On a gloomy Saturday afternoon, the modest Joe and ‘Za pizzeria blends seamlessly into the Hoxton neighbourhood. If you weren’t paying attention, you could walk past the four-seater restaurant without realising they were last year’s Best Takeaway in North London at the British Takeaway Awards. They’re yet to put up a poster.
Once inside, you’ll see the owner Iftekar Hossain hunched over the telephone, making notes. A lone chef is scurrying all over the kitchen, tossing pizzas in the air, while a delivery man impatiently waits for his order. Their winner’s trophy is tucked away in a corner. It’s a typically busy day.
Iftekar steals a quick break and sits down with EastLondonLines, talking about his struggles, his career and his love for curries.
How did you end up running the Best Takeaway in North London?
I was born in Dubai and raised in Bangladesh. I moved to London in 2008, and graduated with a degree in marketing, but the job market was really tough, especially for immigrants. I attended my fair share of interviews, and eventually landed a mediocre job at Tesco.
A friend of mine who is in the culinary industry suggested that I join the food business rather than unsuccessfully looking for better jobs. So I did, and opened my first sushi restaurant in 2013. It was one of the finalists at the British Takeaway Awards 2015, but differences with our landlord meant we had to terminate our lease. That’s how I ended up with Joe and ‘Za three years ago. The name refers to ‘coffee and pizza’. It was initially a small café, but we expanded into online ordering and deliveries. I always believed that this shop had more potential than the last one, because of the uniqueness and versatility of our pizzas.
How important are your customers to you?
The food industry is extremely competitive, and to win an award would be impossible without dedicated customers who vote for you. Who has the time to vote for a takeaway? But our customers did. Even before we announced our achievement, many of them came down to congratulate us and brought along flowers. It was a very heartfelt gesture, because it’s not every day that you see people taking time out of their busy lives in London. We’re here because our customers want us to be here. I’ve lived in Hackney ever since I moved to London, and I’ve always had a special bond with the community here.
Any particularly fond memories or challenges for your pizzeria?
One of our delivery drivers happened to take out a delivery to an elderly couple way past midnight. When he got to their place, he realised that the woman was very sick. She politely refused his help, but he realised it could be serious. He called for an ambulance and made sure that she was taken to a hospital. She thanked him after her recovery. This goes a long way to show that it is not merely business for us. In fact, we were also nominated for the Best Delivery Driver this year. I couldn’t be more proud of my staff.
Tell us a bit about the man scurrying behind your counter in spotless white.
Ionut is my main chef. He has singlehandedly kept us thriving for the past three years. He’s my right hand man. He had a lot of experience before he joined me, and comes up with most of the recipes we offer. I want my people to get as much recognition for their efforts, as I am. I’ve only recently hired a new chef, especially now that our sales have gone up, but he has always refused help. I feel bad seeing him run around like a headless chicken, but I can trust him blindly. This is another challenge in the catering business – if you don’t have the right people working for you, you cannot move forward.
Would you rate yourself as a good cook?
Unfortunately, no. I’m terrible at cooking. But I can stir up a few shakes for our customers, if they’d be willing!
What is your favourite food?
Rice and curries! I’m a self-confessed foodie and have tried numerous cuisines, but nothing gives me more comfort than a warm bowl of curry.
Would you like to open a curry house, if presented with an opportunity?
Never, because the number of curry restaurants are going down now – I think the reason being that people like to try new varieties and flavours. Experimentation is very limited when it comes to South Asian cuisines, while pizzas are very versatile. We can play around with the sauces and toppings without altering the soul of the food.
Where do you see your business in the next five years?
As I said, the future is very lucrative because of the versatility of pizzas. No one can imagine how delicious a pizza with pistachio paste tastes, unless they’ve tried one. Most of our recipes are from New York, some from Italy. And we keep tweaking them. We are also launching a new menu very soon to celebrate our achievement. Hopefully, by the end of this year, we’ll be able to expand into a new store somewhere in central London.
Do you have any advice for youngsters who are in the same position as you were after university who are thinking of joining the catering industry?
Do not waste your time looking for jobs that won’t satisfy your passion. The market is already very tight and it will only get worse after Brexit. Don’t lose your hope. Focus your energy on finding a good investment, be creative and be determined to take risks. You have to believe in yourself and never stop trying. This goes for anyone actually. If you’re passionate enough, it will definitely pay off.