Offering affordable food in upmarket environs, Javed Parsa created a major eatery chain with footprints within and outside Kashmir by operating from a tiny cabin office in Srinagar with a smartphone in hand and a clever idea in mind, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
One of the few Kashmir businesses that continued growing despite the prevailing slump is the Parsa chain of eateries. It offers variety within a budget has an upmarket eco-system, young outlook and improves the brand value using social media. Now at 27 units, Javed Parsa, its 33-year old founder has a target of a 100 unit chain. Perhaps the only social entrepreneur, Parsa created the huge brand within seven years.
“Being in a position to mentor and create a pool of young and genuine businessmen has been the greatest blessing in my life,” Javed said after throwing open its Shopian unit. “Every single addition to Parsa’s family adds a lot of value to our brand.”
Creating a fast expanding brand in a challenging fragile market that hardly remains open for half of the 365 days is difficult arithmetic. But, how exactly it happened?
A Long Story
As one opens the glass door at Parsa Food and Beverages restaurant, the first unit at Srinagar’s Sarah Mall that is now the mother and medulla of the chain, lingering aroma soon tickles olfactory senses. The sight and sound of the clattering plates, spoons, and genuinely smiling waiters listening to customers calmly gives an impression of being a guest.
In a corner, Javed operates from his 5.5×4 feet office. With this small chamber are tied memories of a generation. Parsa’s USP is he makes everyone feel special and loved; something the world is hungry for. He clicks selfies with his clients and makes every entry into his eatery a social media event. People spend small amounts on food and celebrations land for free to their smartphones.
In 2014, Javed acquired a franchisee of Kathi Junction and used social media to reach a wider clientele. On October 31, 2017, he called it a day, snapped his arrangement, and launched his own brand, Parsa, the family surname.
In the subsequent seven years, Kashmir witnessed hell. First, the September 2014 floods decimated most of the Vale. A year later, the mass unrest over the killing of Burhan Wani almost closed Kashmir for most of the summer. Then in August 2019 Article 370 and Article 35A was undone with Kashmir kept under lock and key. Well before Kashmir could breathe easy, the Coronavirus pandemic locked Kashmir again.
Despite all this, Parsa’s is now a 27-unit chain with more than 300 employees. All except one are franchisees. “Each outlet has an average of 10 employees,” Javed said.
Javed’s cabin office cannot accommodate more than two people. But it is stuffed with gifts of his customers: photos, paintings, sketches, gifted by his customers, currency coins of different nations deposited by Kashmiris from different parts of the world beside his notice board and accounts books.
“My primary branch is smaller than my franchisees,” Javed laughs, adding that in 2014 when he ventured into the food business he carried thorough research of the market for almost two months. “I went to different restaurants in Srinagar to understand the menu and what is it that can be the talk of the town.” It was this survey that helped him understand the eventual disconnect between an eatery and the customer. Filling that gap helped Javed build Parsa.
“My brother, Naveed says that since we can afford a better office we should shift. But I am comfortable as it is here where I took off,” he said while adjusting himself in his cramped seat.
Brought up in picturesque Bandipora, Javed is a carpenter’s son. He was brought up by his maternal grandfather, Ghulam Rasool Shah popularly known as Gul Pir, a postmaster.
“He has been the closest human being who influenced me in my childhood,” Javed said, insisting that he learned the art of smiling from him and it helped him to win hearts.
His grandfather delivered letters to seven villages and little Javed would accompany him on his bicycle. “I would trail behind him to orchards, markets, wherever he went,” he said. “I picked from him the art of dealing with people, co-existence, and love.”
Silent, smiling little Javed would keenly observe people discussing issues at kandur waan, the traditional Kashmiri bakery shops. “I would often be around as people chatted, shared stories, discussed politics, religion and society,” he said. “I had never imagined that Parsa’s would replicate this tradition in its eateries.”
Academics and Activism
As Javed grew he had no clear goal as to what to do in life? Inevitably, he found himself scrambling and shifting from mechanical engineering to designing to pursuing MBA.
