Narise Qambar, a successful Bahraini business owner, mother, political science major, with a passion for traditional food. Narise owns Jena Bakery and the famous Saffron.
We sit down with business owner Narise Qambar to find out more about her confectionary venue Saffron, her path to success, and her advice to young entrepreneurs.
Narise, would you mind telling us about yourself? What do you do, and how did you get there?
Before I was an entrepreneur, I was a mother of four. I consider myself very ambitious. Since I was in school I always knew I was going to be a career person. Like many new moms, I chose to sit with the kids when they were young because I felt it was difficult for me to go to work and leave them. Now that they are a little bit older I decided I had to pursue something.
I have a degree in political science. There’s a difference between having a degree and in reality using that degree at work. When I wanted to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bahrain or to use that degree, I felt it wasn’t the right thing for me to do at the time. Maybe I lost interest or maybe it wasn’t not the right field.
One of my hobbies is cooking. My mother is a famous cookbook author. She has a PhD in the Heritage of Bahraini Cuisine. I felt like I was destined to use that hobby because the secret of success is to do something that you love doing in your free time. I love cooking in my free time. To take that and use it in business I think was a good way to start.
I started my small patisserie—a small bakery—Jena Bakery in 2007. After a couple of years, I was approached by the Ministry of Culture to collaborate with them to revive old buildings to use the café as a platform for people to come and appreciate the heritage of the area.
As an entrepreneur, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced until you arrived at this stage?
If you ask any entrepreneur, the challenges will make them question why they’re doing it in the first place. For example, we’re very restricted with the size of a kitchen. Now, I believe that when you open the restaurant the kitchen must be half the size of a restaurant or three quarters or a third. The challenge I had was a very small preparation area and the restriction came because the areas are heritage areas. We cannot do much. You can’t break a wall. This is where the challenge came but we solved it. We formed a catering kitchen. We found an old house, broke it down and reconstructed a new full functioning, catering kitchen that distributes to all our branches. Our branch in Bab Al-Bahrain has its own kitchen. This is one challenge.
I think running staff. The bigger you become, the more staff you have. There’s always politics going on. If you have a majority of one nationality, there will be a lobby against the other nationality. In the end, you’re dealing with human beings. There will always be a problem or complaint. It’s the human resource part is a huge challenge for me. Although, some people would say dealing with customers would be a challenge. Never. The customers were the best part of work.
The LMRA is another huge challenge. I wish they could change their rules or modify them in a way to help us. For example, I don’t want to go hard on the Bahrainis. Not all of them, but the Bahrainis, the majority of them don’t want to commit. They choose to use all of their public holidays and will not commit like the other nationalities. It makes it hard for me to employ them. At the same time, LMRA says employ a Bahraini so you can get three visas. If I come and I employ the Bahraini, it filters into the chemistry of my work. He will work less but he will get paid more. Once you create a sense of inequality in the workplace you have problems. You don’t want to demotivate your other staff.
I chose not to employ Bahrainis. This has created a problem because I have very little visas. I’m not ashamed to say that I had illegal workers. I’m not ashamed at all.
You were put in that situation.
I was put in that situation because when a customer comes, what is the only thing the customer thinks of? It’s one sentence: “What’s in it for me?”
They don’t care about your limitations. You want to give them the best service. You want to give them good food and great atmosphere. This starts with staff. This cannot happen with a team of ten for three restaurants.
When some of the illegals were found, we were fined 6,000 BD and half of them were deported. These are people that were trained. You have an emotional attachment to the staff that you love. It’s been a very hard blow. I do things differently now, of course, and I try not to go that route at all. You’re my friend. You’re not my foe. LMRA, you should be my friend.
As customers, we’ve witnessed Saffron succeed in more or less no time. I heard very little about Saffron from Saffron. I heard about Saffron from people. What made that strong brand of Saffron? How did you manage to market the place without really marketing it?
