The restauranteur gets candid about resilience in business
Stepping into Horse and Horse as the late afternoon sunlight filters in through the ‘foliage’ hanging off the ceiling, one is transported into Wonderland that had Marie Antoinette and Tim Burton collaborating on aesthetics, where fluffy plush cats slumber on oversized books, and gilded cages are transformed into surprisingly comfy seating, all under a heavy canopy of artificial blooms. The menu, too, is eclectic, with beautifully plated phuchka, to deluxe burgers, to some of the fluffiest, richest cakes you could ask for. Whimsical, maximalist, and ultimately, tasteful, it is true to the personal brand of its owner, the inimitable Mehreen “Menx” Mansur.
The first time she graced the Mother’s Day cover of Avenue T in 2014, immaculate in frosty pink and two adorable babies reclining against her, the image she projected was of cool, remote sophistication. It was hard to look past that regal poise, the glitz and the privilege. She arrives for this interview, five years later, dressed down in simple sweats, minimal makeup, and that glorious mane tossed artlessly over one shoulder, apologizing profusely for the tiny delay in reaching because she was held up by a Watchers event. It is hard to reconcile this animated young woman with the ice queen of the photographs. “People are always saying that they’re surprised by my niceness” she admits with a laugh. And thwarting expectations is exactly what she is about. The same woman who will drive you to distraction as she fusses over the perfect angle to be photographed, will be the first person to run to a disaster site to lend a hand, and is a fierce advocate for women’s rights and environmental preservation. This month, as she graces our cover once more, Mehreen Mansur shares the highlights of her incredible journey so far.
If you don’t fall
Mansur’s first brush with entrepreneurship came early. Raised lavishly in the US, by age 20, she already had a wildly popular blog – this before the whole blogging thing had properly taken off - a fashion line (Reen Runway), a jewellery line (Bijoux), and a client list that included a number of Hollywood celebrities. The high wasn’t to last, however; the blow came in the form of her parents’ divorce, and her subsequent move to Bangladesh put an end to all those ventures. “I just hid in my room, because of the emails that came pouring in for client orders that I could no longer fulfill” she confesses, going on to expand on the feelings of hurt and displacement that took a considerable time to get over. “To build something by myself and have that taken away really broke my self-esteem.”
Marriage and motherhood followed, and that was a transition too. While she remained the style icon with what seemed to outsiders as the jackpot of a life of luxury, Mansur herself felt rudderless. Not having a project to work on affected her sense of self-worth.
For many women, being told that their place is the kitchen is an oppressive way of limiting their potential. For Mehreen Mansur, it was the ultimate act of subversion to turn her kitchen into the arena for her reinvention. She lights up as she recalls how she spent her monthly household allowance to invest in equipment and staff to start a sushi delivery service. Despite the grumblings of skeptics, the gamble paid off, and Sushi Samurai was born. Drawing from her childhood experience of fine dining, and going by pure taste, instinct, and a natural flair for business, she was quickly able to grow the venture into a full-fledged restaurant in Banani, and expand her portfolio to include American-Chinese cuisine (Shanghai 10).
The success gave her the boost she needed, and she went on to start the runaway hit Horse and Horse, which just completed its first year, and is going from strength to strength. At each of her outlets, Mansur puts her personal stamp; from the fairytale dark rococo aesthetics that just scream “Menx”, to expansive menus with multi-cultural influences and price ranges to suit different budgets, each place becomes somewhere people go to explore the hype and take selfies, and where they end up staying and making repeat visits for the service and the food. “I don’t just want to restrict myself to elite clientele” she announces. “I want to provide good quality food at affordable prices, so everyone can come and enjoy. I want to change the restaurant culture that is practiced in Bangladesh right now.” Does she plan to offer local cuisine at any point? "I'm torn," she confesses. "I am considering offering something for the mass market, instead of the niche I operate in, but I also want to do something with age-old Old Dhaka recipes. Nothing's off the books."
As vocal as she has been about promoting her restaurant businesses, Mansur is a lot more reserved about talking about her philanthropic ventures. As a co-founder of Watchers Foundation, an organization that provides underprivileged children with free food, education, and healthcare, she is helping make life a little sunnier for some 300 children that are registered under the program. When news of the Rohingya exodus into Bangladesh broke, Mansur booked a trip to Cox’s Bazaar to distribute emergency relief packages to the refugees. When the fire in Chowk Bazaar made headlines, she went straight to the site with a team to assess the situation and see how she could help. Horse and Horse recently partnered up with the Watchers’ Recycle programme.
“I was a little reluctant to talk about the social work, because there are so many detractors who see that I come from wealth and privilege and dismiss the efforts as a publicity stunt, but now I think it’s important to speak up, if only to lead by example, to show the elites in our society that there is more to life than sitting in our comfortable Gulshan-Baridhara bubbles. If more of us can band together and use some of our privilege and influence to improve the lives of the less fortunate, that’s when great things can happen.”
As our conversation draws to a close, the seats around us began to fill up as regulars and newcomers start to swarm in for the Horse and Horse experience. With a smile and nod to the servers, Mansur leans back to survey her little kingdom, her smile showing the calm confidence of a job well done. Our goodbyes are warm, and it is evident that her mind is already on her next venture. And given what she has achieved in the past five years, it will be worth the wait.