“As they say, engineering confused me; designs disillusioned me before business completed me,” a smiling Javed said. “I left mechanical engineering in the third semester without informing the parents as I discovered it was not my domain. Subsequently, I was supported financially in my new idealistic pursuit of designing by some relatives and friends. But soon it disillusioned me as the practical world of designing was different from what I had fancied. Then I came to Hyderabad, and got admitted into the central university to meet the need for accommodation and simultaneously earn a livelihood at a call centre.”
He pursued MBA in Urdu at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. “I have studied just because one has to. I didn’t have many hopes or expectations from life,” said Javed.
At the University, he was into student activism. He soon became part of the student union. He led the protests against a “suffocating” dress code and closing of the girls’ hostel at 6 pm. It was just a continuation of what he did in the school – arguing why he sits on a jute mat, unlike teachers who use chairs.
One Man Army
Busy with his success and expansion, Javed regrets the pandemic delayed his idea of creating a corporate hierarchy for his brand. This has pushed him to be the only person on the control button.
“Everybody reports to me. I do not have a manager. I am one point contact for all my employees,” Javed said, adding that a culture of acceptance, belongingness, working together as a team, and respecting each other is the standard he has set for employees to emulate. “My employees emulate the behavioural standards I have set,” he said. “I believe if a person has good values, work can be taught to him but if the person lacks values, it is difficult to fix.”
The basic protocols involve wearing a uniform and a smile. Despite all this, there have been instances of misbehaviour from his staff.
From his cabin, Javed oversees the operations of all the outlets online. “When the sale of an outlet goes down I walk in,” he said. “I use my skills to bring the attention of my customers back as they might have grown weary of the monotony.”
When Javed ventured into the eatery business, he lacked adequate financial resources for advertisements. However, he realized the potential reach of social media to connect with audiences.
“The budget of my initial business model was so small that I could not afford a small advertisement in a newspaper. I knew it would reach people and I tapped into its potential,” he said.
Javed invited prominent personalities to his shop. This made Parsa’s a place where one can learn, discuss and connect with people who matter. “I initially captured selfies, recorded moments, and tagged people in it. It helped me to reach a wider audience and soon they were attracted to visit Parsa’s and experience the food and meet other people through various events.” This marked the creation of the first batch of clientele loyal to the brand.
“We gave people reasons to connect, sponsored musical, cultural events or launched workshops, books etc. Soon Parsa’s became a place where people launched their careers, released books, music albums,” he said, adding that he carried a campaign on road safety for four months in which we involved people from diverse backgrounds. This was followed by a campaign on menstrual hygiene, an issue people usually talked about in whispers.
At one point in time, Javed said he got life threats for promoting female artists or letting someone just sing, or expressing himself. These events brought us all together.
“These little acts I did for youth made them emotionally close to this place as they felt it is a part of their growth,” Javed believes. “I can proudly say that it is a place where strangers can sit in front of one another and eat comfortably.”
Culture and Cuisine
Javed’s smart use of social media helped him create his USP to connect with a generation and it built the brand. He doesn’t sell anything Kashmiri in Kashmir. But in Banglore and other places, he introduced Kashmiri cuisine and crockery.
“We serve Kashmiri wazwaan at affordable prices outside Kashmir and let me tell you, there are many voracious wazwaan outside Kashmir,” Javed said. “Besides the cuisine, it is Kashmiri music and culture which we serve along with the food.”
Javed acted as a liaison for many Kashmiri artists to connect with audiences outside Kashmir and perform at his outlets.
But do life’s vagaries weigh down smiling and resilient Javed also? What is he like when back home or alone after a bad day? Javed admitted he does face melancholic times and brave storms of anxiety and depression.
Over the years, the conflict and criticism for his work and ideas have taken a toll on his psyche. He also sought psychiatrist help for his stress. His stress was the outcome of the criticism that his outreach during adversity was a marketing trick than a genuine initiative. This added to the crisis triggered by conflict and shutdowns. But he busied himself in connecting with the less fortunate and in turn provided him with the love and support of more people.
As he has thousands of followers on social media, people approach him with pleas regarding financial and medical aid, employment, launching careers as artists, and even advertising business.
“Parsa’s is a platform that people trust in,” Parsa said, “That’s why they donate but I support only after strict verification check.”
In 2016 mass unrest, when Kashmir remained shut for months, Javed was seen mostly at SMHS Hospital. He catered to the injured and people visiting with them. “We set up a kitchen there and served people from far-off places,” Javed said. But soon he was forced by financial circumstances to shift to Hyderabad again to support family and staff.
