Looking for fresh greens and specialty cheese? Ask this guy

Published May 20, 2015
"More than just a few people are looking out for healthy alternatives to the additives and preservatives lifestyle," says Rizwan
"More than just a few people are looking out for healthy alternatives to the additives and preservatives lifestyle," says Rizwan

Organic living: it started almost like a fad, but grew to establish its roots as the preferred lifestyle of a passionate few.

The passionate few have Rizwan Naeem to thank in Lahore.

The founder of Lahore's popular Khalis Food Market, Naeem is credited with introducing the farmers' market concept in the country — a market where farmers and small-scale food producers can cut out the middleman and sell directly to consumers.

Having earned a degree in accounting and international business and worked in hospitality, finance, banking and logistics, Naeem is currently also a partner in a boutique advertising agency and has also run a food magazine in the past. But Rizwan isn’t all corporate. When asked what he likes to do in his free time, Naeem said, “I like to write, watch and read news, play my guitar, just relax and spend some time with my cat Billuu. And I love travelling”.

There's no doubt his myriad interests have fuelled his desire to break new ground in the food business. Naeem tells us more about the Khalis Food Market:

If you had to describe yourself in two lines, what would they be?

Rizwan Naeem (RN): A person who made a career out of being a ‘jack of all trades’ and started the Khalis Food Market, Flavor Magazine and DHA Food Festival in Lahore!

How did you end up in the healthy food business?

RN: When I returned to Pakistan after my studies abroad, I decided to start a publication, Flavor. That lasted almost a year and half. Then, I started looking for something new and decided to explore healthy food to break the growing fast food trend. Within a month, I got in touch with small farmers, kitchen gardeners and small home businesses and organised the first Khalis Food Market on April 28, 2013.

A stall at the farmers' market.
A stall at the farmers' market.

What has it been like to explore the food market from all these different perspectives?

RN: Everything has been a learning experience, some more so than the others. What Flavor did was teach me about Lahore's food market. I got in touch with restaurant owners and understood the other side of the table. It gave me a reality check, as opposed to sitting at home without any experience and knowledge and writing good/bad reviews on food establishments.

Khalis Food Market was something never done before, so the possibilities were of my own to make, but what I learned the most from it was patience and breaking clichés about Pakistani consumers. The overwhelming response has shown that more than just a few people are looking out for healthy alternatives to the additives and preservatives lifestyle. People want to balance out what they consume and how active they are.

The DHA Food Festival was an eventual evolutionary step. It combined the love of food, entertainment, community and family in one place. We had 80 food stalls, Khalis Food Market stalls and kids activity areas. With over 13,000 people in attendance, it was a good insight into how our people are responsible in their lives. As much as they ate at the restaurant stalls, they also spent a good amount of time on our farmer’s market stalls and kept their families active throughout the event. This was just the first DHA Food Festival, a bigger and brighter one is coming later in the year.

Crowds gather at the market.
Crowds gather at the market.

What made you want to start a food magazine?

RN: Flavor, like Khalis, was a passion project. I started it with my cousin at the end of 2011 when I had moved back to Pakistan. Food was the one thing that always excited both of us, and she was very keen on starting a publication. Unfortunately, after six issues, we could not continue it due to logistical issues. We kept the site running until it was hacked in mid-2013 and that was it. It still exists, but it has been a while since we have updated it. I am thinking of reviving the magazine as we are in definite need for a structured and accountable solution for food writing.

The idea of a farmer’s market is prevalent in many parts of the world. Tell us about your journey of bringing Khalis to Pakistan?

RN: Khalis Food Market is a platform for farmers, producers, home cooks and small business owners, who make healthy, local, hygienic, fresh and organically grown food items. It is not a new concept, but I am glad to be the first one in Pakistan to do it. A few have followed suit, which makes me even happier about starting it.

It is a one-day event in better weather, where more than 50 stalls sell wholesome goodness to attendees. It is and has been an outdoor event where families come and enjoy a picnic style marketplace. The attendance has grown from 1000 at the first market to over 6000 at the last market in April this year.

The market features healthy, organic produce.
The market features healthy, organic produce.

Who are some of the more interesting people you have worked with during your time in the industry?

RN: All the vendors that I have come across at Khalis Food Market and DHA Food Festival, along with my team, have been brilliant. I have made good friends and long-lasting relationships with everyone. I am scared a little bit of how much faith people have in me, but it also humbles me. After all, creating multiple platforms for health and food, along with reviving high-end festivals in Lahore is a good feeling. My partners at DHA Food Festival, Ardeshir Firouzabai and Sana Mir, are a great duo to work with. There have been restaurant owners that have taught me. Nisar Chaudhry, Director Operations of Yum and English Tea House, is a brilliant operator. His insights about our market are formidable and it has been a pleasure working with him. He supported Flavor, is a fan of Khalis and is also my client for my advertising firm, Advocates Marketing.

There are many who say that entrepreneurship is not a job but a lifestyle. Do you agree?

RN: I hope it is a lifestyle. If anything, it is a lot of hard work, especially when it is responsible for your livelihood. I haven't had a single whole weekend off in the last nine months. So yeah, one can call it a lifestyle, but I enjoy whatever it is. Plus at the end of the day, you get to make some money.

What does it take to be an entrepreneur in the Pakistani food industry?

RN: The food industry requires people to either have academic knowledge or hands-on experience. Some people have neither of these things, but have managed to establish themselves, but that's sometimes like ‘the blind leading the blind’. There is so much to the culinary arts. So there's no special criteria for success, except that one should do their homework and work hard. At the end of the day, what one does affects others.

According to Rizwan, the food industry requires direction and standards.
According to Rizwan, the food industry requires direction and standards.

Name three must-buys from the Farmer's Market.

RN: Organic chicken, ostrich BBQ, chutneys and cheese. However, I prefer the herbs, seafood and the specialty vegetables.

What does the future look like for Khalis Food Market?

RN: It looks bright! Khalis has become more than just a market; people use the term to define a lifestyle now. We are going to Karachi soon and have a couple more out-of-Lahore surprises coming soon, so be ready.



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