The co-founder of Cheez recalls his journey into the food industry. This story is part of a series on young restauranteurs, in collaboration with Food Talk
Growing in a family full of doctors and PHD holders, there was an unspoken expectation that I was to follow the steps of my parents, grandparents and siblings. However, I was not too academically inclined. I was always into everything but academics, which is not something I promote or take pride in. I graduated from Scholastica, Uttara representing the batch of 2016, just 4 years ago. My name is Sheikh Iqram Mahbub and I’m a 22 year old struggling to finish my undergrad at NSU. But I’m living my life pursuing my passions and my focus which is my career in the Food Industry.
My journey started, way back in grade 6. I was always looking forward to learning and seeing what could be done differently. I started off with gaming events! It was FIFA that was hyped back then and thus my closest friends Adnan Khan, Anisul Islam and myself hosted Fifa tournaments on a regular basis, at the venue famously back then known as The Bench. I remember facing several difficulties and problems around that time especially due to our age. One by one, we started doing other events which included FUTSAL and 7 A side football tournaments and named our company Enlighten Events. From there I started my clothing line which was named Enlighten clothing with Adnan. That did well too, as we sold more than 2,000 pieces in a month back then! The revenue being generated sparked my whole passion for entrepreneurship, given I was being able to vision something and was being able to make it happen. Back then I had to manage my finances on my own since my parents obviously wanted me to focus on my studies! I lied a couple of times on numerous occasions about different things to get my work up and running. I’m not proud of it, but did it only for the love of my passion. I have to mention here that none of the investments came from other sources, not even my parents at that time. I remember saving up my lunch money and doing side hustles like selling memes to fund my projects.
When I got to Grade 9, at age, 14 I co-founded a company named Scratchboard Marketing. Back then Digital Marketing was completely new and in fact we didn’t even have the right idea of how things worked. But I always believe that if you’re true to your work things will fall in the right places. We signed clients like Hakka Dhaka, Glazed , Glasshouse , Luams and more. Adnan, Mehrab Bhaiya and I worked day and night to get the clients. I looked after the Business Development and Client Relations, the Marketing department was headed by Adnan and Mehrab Anwar oversaw the legal aspect. We were learning on an everyday basis, how the market operates and what people really want. We started creating some viral content, making sure we were retaining our clients for more than 2 quarters. Then I received a call from Arman Mohammad ( the co-founder of Madchef and a lot of other ventures ) for a meeting with Madchef and in the very first meeting signed them. In that very meeting Labib Tarafder (co-founder of Madchef, Yum Cha and Laughing Buddha) was also present. It was the most important meeting for us back then!
I was taking inspiration on a daily basis and always dreamed of having my own restaurant but it was difficult in terms of age, financials and the risk of failure. I’m a person who really likes to go forward with something if my gut tells me to do so. My first ever venture was with Arman Mohammad, called the Stubborn Goat located at Dhanmondi 27, Midas Centre. I put in all the money that I worked hard for in all the previous years, and this is the time from where my family started supporting me fully. I had to earn this support by sweating and working every single day. The very early days I remember closing the cash/ accounts in the restaurant at around 1am and returning home on a Pathao.
Then came the real opportunity. Madchef was leaving their outlet and moving to Banani 11 for their new outlet from Banani Road 17/a. My personal dream was to have a pizza chain. I saw an opportunity of doing something there at that very moment. The whole Madteam along with Labib Tarafder and Arman Mohammad, everyone was on board and CHEEZ! Happened. Cheez! Was the biggest success of my personal food career, and I am lucky enough to have team members like: Farhan Noor, Adnan Khan , Shohorob Hossain and Amit Hassan. We all have different departments to lead. I lead the operations and HR specifically. It has always been a challenge for me but I love the thrill of it. Right now we have 6 branches around the city and we plan to have it more expanded over the time! Over time, Cheez has become a Fan favorite. We have a family of over 200+ people at the group working for the ventures, and I’m blessed to be a part of the family.
As things were rolling I decided to create a brand with the Enlighten Group called Habibys’! It’s a Middle Eastern fusion place located at Tejgaon, and Bashundhara. The brand has completed its first year and has great response till of yet. The brand is also owned by Iftekhar Rafsan also known as Rafsan The ChotoBhai, my batchmate. We’ve created a few more other brands : Zushi , Bangkok Express and Courtyard Bazaar, all these projects are also headed product wise by Ahmed Jawad Rahman ( The Backyard Chef founder ) who has also been an inspiration for me over the years.
Covid 19 has been the biggest challenge, but we’re striving and I’m personally dealing with each and every staff of the business to keep them motivated. However, I do believe that once this time passes, we’ll all be in a much better position in terms of the industry itself. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel!
I’m lucky to be a part of all this. But I want to say that I was only lucky because I tried and I worked hard, and I trusted and believed in my team members on an everyday basis. I’ve failed miserably a lot of times in my life. On an everyday basis I fail, but I try my level best to learn and go at it again till I get it right! I’m grateful for the people around me, my family and every single person that has supported me in my journey! The vision and target is to make everything better and everlasting! The dream is to be International!
If I had one message to all the young ones out there : still hustling and trying to do something? Keep at it, keep at it, keep at it! Never give up. Never! It’s not a race. The moment you make it a race, you lose! Therefore, work hard with patience, that is, until you get lucky.