Monjrul Hoque, the eldest son of N Mohammad, owner of Chattogram's leading industrial group that bears his name, opened a coffee shop named Barcode to distract himself from the trauma of his father's demise in 2012. Monjurul, born and raised in the UAE, studied Business Management at the Thames Business School in Singapore.
Once Barcode gained popularity Hoque decided to launch another restaurant commercially in Chattogram's Muradpur, naming it Barcode Seafood. He has completed all the decorations at a cost of about Tk1 crore. The inauguration of the restaurant was set to take place on 23 March in 2015, but it completely burnt to ashes in a fire on 22 March, the night before inauguration.
However, that did not dampen his resolve. He launched the restaurant once again – this time he named it Barcode on Fire! Now he has 20 restaurants including 15 in Chattogram, four in Dhaka and one in the UAE, serving local and continental foods, employing over 400 people. Monjurul Hoque talks to Shamsuddin Illius of The Business Standard about his up and on his way to becoming an emerging food Mughal in Chattogram.
Where did you get the idea for the restaurant?
We are three brothers – one runs our plastics industries and one looks after our business in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which includes engineering services. Basically I was overseeing our plastics business when my father was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. I spent time with my father until his death on 15 March 2012, without participating in our family business enterprises. I saw my father's death at close quarters. I was overwhelmed emotionally and life seemed meaningless.
I was suffering from melancholia. However, having studied at Cantonment School, Chittagong College, and the Thames Business School in Singapore, I had worked in restaurants while studying abroad, and I knew the ins and outs of restaurants. Eventually I decided to set up a coffee shop where people could sit and enjoy a leisurely time. Moreover, I thought at a coffee place like that I could enjoy watching movies, listening to music, and spending time with friends. To overcome my gloom, I set up Barcode on 9 July 2013, on my birthday. There was another reason for setting up a cafe here. There were no proper coffee shops in Chattogram where you get a good and proper cup of Americano, Cappuccino or Leto coffee, no matter if one was ready to pay good money for that. And so, when we started the cafe, there was a tremendous market response.
The response of people encouraged me, and then I thought, in Chittagong a lot of specialty foods are missing, so I would start providing that at my restaurants, one after another.
Why did you not get involved with your family business?
Life is short, so you should follow your dreams and passion. I am moving with my passion. It was my father's expectation that I would do something new, apart from plastics and engineering. Actually, hard work has paid off. My father played a very important role in my life - I saw how honesty and hard work gave him success.
He showed me the path to growing my present business. In my business, I am 100% honest. I will never cheat my customers under any circumstances simply to maximise profits.
What are the challenges in the food business?
The pandemic was a great disaster for the restaurant industry. At a time when we were just beginning to get well positioned in the business, COVID-19 hit us and everything came to a standstill. Overhead like paying VAT etc hit us at once all together.
For small businesses, personal and off-market 'hand loans' are increasing, while large businesses have had to resort to more bank loans. It's terrible when you can't pay your vendors and service providers, and staff salaries are not paid.
Taking loans from other businesses and banks, I managed salaries and other expenses. In the pandemic I have had losses of over Tk1 crore. The government is imposing many taxes and VAT on restaurants when we are struggling just to survive.
Despite my love for Fuchka, I could not eat it because it is most often made under unhygienic conditions. So I decided to make 'hygienic' fuchka. In 2015, I opened Burgwich Town, a restaurant that specializes in hygienic Fuchka platters, which was a huge revolution.
Chattogram's most favorite traditional food is mezban. Mezban can only be eaten on special occasions. Moreover, guests who come from elsewhere to Chattogram want to have a taste of mezban but it is embarrassing and awkward to attend a mezban if one is not invited to one. If you are invited and you take one or two guests that might be okay, but it's difficult to take five or twenty guests! I have faced such circumstances a number of times. So I decided to open a Mezban, a restaurant that would serve authentic mezban cuisine, following traditional cooking methods, like using wood stoves. I have made sure that if people come to Chattogram and want an authentic taste of mezban, they can get it at my restaurant. I have been working on traditional food items at my restaurants that seem to be missing in the city and Mezban, my restaurant, has captured the attention of customers.
Again, I felt there should be a restaurant serving authentic local, conventional foods, like plain-rice, dal, bharta, kacchi-biryani, morog polao, and biye barir khawa or typical food served at weddings. I myself like these local foods which gave birth to my Birchatala restaurant. I love the name Birchatala, a word I have heard since childhood, so I decided to name the restaurant Birchatala.
I try never to mix different types of cuisines at my restaurants. So I set up a restaurant to serve only tehari ,called Teheriwala.
At the Food Junction of Sholokbahar, we have launched a new restaurant named Ometra on September 23 for continental foods. It is a premium restaurant. Restaurant food can be pricey or expensive, for any number of reasons, and so we have Tk90 tehari and some expensive dishes as well. We want to cater to all types of customers and palates.
What are the five most popular items at your restaurants?
Chicken Steak Meal, English Roast Chicken, Fuchka, Dosa, and Mezban.
Why do you think your restaurants are getting popular?
We are honest. We never cheat customers and sell stale food items or use any expired raw materials. Our two restaurants, Birchatala and Mezban Khaile Ayun, have no refrigerators as we feel these foods should not be refrigerated to be served later. We are committed to our customers and will never serve any stale or adulterated foods.
What is the ratio between digital and physical sales?
We sell around 20% on digital platforms and 80% to walk-in customers.
What is the future of the food business in Chattogram?
The future of food is very bright here. Now women are busy with work and career, and get little time to cook, so eating out is becoming popular. Moreover, we sell authentic foods at a reasonable price. As the price is reasonable, there is no major difference in cost between eating at home or at a restaurant. Eating at a restaurant is hassle-free, saving time, and it has been getting popular over time.
How do you manage your time?
I wake up early in the morning and usually do not sleep more than three and half hours a day. I spend time with my family on Friday and Saturday evenings and when my kids have no school. I love to travel at home and abroad, and like to chat with my many young customers with fresh ideas.