Absolutely. I will say something that is cliché, but I believe in it, I feel that the law of the world, the law of karma is, “You get what you give to others.” When you start something you’re lost and don’t know what you’re doing. If you read a million books in the world about management and running a business, you don’t know until you put your feet in the water.
The first thing I did was I said, “My intention, God, is to give something to the people and to be of service to others. I made a conscious decision that every day I open the restaurant, I have to feed X amount of people.
Another thing is word of mouth. I called two of my very good friends that are popular Instagramers. I believe social media is the biggest tool now. I said, “I have this little café and I only have four items on the menu. Do you want to try it?” They came and it was a friendly coffee. All they did was post a couple of pictures on their Instagram accounts.
The week before my accountant said, “We can’t afford the rent, madam. This is an area where workers live. There’s no parking. I think we’re going to be hit very hard.” This was just before signing the contract. I’m like, “Business is a risk. If we don’t do well in six months, we close, pack up and leave.” He was worried about paying the rent of that month. The first week after those Instagram pics, we paid the rent of one year. In one week.
What really made Saffron unique that no one before Saffron had the courage or had the idea of offering traditional food.
You think it’s a no brainer. That was something I was worried about. When I first did it I thought, “Everybody cooks egg, tomato in their house. Why are they going to eat it in my place?” I forgot this is a fast moving society. People are too busy to cook six items and eat.
Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones. It’s not purely traditional because we try to choose modern plates. We try to combine. It wasn’t purely traditional. We combined the old and the new. We then played on people’s emotions with the music because you set an experience. I believe there’s good energy in the old world. The music is reminiscent of the old weddings we used to go to or my dad or my uncle. Create an experience. Give the customer an experience he can’t get somewhere else. This is what we banked on.
In the beginning everybody said, “Everybody’s going to copy you.”
I said, “No, they won’t.” Then I open my eyes and there are these twenty concepts.
If people copy you, then you’re doing fabulous. When you go to Italy there are a million pasta places so you go to the best. I’m very honored we got the Time Out award for Best Bahraini Restaurant. This is the best recognition that we’re doing well.
To answer your question, I just want to continue on that. There’s a comment that a customer said to me that I hit it on the head exactly right. He came in and he ate the breakfast. He said, “I’m tearing up because your Arabic dishes reminds me of my grandmother’s food.”
We revived the tradition of letting everyone wash their hands with rose water. Which is the old Bahrain tradition. I saw him tearing up and he said, “This is exactly what my grandma used to do. She would give me the rose water before I left.” I felt, “This is it. I did it.” Reliving old, beautiful memories through good food with little tips here and there.
You can’t copy the experience you’re delivering. Did you have any mentors throughout the journey? Did you have someone to whom you go to ask, “This is not working. What shall I do?”
First of all, I always have to bring up my husband. He is one hundred percent supportive and positive. Before I had any kind of business he’s the one who used to tell me, “Honey, even if you want to get the Nobel prize, you can get it. Basically, whatever you set your mind to, you can get.” This is not a very typical Bahraini thing to say.
My mother was my culinary reference. She was my number one teacher. “Do this. Don’t do that.” She would say it in the harsh Bahraini mother’s way. Right, “I’m not going to listen to that.”
There were days when I was down and said, “What am I going to do?” One of my neighbors, she took me out and said, “Why don’t you buy this?” Its endless; the neighbors, the friends, the sisters. This is Bahrain. People support you. The ones you don’t want to hear you block.
My father who passed away five years ago, he never got a chance to see this. He’s my number one person because it’s his ethics, excellence, and work that is drilled here.
“Whatever you do, do it with excellence. Whatever it is, just do it well.”
I get that from him.
How did you manage growth? You started with one branch, then all of the sudden, you had four in a year.
