A self-made man’s success story

By Kiomars Barakzai
August 15, 2019

Interview with Haroen Peigham, a successful self made entrepreneur

Afghanistan Now’s Kiomars Barakzai interviews Haroen Peigham, the owner of Helai Restaurant in Rotterdam.

Tell us a bit about you and why you chose to become an entrepreneur?

I was interested in business from a young age. When I was 9 years old, I sold fizzy drinks with a lot of enthusiasm. So I have had the pleasure of learning and earning my own money from a very young age. It also ran in my family -  both my grandfather and father have been business oriented.

The key moment was coming to the Netherlands as refugees. My parents wanted us to have better and safer future than what Afghanistan had to offer at that time. They consciously chose to live in a smaller city, because they strongly believed that being in a city would slow down the process of integration (such as the language and culture), due to many immigrants situated in bigger cities.

But tragically, only one year after we came, my dad passed away in a traffic accident. We had to deal with the high costs of a funeral, and no family or friends to support us in this difficult situation. It was just me, my mother, sisters and little brother. None of us worked because of language barriers. It was a period of misery. At this moment, I realised that I had to step up to help my family financially. I was 17 years old, old enough to start working. I got several jobs after school, such as delivery person, distributing newspapers, and working in the supermarket.                                  

But our misery was not over yet. A year after my father’s death, my sister Helai passed away in a tragic accident. My mother was such a rock. Despite all the hardships she faced in Afghanistan and then losing both her husband and daughter in a short period of time, she gathered courage and supported us in every way possible, even taking cleaning jobs to support us.  

I really wanted to help my family get out of this situation as soon as possible, so I began to work hard. The situation required it. I wasn’t even fluent in conversational Dutch yet. So I began as a dishwasher in a hotel but also helped on the restaurant floor and with customer services when asked. Because I disliked washing dishes, I worked hard to deliver great customer service whenever I had the opportunity, and I was actually very good at it. The manager realised my ability with costumers in the restaurant and asked me to move over.  At the end of the year, to my surprise, I was awarded the employee of the year medal.

The medal motivated me further and prompted me to think about starting my own business in the hospitality industry. One day, I asked the owner of theHotel, who was a successful businessman, what I could I do to achieve what he had achieved? He smiled and replied, ‘Well, you have to make sure you get as much practical experience as possible in various segments of this business and get a degree. And no matter how you start, make sure you start from scratch and start small, and slowly build it into something bigger.’

I wrote down his words as a set of instructions and literally followed them.I did an undergraduate degree in hospitality, gained experience in all the hotel departments, worked in various restaurants, worked in America and in the Dutch islands, basically everything in the hospitality industry.

In the final year of my university degree, I received a prize awarded by the Queen’s Commissioner.  To my blessing, the owner of a hotel that I wanted to work for was also there that day. He came and said: “well done! I want to offer you a job right away. We need a manager for a new project, and I believe you are the right person for it”. It was a position in the biggest hotel in Rotterdam.

After a couple years there, I was ready to start my own business but made a conscious choice to start small with a sandwich shop. When I was 33years old, my accountant told me about a new building.  When I went to have a look at it I fell in love with the place and saw an amazing opportunity. However, just like me there were 40 others entrepreneurs who were also interested in the place. We had to compete and present to the municipality about our plan and the right one would be given the place. After 4 months of planning and presentations, I succeeded.

Once I got the place, it was time to finally prove myself. At the start, everyone thoughtI was crazy -  the area was quite remote.This made it a big risk, as I was going to invest a lot of money in it. Plus, Afghan cuisine is not known by the majority. Some colleagues from the hospitality industry also saw this as a risky project. Despite everything, I had faith init and so I went for it; and to everyone's disbelief, Helai was a success from day one.

Why Helai? How did you come up with that name?

I named it in honour of my last sister. Helai means swan in Pashto. I chose this name after seeing three swans in that river [pointing at the river in front of the restaurant]. It was not an easy decision at first as I didn't know what my mother would think about it. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or jog her memory of the sad incident where we lost my sister. I was about to consider other options, but my wife said, "why don’t you just ask your mother first". My mother immediately said she loved it.


Are you the sole owner of Helai?


This is quite a lavish restaurant considering the financial hardships you have been through. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you manage to gather the funds for it?

