Asia ascendant
N Anita Amreen Food & Health

Sa Meh Wa Meh’s Khao Swe taking the food industry by storm


Barely over two weeks have gone by and Sa Meh Wa Meh has been on the tip of every foodie's tongue. Coming up with a fresh concept of authentic Burmese Khao Swe delivery, their delicious dish and quirky packaging have cut into the traditional restaurant market, making them one of Hungry Naki's most requested deliveries. While restaurants come and restaurants go, only a few manage to stay current. While most entrepreneurs in the food service industry are riding the most obvious trends, Sherfehnaz Khan has bravely pushed into an unknown territory, finding a niche that already has the city abuzz with whispers of a delectable Burmese delicacy. What began as a mere "passion project" has spurned itself into a full fledged takeaway restaurant that is sold out on most days.

As a driven, grounded individual Sherfehnaz has always believed in thinking out of the box, starting her very first entrepreneurial project at 17, launching the first of its kind ice cube production plant in Chittagong. Despite being a firm believer in Murphy's law, Sherfehnaz has been undaunted by the challenges that come with most entrepreneurial projects, going on to indulge in commodity and livestock trading alongside working for A K Khan Plywood Co Ltd. As a young entrepreneur, Sherfehnaz is all about keeping the fences swinging. As a food enthusiast with Burmese heritage, Sherfehnaz launched Sa Meh Wa Meh on March 15, combining and taking her love for food and business savvy to greater heights. Today we go behind the scenes to find out what makes the Sa Meh Wa Meh machine tick by talking to the woman behind it all. We discuss her entrepreneurial roller-coaster, the story behind Sa Meh Wa Meh and how it felt to have her first customer.


What was the original source of inspiration behind the Khao Swe line?

One night, we decided to get burgers from a cart. While waiting to be served a friend suggested selling Khao Swe in the same manner. The idea stuck with me for a while and that's when I decided to take the plunge.


Initially was it difficult to manage and fund your business?

In the beginning I had discussed SMWM with two of my cousins and we were a team of three working towards getting the project off the ground. So the capital investment was split three ways, which became a less daunting figure for us.


According to you what was the toughest phase throughout your entrepreneurial journey?

Proof of concept is the toughest. I really believe that people don't buy a product or a commodity, they buy a belief. It isn't sufficient to have a hunch, “Oh yeah, I can sell this cheaply so it will sell” or “This isn't available, so if it is it will sell.” Not only must you convince others that your idea is something worth doing or buying, but you must convince yourself. And there are always a million reasons not to take a risk, but convincing yourself to do so is the toughest. And you must be willing to slog it out.


Before Sa Meh Wa Meh, did you try your hand at any other start-up or entrepreneurial project?

I started my first company at 17, after I graduated from boarding school. I took a gap year and launched an ice cube production plant in Chittagong, the first one of its kind after realising that the ice sold in markets were unfit for consumption. It wasn’t a wildly successful venture, but it did teach me a lot about perseverance and made me a firm believer in Murphy’s law.

While I was in college I tried my hand at scrap trading with a friend, and that was the first time I felt like I was handling a substantial sum of money, and the fear of failure mixed with adrenaline sparked the drive to be an entrepreneur.

After graduating I moved to New York, and was collaborating with friends to get a real estate project off the ground, but we just couldn’t make the time commitment, given our full time jobs. Since moving back to Bangladesh, I have done a little commodity and livestock trading alongside pursuing a few other things in the pipeline. However, the most prominent project I am involved with is A K Khan Plywood Co Ltd. a subsidiary of A K Khan Co Ltd. The work I have done for A K Khan Plywood has been the most challenging and rewarding in my career thus far and is also what I am most proud of. My experience here has single handedly impacted me as an entrepreneur, more than anything I have ever done before. During my university days I would also scalp tickets for events taking place at my university’s arena.


Tell us about your first customer or your first sale.

The night before we launched, my head of Operations, Alif and I were forecasting sales figures for the week. We were trying to think about the bare minimum we’d have to sell daily to cover our expenses. It would be an understatement to say we were nervous. You know that moment when you start questioning yourself, and the concept, and your thoughts just start to scramble and you ask yourself, "What on Earth was I thinking doing this?" Well, that was the mood of our discussion. And then we started justifying the mistake to ourselves. “Hey, it's just money. This isn't our livelihoods on the line. We can sustain this hit. So what if no one orders?…” Yes, we had started tumbling down that rabbit hole.

As a last minute prayer, we called our cousin Vidiya Khan and asked her to try our food and to promote us to her circle of friends. She was our first customer/sale and she worked wonders for us. Shamelessly name dropping and sending all her friends and acquaintances our way, before we knew it, we sold out. A big thank you to Vidiya, our first customer.


What's the magic behind Sa Meh Wa Meh's Khao Swe? What do you personally think is its USP?

I wish there was magic behind the Khao Swe or a secret ingredient, or any aspect that can’t be replicated, therefore giving us a competitive advantage. But the truth is there isn’t any. I believe that we have a great chef and we put a lot of thought behind what we wanted to achieve and how we wanted to do so. I guess what sets us apart is the importance that we have placed on customer satisfaction. Unlike restaurants, we don’t get face-to-face time with our customers. So we needed to compensate for this in various ways. I would say that is our USP; our customer relations management with our inherent constraints.


If there’s one thing that keeps you up at night, or that you’re paranoid about – what is it?

We source majority of our ingredients from Chittagong. For example the chillies we use are from a special region, the coconuts come from our own groves, and the protein is bought from vendors that our family has been using for decades. But all of this is also a logistical nightmare. Especially with the political activity going on, trying to coordinate our trucks getting to our kitchen on time and making sure we don’t skip a beat can be troubling.


What would you attribute Sa Meh Wa Meh’s success to?

I don’t know if you can call us a “success” yet. We have only completed two weeks of operations. But I think the popularity of SMWM is due to our best efforts to give our customers a unique experience. Firstly, there isn’t a Burmese restaurant in Bangladesh. Secondly, we realised that we won’t get to interact with our customers, so the very minimal interaction they do get with us, must be something memorable. That is the reasoning behind our packaging, and the way we handle our phone orders. Thirdly, and most importantly, we listen to the complaints and constructive criticism. It is easy to get a bad Facebook review, get disheartened and pretend it never happened. But we have decided that it isn’t acceptable for anyone to be unhappy with their SMWM experience. So when we do get negative feedback, we talk to that customer and try to get to the bottom of it. Why did it happen? And how do we prevent it from repeating itself?


How far are you willing to go to see Sa Meh Wa Meh succeed?

Every business has a life cycle and certain ups and downs. Having said that, I will of course do all that is necessary for the company to succeed, but I think it is also important to realise when it is time to move on.


Tell us a little about the key milestones that you’d like to achieve within the next year.

Honestly, this is a passion project for me. It is not about the recognition or the project’s feasibility. I just wanted to share food that I enjoy eating. So, there aren’t any goals or milestones in that sense. I just wanted to try something in the food and beverage industry, and I am happy that we were able to materialise a concept.

Are there any plans to expand the menu? If yes, what surprises are in store for us?

We are always experimenting to improve on our existing food, and we just finished our special for the Cricket World Cup. So, yes, there will be new menu items in the near future, but I’ll refrain from ruining the surprise. 


I really believe that people don’t buy a product or a commodity, they buy a belief.... not only must you convince others that your idea is something worth doing or buying, but you must convince yourself. And there are always a million reasons not to take a risk, but convincing yourself to do so is the toughest.”


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