Aasia Baig of Centenary Lounge: “Every eatery has its own style and offers its own unique experience”

Being a woman in a volatile hospitality industry, you’re going to face some additional challenges especially securing finance. In the beginning I often got asked whether my husband is the actual owner or investor and when I told them no it is me I was then given a long list of requirements and guarantees to […]

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Being a woman in a volatile hospitality industry, you’re going to face some additional challenges especially securing finance. In the beginning I often got asked whether my husband is the actual owner or investor and when I told them no it is me I was then given a long list of requirements and guarantees to obtain the finance. Once you build a track record, it does get easier though. Make sure you have a business plan from the outset, the banks feel confident that you have completed your research.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Aasia Baig, founder and managing director of Centenary Lounge, a beautiful collection of restaurants and cafés inspired by the glamour and style of the 1930s Art Deco railways.

Aasia, the eldest of six children was raised by very busy parents in 70s and 80s Britain. Her father juggled three careers; a civil servant and shopkeeper by day and a restaurant owner by night. Her mother helped to run the daytime shop whilst at the same time looking after their children. Aasia, unsurprisingly became their helping hand from a very young age. Her initial curiosity for cooking came about when she was just 10 years old. Aasia would watch her mother cook and was mesmerised how different ingredients came together to make such great flavours. By the age of 13, Aasia could cook a full family meal and absolutely loved it!

Aasia also learned how to be a great host from her mother as she was an exceptional hostess. Every guest at their home was well fed and looked after by her mother and again, Aasia, naturally followed her mother’s lead.

The journey to actually opening her first café and subsequent restaurant took a slightly different path. Instead, at the age of 21, Aasia opened her first retail store. She was married and now raising her own family. To keep things simple so she could spend quality time raising her children, Aasia would take on empty or run down businesses and turn them into profit and sell for a number of years. Her dream of opening her own restaurant was on hold until one day she visited a railway station looking for an empty unit where she could open her first café, a stepping stone into the restaurant scene. Aasia fell in love with the charming quaint station, which encouraged her to learn about the history of the railways and the famous refreshment rooms, giving her the idea of recreating a 1930s Art Deco railway refreshment room.

There are now three physical locations for the Centenary Lounge. Two of the locations have been shortlisted for national design awards, and the business itself has won a Small Business Award by entrepreneur Theo Paphitis. Aasia has also gone on to develop other avenues of growing the brand including an online shop for Centenary Lounge where you can buy Great Western Railway inspired hampers and afternoon teas, a food home delivery service and moving forward in 2021 Aasia will be embarking on her franchising journey!

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

For me, a love for food and hosting is something I grew up with. I loved how food brought people together. Every time my mum would host a dinner, event or even tea it was an occasion. We all had to make sure we were dressed smartly, the room was spotless, the table was laid with attention to detail — the right crockery, cutlery and condiments! The food was cooked to perfection and presented beautifully too! This exposure to creating great flavours and hosting happy guests provided me the desire to one day create such a place for people to come together and create beautiful priceless memories.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Even though I predominantly grew up with Pakistani food at home, eating out and trying other cuisines has provided me with a varied palate. First of all I cannot, like my father, eat very spicy food which are high in chillies! I love simple dishes cooked well and packed with flavour so I gravitate towards English, French and Mediterranean food mostly. My go to food is predominantly protein; eggs, chicken and fish are my ideal choices, which feature in our menus quite a lot. Plus I have a sweet tooth! This is where my love for afternoon teas has stemmed from so they also feature on our menus and are one of our best sellers.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Our crockery that we use in our restaurants are replicas of originals from the 1930s period. So when we first opened, we had a lovely gentleman (or so we thought!) all dressed up in a smart suit and tie come in for tea and cake. He then sat down and opened a newspaper to read, spreading it over the crockery on the table whilst sipping his tea and eating his cake. About an hour later he left, thanking us for a lovely afternoon. The waitress went over to clear the table and was surprised that there was only the cutlery left on the table, all the crockery had magically disappeared. Obviously very confused, she asked management to check but no one had cleared that table, so we decided to check the cameras. This ‘lovely’ gentleman had used the newspaper to hide the fact that he was elegantly putting the tea set away in a bag by his side one piece at a time and because he was so pleasant, we of course did not dare to expect such an act! We were initially shocked and then couldn’t help but laugh about it; it was like something out of a comedy strip! Needless to say this inspired and encouraged us to launch our very own range of GWR branded replica range of giftware called Recreations.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I opened our very first branch of Centenary Lounge in the summer of 2009 in Birmingham Moor Street Station, which was just when the recession had started. So while we had the financial challenge, we also had the challenge of getting the menu right for the fast pace traveller using the station. As the café is based just as you enter the gorgeous station I wanted it to become a destination in its own right, so in essence the menu needed to offer something for two types of customers. I wanted Centenary Lounge to be known for its fresh food prepared on the site with proper plated dishes and afternoon teas. With low customer spend per head due to recession it took us longer to identify and get the menu spot on. So a lot of experimenting and focusing on what our customers enjoyed helped us shape our menu for the station concept offering.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

