Here is the story behind Sharjah’s sweet retreat, Paper Fig. Read on to know more about the café and to get business inspiration from its bright owner, Nawal Al Nuaimi.
Sail: When did your passion for eating pastries start?
Nawal: It started when I was just a child. Every day, my mother would make us a different type of pastry or bread. Also, throughout my student life, it had always been my coffee and my pastries; I can’t live without them.
Sail: Tell us about your beginnings, how did you start your journey with cooking? And was it something you always wanted to do?
Nawal: I have always loved to eat but I only started cooking during my first pregnancy. My mother used to bake for me when I was younger, but after my marriage, I had to do it myself. I was encouraged to do it and I had my own kitchen to experiment and learn.
Sail: When did you start the home business “Mini Treats”?
I started it with my second pregnancy. I launched it through social media requests. I enjoyed the baking process and realized along the way that there was a significant demand for it, and so I continued from there.
Sail: What made you consider expanding the home business into a cafe?
Nawal: There was a high demand on Mini Treats from different Emirates and I had two drivers to deliver all these orders. But there was a limitation to that, when I had a wedding to cater to, I would have to stop all other orders. So I thought why do that when I could expand my business?
Sail: What made you decide to shift from having a home business, Mini Treats, to opening Paper Fig, your own café?
Nawal: My husband encouraged me to open the café and to seek funding from the Khalifa Fund. I took the chance and presented my idea. At first, we just wanted to open a centralized kitchen for Mini Treats. But then we wanted to rebrand Mini Treats because we felt that it limited our offerings, and we wanted something new. That’s how Paper Fig came to be, it was only a dessert café in the beginning but now it is both a café and a restaurant.
Sail: How did the shift from having a home business to owning a café change regarding your business processes?
Nawal: The transition from a home business to owning a café was difficult in terms of knowledge. I studied IT but I’m also a certified project manager, and I used to work in management, which helped. I also took a course on hospitality at the Dubai Entrepreneurship Academy for two months, which was helpful since I had to do everything myself, as I did not have enough funding to hire a consultant at the time. Changing the name was also difficult, but we did a campaign on social media to let people know about the transition of Mini Treats into Paper Fig.
Sail: Why the name Paper Fig?
Nawal: Paper Fig is a type of shell, I was on holiday once with my family when we found this shell and took it with us as a reminder of the good time we spent. I wanted this place (Paper Fig) to be a sweet retreat for people. All these elements have been incorporated in Paper Fig. We created a persona for Paper Fig; she’s a lady who is educated, loves to bake, loves seeing people smile after eating her food, she’s an artist and loves painting, she loves wood and nature, etc.
Sail: You quit your job to focus on the cafe; it’s a brave move. What pushed you to do it? And was your family supportive of it?
Nawal: I had two jobs (my corporate job & being a mother), and I quit my corporate job because I needed to focus on the business since the demand was high. It took me time to make my decision, but my family was completely supportive.
Sail: What keeps you going and where do you find your motivation?
Nawal: My motivation is seeing my customers’ smiles after they eat our food. My kids also motivate me when they tell me “Mom, I’m proud of you.” Repeating customers also motivate me. We have some clients who come to our café 3 times a day. The area we’re operating in have changed since we’ve opened; rents got higher, more shops started opening, other shops started changing their signboards, and shops that never cleaned their windows started to do so.
Sail: You have a very hands-on approach to your work. What does that mean in terms of managing your staff and creating new recipes?
Nawal: We update the menu often; we check what is in season in terms of fruits and so on. The menu is based on what we love to eat as a team. When coming up with new recipes, I actually draw them first so that I can have an idea of how they will look like. Also, we do a lot of food pairing, which is looking at what flavors would compliment each other.
Sail: Having a hands-on approach must take a lot of time and effort. How do you balance that with your personal life?
Nawal: Having your own business means that your mind is working 24/7. However, what I do is that I come to the café at around 8:30 am or 9 am and work here, then at around 2 pm I leave as my kids finish their schools. I don’t come back to the café for the rest of the day; instead, I work from home.
Sail: What are the main lessons that you learned from this journey?
Nawal: Follow your passion; it will lead you to success. It’s not about the money or the number of orders that you get; it’s about the happy customers.
Sail: If you had the chance to start all over again, what would you do differently?
Nawal: I don’t know. It grew naturally, there was no plan. We started as a dessert shop then we grew into a restaurant. In the beginning, we had 7 staff members, now we have over 40. We only had 16 desserts, and now we have over 60, the capacity of the restaurant was only 35 and now it’s 90.
Sail: What lesson would you like to pass on to the Emirati youth?
Nawal: It is time for them to give to the country; instead of just studying and getting a job I encourage them to start something they are passionate about, especially Emirati women. When I first opened that café I worked as a cashier, served, washed plates with my husband etc. I want them to know that working is not “3ayb” (shameful) and as challenging as risk-taking is, it will bring benefits. Entrepreneurship is not something to learn but something to try out and experience.
Mariam Khalifa (@thesleepwriter)
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