Following a red carpet I enter an oasis of exotic scents. The room exudes a modern and cultural atmosphere. At the back of the kitchen, young entrepreneur Mahan Eslami (26) is preparing the last catering for 200 people which is going to the asylum seekers’ centre this evening. Without any catering experience, Mahan runs her successful business 7 days a week. A daughter of a refugee family, she is a daily inspiration for young entrepreneurs. Although I have known Mahan for a while, I was curious to know all the ins and outs about how she experiences her business 3 years later. Today she talks about her life in Wageningen and experiences as a young entrepreneur with her company Food of Cultures.
FOOD OF CULTURES
It all started in 2015. If you put something on the market, it often starts with a problem. “What we missed in Wageningen is a place where you can eat delicious food for an affordable price. A kind of tapas idea. A place where you can sit but can also take some food home. "Mahan's father, Masood Eslami, is an entrepreneur of the Chip Shop across the street and had the property on the Churchillweg in mind. "On 24th of April 2015, we started with Food of Cultures. At the time I was not yet finished with my study, business management at the Hogeschool Utrecht so it was quite a hectic period. We started with the three of us. My father knows a lot about entrepreneurship and management, my mother is an amazing cook, and I could put my studies into practice.”
Food of Cultures makes fresh Persian food every day which is expanding into an international cuisine. They also pay lots of attention to vegan and vegetarian food. "Looking back 3 years later since we started, I am quite proud of where we are today. We do takeaway food but a large part also consists of catering.” She has a catering assignments for parties, the municipality, the chamber of commerce, and Rabobank to name a few. What I like to hear is that they also cater once a month for the cardiologists at the Gelderse Vallei Hospital. Food of Cultures is also at the Forum 4 days a week. "We were even invited once to cater for an event in The Hague. It is sometimes crazy to see how people manage to find Food of Cultures.”
Mahan finds it important to give back to society. She has about 15 part-time students working for Food or Cultures. "Through internships and a reintegration project, we offer people who are at a distance from the labour market a chance to work at Food of Cultures". Since two years ago, they have also been catering 7 days a week for the residents at the Assylum Seekers’ centre Leemkuil.
TIPS FOR OTHER YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS
Entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly popular. Establishing something is one thing, but to make it grow into a successful business is another story. Mahan also runs into challenges as an entrepreneur of a catering business. That's why I asked Mahan if she has tips for other young entrepreneurs.
"I have always been someone who loves practice and applied work. I invested a lot of time in internships which ultimately characterized me. In the meantime, I have most management tasks in my own hands now, but in the beginning it was handy that my father supported me in this."
"What I found particularly difficult in the beginning and still is to make choices. Will we focus on catering or takeaway?” She says that it is important to have a vision to achieve success. "Because if something does not work, you have to come up with something else. I find that difficult, you have to be prepared for everything which requires a lot of energy.” Finding the balance between your company and your private life is therefore very important.
Mahan also notes that she has to take time for herself, but the question that is not clear to her until today is "How much do you give in to your staff? As a manager, it is important to be present on the work floor and to manage staff well. It’s nice, but a challenge as well. Since not everyone is the same, every employee needs a different style of management. Should I manage or should I only have a facilitative role? Can I already start to delegate or do I continue in a more coaching role?”
As a result, Mahan has adopted a proactive attitude as a manager. She also says that making minutes is necessary during staff meetings so that you can hold each other accountable on responsibilities. Mahan also thinks it is important that her staff not only communicate with her as a manager, but also the staff among themselves. For support, she has created whatsapp groups for this.
Mahan’s last advice is that you have to be versatile. “When you start up a catering business you are both behind the computer, have physical work and need to be in the shop. You have to be able to switch quickly and be good at multitasking.” Mahan also needs to hire new staff and follow through with that process. “An advantage of this job is flexibility. The disadvantage is that you always have to be on standby.”
It is clear to me that there is a lot involved. I think it is amazing to see that Mahan despite the thresholds she sometimes has to overcome, she learns a lot, and she does her job with pleasure. "I am so proud of my team and enthusiastic people. My staff are my family. This also gives me motivation because I also have days where I’m completely exhausted.”
FROM IRAN TO WAGENINGEN
Wageningen has become an international city over the years. Many internationals stay in Wageningen after their studies. Yet Mahan and Food of Cultures did not end up in Wageningen because of her studies. Mahan is originally from Iran, but she has lived in Wageningen since 1994. “I was 2 years old when we fled from Iran. We lived in different Assylum Seekers Centers (ASC) in the beginning. Due to my parents' courage, we ended up in Wageningen. At that time they were allowed to express their preference where they wanted to go. My parents wrote down the following: 1. Wageningen 2. Wageningen 3. Wageningen.”
Mahan feels very much at home in Wageningen. "The international character appeals to me very much. Especially for such a small number of inhabitants. People are more tolerant and I have never been discriminated against. This can be different in other cities.” Mahan experiences Wageningen as a city where people support each other if you want to organize something. “You can get a lot of things off the ground or organize activities when you talk to people. There are many volunteers and active people. You only see that in Wageningen.”
Most people who have lived in Wageningen for a while know what the charms are of the city. This is exactly why I ask Mahan what can be improved in Wageningen. “I think the most important thing is connection. Both as public transport as well as the bonds between the city and university. It is unbelievable that we have so many students and such a poor connection to Wageningen. There used to be a train station! This is also important for other groups, including the elderly.” Mahan also thinks that the housing market really needs to be tackled. Both for students and starters.
If you are not very familiar in Wageningen, Mahan recommends walking around the campus or the Belmondo park. You also need to experience the May 5 festival to have the complete "Wageningen experience."
Finally, I ask everyone whom I speak with in this series, “If your life in Wageningen was a book, what would the title be?” Mahan thinks for a moment and then says, “The silent warrior.”
Our time is up, because Mahan has a busy evening ahead. I take home some loebia polo rice and khorake morgh. As I walk back I am in an inspired mood. It is nice to see how a young lady about my age manages to run this business. She is critical of her success, which keeps her alert, but I can tell you that Food of Cultures is a valuable contribution to Wageningen.
I know what I'm going to eat tonight. You too?
My name is Rani Temmink (25) and I am a city council member of Connect Wageningen. I find it important that I find myself in the city as much as possible so that I get to experience Wageningen outside of the WUR campus. During this journey of discovery I meet people with unique stories that I like to share with you. How do you explore Wageningen? Let me know!