The perfect dish needs to exceed the guests’ expectations. Every item on the plate should all work together creating the perfect bite every single time. Offer condiments that complement the dish. The idea is not to do too much and complicate flavours as it might not please most of your guests. Balance of flavours and the visual plating of the dish are also very important especially in today’s Instagram world.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Every eatery has its own style and offers its own unique experience. Many of these expectations are set by how the interiors look and feel, how the guest is greeted, and the style of operation. All of these things are very important to get right according to what you are offering, so the guest is excited for the food that they’ve ordered. The dish has to be harmonious to all the other elements just mentioned thus creating the perfect meal and experience.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

For me being a restauranteur, you never really switch off as what you do is a passion, it’s who you are. I’m inspired by many of the top chefs in the industry. What I love to see is how they use flavours and how we can use them to create the dishes for our menus. Creativity is everywhere you go, you just need to be in tune with it.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

We have just launched the online afternoon tea boxes which are now delivered nationwide, so our customers can experience Centenary Lounge at Home. During these turbulent times when customers cannot visit us we are finding ways of getting our flavours to them. I am also currently working on a franchise model for Centenary Lounge. The most important part of this model is to ensure that the food is always cooked fresh on site so we are developing systems to ensure that our franchisees are able to deliver the menu with ease.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

It’s easier said than done I know I’ve been there! First of all, I’d say make sure you have a good team who know your values and know how to operate the restaurant efficiently even when you’re not there. Put some systems in place. Secondly, have another hobby or two that are different to what you do for work. Exercise regularly, whether it’s going for a run or a yoga class, just something for the mind and body as well. Finally, definitely have a good support system around you, friends and family who know what you do and are supportive.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1 — Being a woman in a volatile hospitality industry, you’re going to face some additional challenges especially securing finance. In the beginning I often got asked whether my husband is the actual owner or investor and when I told them no it is me I was then given a long list of requirements and guarantees to obtain the finance. Once you build a track record, it does get easier though. Make sure you have a business plan from the outset, the banks feel confident that you have completed your research.

2 — Do not in any circumstances use a recruitment company for permanent positions. The costs are expensive and unviable, given the high staff turnover in this industry. Instead advertise for the positions on the industry platforms available or even social media, paying attention to the details you put on the vacancy so it attracts the right talent that you are in need of.

3 — No matter how much you try to learn about the industry before you actually enter it, you will still make lots of mistakes and fail also. The lesson is to quickly pick yourself up, learn from the mistake, adjust your sails and start moving forward again that much wiser.

4 — As an owner it is very important to learn each aspect of the business. From front of house duties to the kitchen you should know how every station works. This will stand you in good stead with the team and you will quickly recognise if something is not how it should be.

5 — Have a niche, stick to your concept and what works. Constant Innovation is the key to keep things current and interesting but innovate only within your brand and concept guidelines. Get to know your guests and why they like to visit your restaurant. There are so many options out there for your clients that knowing what they like and dislike will provide you with a clear direction and strategy on how to stay relevant to your ideal guest.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Goodness that depends whether they are visiting our café or restaurant and what service it is! There are so many nice ones to choose from. Ok, so from our restaurant I’d definitely recommend our home made fish pie or slow cooked pork belly and from our café the express afternoon teas are a real treat as well as the brunch dishes.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Thank you so much for this opportunity! As we are going through some very major disruptions and uncertainties in the world, the importance of supporting each other in the supply chain has never been greater. Support your small local producers and suppliers for your ingredients; adapt your menus to ingredients more readily available locally. This has many benefits; it helps the local communities in so many ways by creating jobs, fulfilment and entrepreneurship plus also resolves the sustainable and environmental issue by lowering the carbon footprint.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

Thanks again, it’s been a pleasure!

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