HerStory

Uzma Altaf: The entrepreneur who baked away all the hurdles

Think it is hard to be a woman and an entrepreneur in Pakistan? We present Uzma Altaf, the owner of Baker Street.  Baker Street is a home based bakery that has reached not only a lot of homes but some multinational organizations too. You may not know this but the desserts you have in your favorite restaurant maybe Uzma’s masterpiece too. HerCareer interviewed Uzma Altaf and we bring to you her inspirational journey.

When did you start Bakerstreet?

I started off in 2010 from Lahore. I was living there and had a good idea of the market. Lahore was very receptive to Baker Street. I got quite a few orders even though I was new in the market. BakerStreet was featured in Sunday Magazine, Ink, Express Tribune and in no time I had a contract with LUMS and I had hired OCS to deliver the goods all over Pakistan.

What about before BakerStreet ?

I had done my BBA and I was working with Unilever.

cakeWas leaving a job to start something completely new difficult?

Initially it was. We had no entrepreneurs in my family so everyone, including my parents, were a little doubtful. Also the business world is not easy and fair. To make your mark  in it is a challenge. But I was so into what I wanted to do that I decided to give it a shot even against all odds.

And then you moved to Karachi?

Yes in April 2011 I came to Karachi and tried to establish Baker Street here.

What do you mean establish? Your business was doing well already.

Yes but that was in Lahore. The consumers in Karachi are a lot different. They are very much aware and they wanted new flavors. Also an average person in Karachi is a lot more picky when it comes to food.

What was the most difficult step in establishing yourself?

Gaining trust was huge. If one home baker has ruined your birthday or party you will never ever go for another one. Trying to deliver  above expectations was my target.

There was a lot of competition already. How did Baker Street come up so quickly?

Absolutely. Home bakers were crawling out of the woodwork and I had to give the consumers something attractive. So I decided to give the consumers value for money. But because I used imported ingredients and didn’t want to compromise on quality, I had to reduce the helping staff I had in order to keep the prices low.

So you stuck to baking goods only?

Primarily yes. I also delved into catering services for a short span of time.  I got event and corporate contracts for catering, for example at birthday parties, at Unilever Head Office and Arizona Grill to name a few. I bagged most of these contracts again because of the intentional low prices. My plan was to penetrate the Karachi market at first and then charge justifiably.

Why was the catering aspect of your business short-lived? cupcake

In Pakistan more than anywhere else your network of contacts plays a big role. In the catering industry, there were much bigger players than me and when they want a certain contract under their belt; they go to any extent to snatch it from you. The cycle of the big fish hunting the small fish made me realize that it was better to stick to the baking side of business only and excel in that.

Then where did that lead you?

Oh there are always more opportunities ahead. I started a stall in IBA after my baked goods were a bestseller at a bake sale and I got regular event contracts. Along with that I was also doing my MBA so I had my plate full.

You were doing MBA and managing all the cooking?

Yes, it was very stressful and hard to manage but it got done. I remember when I started my MBA I was on scholarship and because I had exhausted all my money on BakerStreet, I had to look for external scholarship to pay for my education. Owing to my good grades and my entrepreneurial venture, it was easy to convince people that I deserved the scholarship.

 How did you maintain work life balance?

I didn’t actually. It was constantly a battle and a half. My family supported me by hiring a full time maid for me but even with that I had so many things to do. I was baking all night and then getting goods delivered, attending classes and working on projects all at the same time. So it was hectic.

With all that pressure, was pursuing with your passion worth it?

Definitely! If you really are passionate about something you shouldn’t give it up. Nothing in life comes easy you have to work for it and I did.

boxWhat is that one piece of advice you want to give women with passion like yours?

Follow through right to the end. Make goals, action plans, and feasibilities; put everything you know into practice and then get your way through. Know your strengths and put them to use.  Your instinct will not always be right but that doesn’t mean that you can’t fix things.

What about competition? Is it really frustrating to have so many competitors?

Competition is great. It ensures you are on top of your game. We think competitors are out there to bite you but they really are not. You can learn most from your competition. Nelofar Sayeed of Hobnob was competitor but she guided me when I reached out to her. Of course they will not serve everything on a platter to you but you have to be diligent enough to make them want to help you out with matters you are new to.

HerCareer.pk is all about helping women establish themselves. From your experience, how do you think we can be of more help to all the Pakistani women?

Mentors are the most important thing. Try to arrange seminars and get women linked to mentors so they stay motivated and have someone to go to with issues. Secondly, give them guidelines about different topics for example when I started I struggled with legalities. Also link them to organizations that provide funding.

That’s some good advice. We shall work on it. I am curious, how did you start baking?

Since I was a little kid I loved to bake. I was lucky to have an aunt who was an expert at baking. Quite often, I’d follow her in the kitchen and observe her. That’s what made me so passionate.

All those yummy recipes, are they all family recipes?

A few of them are. Others I have experimented with. The cookie dough cake for example was something new that I had in USA on a vacation and I experimented with the recipe till I got it right. Apart from that, trends all around the world and a few bakers are my inspiration.

 What’s the best seller on your menu?

The brownies definitely. I’ve always heard great things from my clients about the brownies.

Good luck for the future. Everyone wishes to see Baker Street prosper and come up with more of the yummy treats.