At a time when Kashmiri students were being singled out in certain states, Javed was around to help.
In August 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir was in a literal siege, cut off from the rest of the world and a lucky Javed was not home.
“I had pre-booked my flight to Bengaluru on August 12 for a business trip. Later as I returned, I set up my base in Delhi,” he said, adding he helped hundreds of Kashmiris connect with their relatives. He provided financial support to various students spread across India, who could not access funds due to the communication restrictions at home.
Javed had carried letters from parents and relatives and sent them to their children and family members. “Many residents had travelled to Hajj and due to sudden communication blockade and rumours they had panicked,” Javed remembers.
Apart from helping residents to communicate, Javed helped them face a shortage of medicines. In collaboration with international agencies and NGOs who offered help and provided medical aid, Javed coordinated with people going to Kashmir and helped supply medicines through them to the needy.
Recalling an incident at Aloochi Bagh in Srinagar, Javed said that he had read the news about a family having lost their home in a fire. They could not call fire and emergency services due to communication blackout. What added to the agony of the distressed family was that he had to get two daughters married in a few months.
“After proper verification, I put an appeal for help on social media and people generously came forward with financial aid. Within few hours around Rs 5 lakh were donated,” he said. “The contributions came from Kashmiri students, corporates, and businessmen living outside Kashmir”.
All business remained shut during the Covid19 so Javed provided free meals to the needy, arranged blood and plasma for patients and helped the unemployed by giving them opportunities.
Unlike other businesses, Parsa’s continued its growth despite the pandemic. No pink slips were distributed at Parsa’s and no salary cuts were announced.
Javed believes eating is an experience and online delivery of food must be the last option. As pandemic dictated that necessity, he soon hopes to resume the normal routine. He believes the restaurant serves as a place of social dining, and that he would prefer watching people sitting and conversing in front of one another rather than delivering food.
Javed believes Parsa’s is only the medium where he interacts with people and spend time with them regardless of age, places, ideologies, and share ideas.
“It is not ordering, grabbing, and leaving. For the food, one has to sit, wait and eat. Then there are feedback moments. Countering the conventional etiquettes of other outlets where just the food is served. We want to make it an experience,” claimed Javed. “I wanted to fill that vacuum of the restaurant beyond food.”
At Kathi Junction, he was restricted by a contract. At his own outlet, he sets his own standards. “I wanted to be independent and take decisions on my own. I went to places where people do not care about Parsa’s like Bangalore, where one can get the same roll on a handcart at a cheaper price. But I had to innovate,” he said. “That is how Kashmiri cuisine and culture was exported to mainland parts.”
Javed said he likes to think that he is the engineer of his success and the designer of his destiny.
Javed said he studied many models first and then designed his own keeping Kashmir in mind. He inserted clauses of the hartal menu in Kashmir that can take care of employees when the tough times like frequent shutdown to pandemic lockdowns hobble business.
“But when it comes to dealing with complaints I am very tough,” Javed said. “I make sure franchisees follow norms.
Some of the requisites are space, place, and non-refundable one-time brand fees of seven lakh rupees and it varies as per places. However, the contract is renewed every three years. In operations and contributions to the franchise, I charge only five per cent of everyday sales like recipe, staff, promotion and packaging.
“I simultaneously work as a designer when the outlets are built,” he said. “I hang out with them before giving those franchises, as I call them for dinner, talk to them, travel with them and learn about them. Values and binding affinity is of prime importance before lending my brand name to someone.”
Books are the most important feature of his outlet. A custodian of thousands of books of different genres, donated by avid readers to other book lovers, Javed is helping youth to inculcate reading habits.
According to the website dedicated specifically to book banks, in order to promote the reading culture across the valley, Parsa Foods has started Parsa Book Bank in 2015.
The objective is to promote the reading culture in times of the internet and social media. The books are donated by visitors and every donor is a permanent member of Parsa Book Bank and can read and borrow as many as they want. Currently, Parsa Book Bank has thousands of books with different genres ranging from art, politics, and fiction to resistance and biographies, donated by nearly 500 people by now. There are around 400 regular readers and borrowers at Parsa Book Bank.