year I put aside my doubts and decided to run the Philadelphia half-marathon. In hindsight, I’m not really sure what drove me to do it. I guess it’s always been something that I’ve aspired to do…so now as I’m embarking on a new journey in life with the start of Zaffron it made sense to seek to conquer other milestones along the way.

I was fortunate that my old pal, Hassan Shah, was also up for the task, so we buddied-up and decided to train together. Our training didn’t consist of anything special: we followed a simple program by renowned trainer Hal Higdon and tried our best to stick to it. Once we started training, I couldn’t help but think of the commonalities between running a race and our journey to start a restaurant.

For starters, there is the overwhelming hurdle that one needs to get over and that is to commit to doing it! As is the case with running (and starting a business) there are thousands of reasons to not do it. And then once you commit to doing it, sticking with it is even harder…as again the doubts creep in and the voice inside your head starts saying…”can I really do this”, “is it worth the hassle”, “maybe next year?

But over time as you get stronger and start beating down the barriers, you begin to realize that maybe it is possible and maybe those elusive goals for yourself are in fact achievable! Surely, the journey along the way is still painful and there are days when you’re down and out, but you lean on others to help you power through and you inch closer to your goal.

Currently, we’re in the early innings of achieving our long-term vision for Zaffron, but in many ways we’re getting close to a major milestone in opening our first location. As I reflect back on my experience of training for the half-marathon, what matters most at this point is to finish strong. It’s tempting to cut corners, be it with our product R&D or hiring and training our staff, but we can’t let that happen.

I’m eagerly awaiting the moment when we finally open for business…I’m curious to find out how I feel. But if the commonalities between starting Zaffron and running the half-marathon continue, I’m sure it will be an exhilarating experience. Just as with the race, I’m optimistic that our hard work and persistence will amount to something and once we open our first location we’ll set our sights on the next goal, just as I’m already thinking of someday running the full marathon.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Putting Ourselves Out There

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world.” -- Bob Geldof

Last month I had the pleasure of presenting at the 2nd annual American Muslim Consumer Conference. It was an outstanding event. The conference highlighted the growing buying power of the American Muslim Consumer and it also provided a forum for entrepreneurs to showcase creative new business ideas.

Fortunately, Zaffron was selected as one of the featured companies. It was an amazing opportunity to present in front of several hundred attendees as well as distinguished panelists, including Tariq Farid (CEO and Founder of Edible Arrangements) and Adnan Durrani. I have to admit it was gut-wrenching speaking in front of the audience, but to some extent I was prepared for that. What was more terrifying and something that I wasn’t fully prepared for was the onslaught of questions that came from the panelists grilling me in the ins and outs of our business plan.

Anyways, I’ll stop writing and instead let you guys watch the clip. Special thanks to Artina for taking this video…its tough holding your handheld camera in the air for a while! Next time we’ll be sure to bring a tripod :)

Zaffron Video: http://www.youtube.com/zaffronusa


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Undercover Boss

“To lead people walk behind them.” -- Lao Tzu

One of my biggest fears about starting a restaurant is my lack of prior industry experience. In fact, the truth is that up until this point in my career I’ve had limited operational experience in any industry, let alone in one as complex as the food service space. So last month I decided to rectify this deficiency by getting a line job at a fast-casual restaurant chain in Center City, Philadelphia.

My goal for the job was simple; be a sponge and absorb as much as possible on how restaurants manage their operations. Additionally, I knew the experience would provide an invaluable perspective on the backgrounds, fears, and motivations of the line workers that form the heart and soul of any food service establishment. In some sense, my experience felt a bit like the CBS TV show ‘Undercover Boss’ notwithstanding the fact that I’m currently nobody’s boss nor am I running an actual business …yet.

The experience was eye-opening. Over the past few years I’ve read several books on managing food service operations, from Howard Schultz’s Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time to Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. Each of these books tells an inspiring tale of how to build a successful business by following your passions and prioritizing people over profits. However, as informative as a book can be it pales in comparison to the learnings of working for minimum wage at a restaurant and dealing with the ups and downs that come with that experience.

For starters, I was overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of managing food operations. As consumers, we take for granted the thousands of small steps and immense amount of preparation that goes into churning hundreds of customers in the short timeframes of lunch and dinner. In only a few weeks, it became clear that in order for Zaffron to succeed we’ll need great tools, systems, and work processes to ensure we consistently deliver a great product and customer experience.

Next I was blown away by the level of teamwork and collaboration needed to train employees and efficiently manage operations. In the restaurant industry you’re constantly dealing with new and inexperienced workers. Thus, not only do you need great employees but you need a culture that rewards mentorship…hopefully something we ingrain in our culture.

My final takeaway has more to do with me being an actual consumer and that is: to be patient, polite, and appreciative towards restaurant workers. During my brief stint, I noticed some customers (admittedly a minority) perceive workers to be idiots. For instance when mistakes happen people assume it’s because you’re not as intelligent as they are; hence the reason you’re working behind the counter and fulfilling their order. What they don’t realize is that sometimes as consumers we don’t communicate clearly or that working in the industry is quite challenging. So the next time you go to a restaurant and you notice that your server put onions on your burger when you said no onions, give them a smile and be kind. After all, what goes around comes around!