Refugee to rising restaurant star

In June, Sohail Ahmad will open his first restaurant Eggoland in Fitzrovia London. He talks to Catering Today about his journey to success and the importance of staying grounded

“I arrived in England on the back of a lorry,” says Sohail Ahmad as he reflects on his journey to the UK. His delivery may come across as blunt, but this is the best way the upcoming restaurateur and boxer can describe an experience that many adults would be unable to fathom – let alone endure. 

In 2000, at only 12 years old he took a ferry from his native Afghanistan to France. The trip, which was funded by his Uncle, was fueled by Ahmad’s desire to make sure his family was “good”. 

“As soon as I got that chance to go I grabbed it with both arms” he says. As the eldest son of a traditional Afghani household, he felt a responsibility to provide for his parents and five younger siblings who were struggling to meet basic needs as the conflict in his country drove the family into poverty. 

From France, Ahmad took a lorry ride to the UK eventually arriving in Ashford, Kent. Here he was taken to Swattenden centre, a venue run by Kent social services for minors who have no parents.

Climbing the ranks

Ahmad got his start in hospitality early, the tween, keeping to his promise of earning money for his family, lied about his age to get a weekend job cleaning dishes at a restaurant. “I told them that I was 16 but I was just really small for my age,” he laughs. While he may see the funny side to this white lie now, there is no denying that this was a hectic time for the entrepreneur as he was also balancing school, eventually going on to sit his A-Levels and attend university.  

Anyone who has worked as a restaurant dishwasher will know that the job is not for the faint hearted – the long hours and fast-paced work environment are factors that often drive people away from the sector permanently. However, despite experiencing first hand how tough the industry can be, this did not deter him from pursuing his dreams of one day owning his own business. “I have always loved the restaurant business and have a passion for food,” he shares. 

In June 2021, Ahmad will open his first restaurant Eggoland in Fitzrovia London, the venue which will exclusively sell egg-based dishes was born out of his frustration of never being able to order his eggs “just the way he likes them”.

He says the idea first sprung to mind in late 2018, but Ahmad did not start putting the plan in motion until fellow business owner and friend David Giampaolo, chief executive of Pi Capital – a London based investor club – told him that he thought the concept would work. 

With no business partner, Ahmad began working with project management group LXA in 2020, he confesses that he brought a “humble but reasonable budget” to the table – however it appeared to be enough to secure a site at West London’s Tottenham street. 

The budding business owner wants his store to be inclusive to all demographics, and is keen to keep his price point at an affordable level. Currently, the most expensive dish – eggs served with duck legs – will sell for £12. But customers can expect to purchase sandwiches and other goods for £4. 

Boxer and businessman

Before making his return to the restaurant sector, the 33-year old enjoyed a career as a personal trainer and boxer. His love for combat sports came at an early age, training in Taekwondo after school and then later taking up boxing in 2008. 

In 2015, Ahmad took this passion to the next step and turned professional. Going on to fight and win against Idris Hill in 2017 – but are there any skills he learned in the ring that he can bring into this new venture? 

Ahmad says that similar to boxing, in order to succeed in the business world you need “sheer grit and determination”. In addition, he believes that the sport builds “resilience,” a quality that all those eager to thrive in the hospitality space will know is essential to survive. 

When quizzed about Covid-19, Ahmad admits that opening a restaurant in a year that rattled the sector “is a big risk”. Although, he says he is confident once people try the products at Eggoland he will be able to build a “strong customer base”. 

Staying grounded

A practicing Muslim, Ahmad thanks God and the people he has “blessed him with,” for the ability to get where he is today. Even though he came to the UK without his parents, he managed to build a strong support group of people that encouraged him and helped him “pursue his dreams”. 

While building a successful brand may be important to Ahmad, he shares that he also wants to give back to communities in London and Afghanistan. Recently, he launched the ‘Sohail Ahmed Foundation’ which provides families in need with support by giving out food rations and other necessities. “I was told before I left Afghanistan as a kid, that I should never forget my roots or forget who I was  – always remember where you’ve come from, to keep you grounded,” he says.  

Despite his success, it is clear that Ahmad has been able to remain humble. A few years ago he was able to fund his parents trip to Germany where they now reside. He remains modest and laughs when asked if his parents are proud of his achievements and upcoming restaurant launch – “I’m sure they are,” he says.  

Looking to the future

So what are Ahmad’s hopes for Eggoland? Currently, he is looking to employ 10-12 staff members upon opening and is looking to Kaspar Basse – the founder of coffee and smoothie chain Joe and The Juice – as his business inspiration. 

Despite their different backgrounds – Basse is the son of Jørgen Basse the former director of department store Magasin – he says he is moved by his ability to grow the brand, which started in Denmark into a chain with 300 locations across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. 

“It doesn’t matter what your background is or where you come from,” he says. “If you’ve got a great idea, a great concept, and a good team around you, you can make it happen”.

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