Nobody expected the success of the branch. We thought we would just stay with one. The Ministry of Culture at the time suggested, “You have a good team. You started well. Why don’t you?” They suggested, “Would you like to take branch number two?” Every time we would open a new one, we were worried. The third one became easy. The fourth one, I remember the day. I came here; there was just a fort. There was nothing. What do you mean “Want a café?” This is the Riffa crowd. This is the hardest crowd in the universe and they’ll not take any. They won’t forgive you. They’re unforgiving. How am I going to run a kitchen here?
I saw flocks of people coming in and tearing up … I started laughing. It’s blind faith. You have blind faith. You take a leap of faith and you say, “Whatever happens, happens. I did my best. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, one month and we stop.
What is the next chapter for Saffron?
I would love a cooking school for Bahraini foods. We already started doing cooking lessons for the German tourists from the cruise ship Mein Schiff, to the ones that stop in Mina Salman. We do have bi-weekly lessons. I’d love for this to expand in a bigger sense to show people how we eat and how we cook.
I want to improve on the projects I have now. I’m in the process of writing a small cooking book for the Royal Charity Fund and the revenue will go toward the orphans. I would love to be a cookbook author. This will be my beginning and we’ll see what will happen.
You started the interview by introducing yourself as being a mother of four. How are you managing all this? God bless them. How old are they?
I have six, nine, thirteen and sixteen.
God bless then.
How do I manage? I manage with an amazing husband who’s very supportive and an amazing team at home as well. I believe in working hard, play hard. When I’m at work I focus on work.
As a working mother, I go through frustrations and stress. I try to do activities for the kids and make our time fun like cooking competitions, Bahraini tourism activities, barbecue night, game night, soccer day. There’re all these things. I block the dates on my calendar and it’s their time.
Diaries are your best friend. Diaries, diaries, diaries. Waking up in the morning, I try to belong to the Club 5. Club 5 is the people who say the most successful people in the world are the people who wake up at 5 am. They do 20 minutes of meditation of the Qur’an or praying. They do 20 minutes of exercise and 20 minutes of planning. They are ahead of the world. I try to belong to that club. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I don’t wake up at 5.
We’re going to have your advice for young entrepreneurs and then we want to talk about the organizations that support, whether from funding or financing.
First of all about organizations, the Ministry of Culture was unbelievably supportive. They were fantastic. This was completely self-funded. But no one else, no others—all personal support. What else was the question?
The second question was your advice to young entrepreneurs?
Think of when you were in second grade. The first thing you said you wanted to do when got home. This is the thing that has something to do with your job in the future. Meaning, we all cannot be restaurant owners. We all cannot be artists.
I can’t say, “If you love painting when you were in second grade, that means you have to be a painter.” What I’m saying is remember, always go back to childhood. That’s your best key. See something you were good at.
There’s the debate that says business owners are better than working for someone. I don’t believe that. Any day I could work as somebody’s employee, I would take it because there’s no headache and regular income. There is stability and level-mindedness for me.
Don’t say, “My weakness is accounting. I think I should take a small course to refresh. I can keep up and be good.” My advice is don’t give up on the smallest hurdle. Don’t give up and instead take on the challenge like, “I’ll ace it. I’ll do it. I’ll find a way to get over it.” Once you get over that hurdle, you’ll feel everything is easy to get over. As we said earlier, there is no limit to your dreams. Whatever you have, clarify the intention. See what is your real intention and work on it. Don’t listen to the negative vampires because there are a lot of them and they suck your energy before they open their mouth even. Do what you love and do it often.
If your work is a source of misery if you feel like there are more days where you’re crying and suffering more than the happy days—The universe sends you signs. Look at the signs and listen to them.
My point is: Don’t let one thing make you miserable and make you hide. My husband and I have this thing where if I’m hiding under the sheets he asks, “What happened at work today?”
Because if a problem happens, I go home and hide under the sheets like the problems are going to go away. That’s not going to solve things. If you’re miserable in an area and you can’t get out of this job, delegate. Find someone else to do it. Break it down into smaller areas but don’t give up. Or if you’re completely miserable, leave. Find something else.