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20 Jul, Saturday
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Hot n Spciy

The Hot N Spicy Story: Of Poor Rich Boys

The story behind Hot N Spicy, a household name for on-the-go, late night food.

It is often said that the younger generations of Pakistan haven’t amounted to much, especially young men from well-off families. According to the stereotype, many go on to run the family business and live charmed lives. Once rebels, the need to stay privileged keeps them a part of the status quo; the guitars and turn-tables can only take them so far. Once resentful of their fathers, they grow up to become them. This is all well and good, as it should be. The old wheels are replaced by young wheels, old cars with new cars. These young men are not known for upending the status quo, despite their polished, liberal exteriors. Mukhtar Ahmad Chohan’s Hot N Spicy has a different take.

Mukhtar Ahmad Chohan at his desk, in his office at the H block DHA branch of Hot and Spicy.
Mukhtar Ahmad Chohan at his desk, in his office at the H block DHA branch of Hot and Spicy.

Mukhtar has been a well-known name in the upper echelons of society. Presently, he is an older man with a wiry, black beard in the style of religious people. He has a soft voice, a gentle but authoritative manner, and he’s the primary owner of Lahore’s Hot N Spicy — now with multiple branches (Bahria Town and Johar Town) in Lahore to supplement the HQ in DHA H-block market. There is something reminiscent of the cinema classic, The Godfather, in the way Mukhtar is treated by his employees. Mukhtar — once a waiter and a ‘runner’ for Karachi BBQ (in Lahore) — has become a powerful man.

During our meeting, Mukhtar echoes the famous line by Don Vito Corleone, “I have learned more in the streets than in any classroom.” He used to sell mangoes, failed spectacularly at the cotton business, and when that didn’t work out, he made zardah (sweet rice) and sold that outside a mosque (Masjid-e-Shuhada on Mall Road, Lahore). Before the famous Hot N Spicy, Mukhtar also invested in catering businesses in Gujrat and Rawalpindi. “I wasted three years like that,” he tells me in Urdu. He adds that partnering with people who only cared about profit was a learning experience. It seemed like the usual, clichéd statement a successful entrepreneur makes when describing previous ventures. I would discover, later, that it wasn’t.

We meet at his office in H Block’s Hot N Spicy, Mukhtar asks if I’d like to have anything as soon as I sit down. I settle for a cup of tea. A mutual friend accompanies us — Ammar Mohsin, owner of Rina’s Kitchenette. Ammar’s respect for Mukhtar is obvious. Being a restaurant owner himself, Ammar asks Mukhtar the usual entrepreneurial questions; I discover, for example, that the initial investment made into Hot N Spicy was eighteen lakh rupees (in 2003), and that Hot N Spicy started as a partnership. Mukhtar eventually bought out his partner in 2008. I learn that pilferage by the middleman is one of the biggest challenges for restaurant owners; people who buy your ingredients for you, but quote the wrong prices, pocketing the leftover cash. In fact, Mukhtar is currently building a warehouse where Hot N Spicy will source and stock ingredients for all its branches.

Hearing this, Ammar nods thoughtfully:

“Cutting out the middle-man. Smart.”

Mukhtar started working for Karachi BBQ (in DHA, Lahore) in 1997. He was in his early twenties then, a young, married man from Rahim Yar Khan who had already accrued major debt because of a failed attempt at the cotton business. Karachi BBQ was where he would create the base for his present venture. He was a waiter and a runner — a runner being someone who literally runs after the customers, runs to their cars and convinces them to order from the restaurant he works for, fighting off other runners in the process. Mukhtar made seventy to eighty rupees per day in tips. This was a time that being a runner was the lowest rung of the ladder. It still is.

But something about him must have stood out to customers; one of them recommended that he buy a mobile phone. He wanted to be able to contact Mukhtar more easily, and eventually gifted him a mobile. Another customer gifted him a SIM card. This was in 2001 when one SIM could cost around five thousand rupees, and a mobile phone cost around twenty, maybe thirty thousand rupees. Mukhtar could never have afforded this luxury on his own, but being indispensable to his regular clients lead to this turning point in his ‘career’ as a runner.

Hot and Spicy runners / waiters in March 2018.
Hot and Spicy runners / waiters in March 2018.

Now, people could call to arrange their deliveries through him directly. The question is: who were these people and why did they prefer Mukhtar?

This, to me, is the more interesting angle. I could write Mukhtar up as a Cinderella story of success, created with sheer luck and hard work, and that would be true. But then, I’d have to skip over the very essential and very entertaining part of Mukhtar’s journey to success: poor-rich-boys who gathered at the H Block Market for a bit of male posturing and some good-natured male networking (etc.). Sometimes, they brought girls too. Poor-rich-boys who were so used to having someone reliable at their beck and call that they wanted to extend that bubble of privilege to their life outside the home.

