The inside is as cozy and casual as the exterior. The layered bamboo and wood designs signifying the simplicity and naturalness of the earth. At a corner, a family of four indulging in food served on brass metal plates. At another corner, a young couple giving off contagious laughter at the sound of every whisper and the savour in every bite. This nicely lit haven of joy is situated at Uzan Bazar, in Guwahati.
There’s probably nothing as good as eating a good meal. In today’s world where healthy food is big business, you can’t turn a blind eye. With hundreds of delicacies all over Assam, it is often very difficult to choose. With ventures like Michinga, a Northeastern ethnic food restaurant, you don’t have too. This restaurant takes you back to the roots, serving sweet-smelling dishes and memories of the beauty of culture. Food enthusiast, Mustaque Ahmed owns and runs Michinga.
Ahmed was born into a family of home chefs. That childhood exposure to quality food from a young age created a unique passion and appreciation for food in him. We sat with him recently and talked about all things food, his journey, and where he intends to be in the future.
“My Mom and Dad were the best cooks in the family,” he begins with a wry smile. “People would invite themselves over just to experience their hospitality and the culinary skills which they were blessed with. I would try to entice my father sometimes to become a food entrepreneur as he was so good with his culinary skills,” he says.
Although his family is responsible for his passion for food, traveling around the country exposed him to various delicacies and delights. For instance, he was exposed to Khasi cuisine quite early and to the multiple Indian, Chinese and European restaurants in Shillong. “Shillong always had a buzzing, eat-out culture,” he notes.
Before his journey into the world of food and restaurants, Ahmed founded his business process outsourcing (BPO) in Bangalore; a firm he ran for over twenty years. However, he wasn’t satisfied and wanted to make a career change to something more Indian related. He narrates how his journey into the food industry began. “I had a Mizo friend who would invite me to his house over weekends and he would smoke meat and do the Naga and the Mizo dishes. This caught my attention as I instantly fell for the flavours. This was what made me make up my mind that I want to bring this Northeast regional food to Bangalore. I set up my first restaurant in Bangalore in the year 2010.”
Entrepreneurs usually encounter the most challenging periods in the first few months and years of their business. Speaking on how he navigated through this trying time, Ahmed says it was not really difficult for him as he had other businesses running with cash flow and his flow of funds was consistent. “I saved some of my personal income to build a restaurant someday at Guwahati. The only advice I can give to the upcoming entrepreneurs is to have extreme passion in whatever they are doing or intend to do,” he says.
“They need to be driven and have that fire in their belly to make things happen. Above all, they need to be resilient and active. They should always remember, ‘Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, but great minds discuss ideas’. Positivity is also the key. Be positive because a positive mind can withstand and achieve anything,” he adds.
Ahmed tries to be as diverse in his menus as possible. He ensures he offers his customers the best delicacies from all across India. This inspires him in his creative process. “First, I like to stick to the mainstream and do my personal favourites. I love Assamese, Naga, and the other Northeastern regional dishes. They top my list over any other cuisine. I eat the same food everyday at home. Secondly, we would like to know the customers we are serving. This helps us think, curate and create flavours with the ingredients that’re locally available,” Ahmed says with passion in his eyes.
“The food we serve is mostly from our home kitchens. My partner at Michinga is from the Lotha Community in Nagaland. We get all our ingredients from Jalukie, Wokha, Dimapur. She is a food connoisseur herself. She understands and creates the Naga dishes as per the needs of the customers,” he adds.
In order to facilitate the growth of his business, customer feedback is an absolute necessity to Ahmed. There are several necessary changes he has made to his meals and menu in response to his customers’ feedback. Michinga started out with a lot of dishes from Northeast India’s regional cuisine and had to deal with a lot of wastage and a great number of manpower. “We had to introduce Indo-Chinese to keep some of our regulars happy. Now, our menu is short and crisp. We are excited that we are changing the menu in a week’s time and coming up with something exciting that will come with great flavours from our region,” he adds. For him, keeping his customers happy is a huge factor for success.
Ahmed plans to kickstart an expansion agenda in order to connect better with his customers and improve his customer service. His next venture is, what he calls a second baby, at Six Mile, Jayanagar. “The launch date will be somewhere around mid December 2020. We would like to end the year on a positive note. This will be a unique one and I hope Guwahati will continue to embrace us.”
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