There is one thing I learned. Going through a terrible experience is something you will always remember but your personality determines how you deal with it. For example, you can either deal with it by drinking yourself to death or by gathering your courage and taking responsibility for your happiness. Obviously, I chose the latter. I had no fear left. People are often stopped by fear. This may be due to their past or future expectations [fear of failure].

When one has numerous moments in life when things do not go as hoped, you learn to deal with it. Today, I truly believe that no matter what hardship comes my way, I will deal with it.

WhenI wanted to start with this place, I had saved some money but not enough to start a business. Although it was just after the financial crisis, I presented a great proposal to the bank and the municipality, and as a result received more funds than the official allowance. It was not just luck or my presentation that day that impressed them. They looked into my background, school situation, the financial difficulties we faced and how I actually built it up and worked hard to get to this place. I showed them that I have made all choices very consciously. I also collected letters from directors I had worked with, and it all helped enormously.

How important is marketing?

It is very important. When I first started with this place, Halal food [at a higher level] was not yet available. The moment my wife and I went out to eat and were looking for a restaurant that served Halal food and could not find one,I realised a gap in the market. So I thought to myself, why not offer a high-level Halal food in my restaurant!

Today we serve Afghan traditional food at a high level and quality but at a moderate price because many Afghans who recently settled in this city still do not have the financial means to spend something like 200 euros per person. At the same time, my goal was to make Afghan cuisine and culture more popular in the Netherlands as our culture is often associated with all the misery people see on TV. I also wanted to distinguish myself by developing a chic tent. Our focus has not only been Afghan customers but everyone. If you want to drink a glass of wine, for instance, that should be possible. In terms of the restaurant design, we tried to create the middle eastern feeling, so when people come in, they immediately feel as if they are in the far east.

Fortunately, we have a mayor who encourages these kinds of initiatives, and I told him that I want to bring different cultures together. I want to bean Afghan restaurant in Rotterdam for all Rotterdammers and beyond. They too agreed that we have a beautiful multicultural society in Rotterdam. We were also invited for a dinner at the municipality of Rotterdam. This is often for residents who have made a special, new contribution to society. I have lived in several countries around the world but the Netherlands has a special place with me. What I like about Dutch people is that they are open-minded people. Also, from the first moment, I always had the feeling that people have endless opportunities here.

When I look back at my circumstances - no father, no Dutchman, no money and so much misery, and yet I am now just in a place I dreamed about. I have not even lived here for 18 years. Although I am convinced that I have the right skills and am driven, I cannot say with certainty that I would have come this far without their support.

What marketing tactics have used to fuel Helai’s growth?

Marketing is one of the things we've focused on from the start. We started thinking about our overall aim. How can we offer immigrants like ourselves something that is needed, but at the same time offer the Dutch something they like? An important aspect is the price. How do we find a balance? We don’t want to offer something too cheap, because we want to offer quality. At the same time, the price should not be so high that people cannot afford it.

The next step step is looking at the best way to approach potential customers. At the moment, social media is ideal. If there was no Facebook, Helai might not have been so successful. Because it was unknown and in a place that is very remote. What worked is that from the moment we had the building, we shared every step with our followers. Most could not wait for us to open and kept asking, when will you open? This has ensured that Restaurant Helai immediately had many customers. We also take beautiful pictures of the food. We saw that no one else invests in [high quality] pictures of [Afghan] cuisines.

How do you look at the food industry?

One of the best memories with family and Afghanistan is dining together.For me, eating is not just the energy of walking, but also energy in life. Even when I see when people come here, they are always happy and dressed up. That's why I love hotels and restaurants, because people are always intheir happy and best moods.

Your food menu is quite different from other Afghan restaurants I have been to.

Yes, the idea originated from Afghan homes, where you are offered more than one dish.  It also is inspired by my fondness of French cuisine – with its small plates nicely served. So, we decided to offer small plates but we still continue our Afghan hospitality, which means we are never short of food. The plates are small but the customers can refill it free-of-charge. I compiled the menu with my mother, to make sure we have the authentic taste.

What is success according to you?

Success is being able to do something you love. People often associate success with money, but that is not how I see it. When you love something and are good at it, money will follow. At the same time, I see people around me that do not necessarily have a lot of money, but are passionate about what they do. So success is doing what makes you happy.

 Any advice?

Follow your dreams. Focus all your energy into it, as you are capable of achieving anything, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

For more information on Helai Restaurant visit: http://www.helai.nl/