While Mukhtar was learning the ropes of the restaurant business, these boys were practicing how to get their way in the real world. This strikes me as impressive — it gives credence to two Pakistani tropes: firstly, of desis having big hearts and being generous with everyone, and secondly, that in Pakistan your best asset is your network.

These teenage boys in expensive cars picked their men (their runners) and offered them backing and loyalty with the attitude of CEOs of multinationals. And no, I’m not being sarcastic. I admire this largesse, this attitude in desi boys; the attitude that changed Mukhtar’s life.

What is even more intriguing, is that Mukhtar was the first one to instigate this largesse by allowing these educated, well-off young people to take udhaar (loans) from him (the irony of it all). When his customers couldn’t pay, Mukhtar was okay with it. This, in itself, was a completely unprecedented move on his part. No runner around him would have let lack of immediate payment slide. And why would they? Runners were hardly paid as it was. People became runners for tips; being paid for the order was the least they hoped for.

One of Mukhtar’s old customers remembers him as a “Malangi sort of guy”. I like this word — Malangi. I struggle to explain it in English; a combination of mystic and risk-taker. A fool, a person who loses himself in the present, who lets go of grudges quickly, who forgets the past, a person who has faith in the invisible. A direct translation would be ‘a mystic who doesn’t care for possessions’. Only a Malangi sort of Karachi BBQ runner would let people in fancy cars and houses take loans from him. Only a Malangi would shrug off payment, trusting that it would come later. And when these young men did get their pocket money, they paid because they had been trusted to. And they added large tips. If only their girlfriends had also tried Mukhtar’s strategy of trust.

What would have seemed like injustice from callous rich boys to someone else quickly became an opportunity for Mukhtar. This letting go of slights, this ‘Malangi-ness’ charmed his poor-rich-boys. It became the reason for his roster of loyal clients.

Mukhtar’s number was shared among poor-rich-boy circles. All this could have been happening to other runners with mobiles as well, but for the udhaar. He allowed his customers to pay him later and paid for them when they didn’t have money for their orders, despite often delivering food to their homes. Mukhtar was invaluable.

Mukhtar observes the afternoon prayer with his employees and other people in the H block market.
Mukhtar observes the afternoon prayer with his employees and other people in the H block market.

Were there times when these young, up-and-coming boys and up-and-coming girls, these students from LUMS and other good universities, never paid him back?

Yes.

To this day, some have not paid him for a number of orders. The loans amount to large numbers and they would have seemed colossal to a mere runner who paid them out of his own pocket. It’s something Mukhtar admits with a shrug, the same way he talks about the attitude of his previous bosses at Karachi BBQ towards Hot N Spicy.

He seems to have let any slights go; the universe, Allah, whatever Mukhtar believes in will handle them for him. Mukhtar doesn’t seem like a man who wastes time stewing over conflicts. This attitude is echoed when he mentions the 2013 gas-blast at Hot and Spicy which took the lives of a few people and talks about nazar (the evil eye).

I prod him for more details about the Hot N Spicy rivalry with Karachi BBQ. When Mukhtar opened Hot N Spicy in 2003, he opened it right across from his previous employers’ restaurant. That had to irk. But what was Mukhtar to do? H Block was THE on-the-go food market. It was the right location for Hot N Spicy. That’s where all his clients went. When he opened, his prices were lower than Karachi BBQ.

The initial years weren’t easy. Karachi BBQ poached labor from Hot N Spicy, Karachi BBQ waiters would provoke fights with Hot and Spicy waiters, over customers, etc. All of us remember the Hot N Spicy versus Karachi BBQ show-down from a few years back; parking your car in that area meant at least four runners from Karachi BBQ, Hot N Spicy, Cock N Bull or another restaurant would fight over your business. For a year or two, a Hot and Spicy opened up in the same area (not Hot N Spicy, never Hot ‘N Spicy) adding to the chaos.

It was the War of the Paratha Rolls. Most of us picked something in a moment of confusion, to make the runners leave us alone. But those who knew of Mukhtar picked Hot N Spicy. His regular clientele (gathered from Karachi BBQ) was loyal to a fault. During this time, Mukhtar came up with the signature dishes that we’re all familiar with now: the Stuffed Chicken burger (stuffed with melted cheese with a side of spinach), the Cordon Bleu burger, and the Malai Cheese roll. Hits like these went a long way towards securing Hot N Spicy’s victory.

Now that the air has settled, Karachi BBQ has conceded a kind of defeat. Hot N Spicy prices are now higher than Karachi BBQ and will remain so. When I hear Mukhtar describe that time in a dismissive tone, a few Godfather quotes spring to mind: the classic, “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold,” and “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

In the end, Mukhtar emphasizes the importance of treating labor like family.

“This is what I believe about working in the restaurant industry: if you find a good wife and good labor, your life will be filled with peace. If one of the two isn’t good, you won’t find peace.”

Good wife, good labor, and let’s not forget: the right number of poor-rich-boys.