We love Masala Wala Café! This local multi-award winning Brockley cafe is completely family run and independent. Founded by mother, Nabeela, and her daughters, Saima, Ikra, Nafeesa and Sanam in 2015, it was born out of a passion to showcase and celebrate their Pakistani heritage. We love the food, the family and the marketing, which focuses on sharing images of the amazing food as well as the talented family behind the brand. Despite the success, it hasn’t been an easy journey for the family. We were heartbroken when Saima was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer at the age of 29 in 2018, passing away in 2020 while the UK was in lockdown. Saima was an amazing part of the Brockley community, always smiling and welcoming, and as hard as she had worked raising the profile of the cafe, she worked tirelessly raising awareness in BAME communities, and actively encouraging discussions about cancer through her website, social media and press appearances. We spoke to co-director and sister, Nafessa Arshad about how the family business has been shaped by the loss of Saima, and how they communicate their passion by sharing their story as well as their food.
Your passion and love really comes across in your social media feed. It’s something many businesses struggle with and you do it so well. Was communicating these feelings an intentional marketing decision or did that just come naturally?
Food is of course at the forefront of what we do, but we also don’t shy away from sharing who we are as the female family behind the scenes. With social media we just wanted to share our true and authentic selves whilst also expressing how we were all in our twenties and a strong mother and daughter unit.
Did you know much about marketing when you started out?
When Saima launched MWC she didn’t have a background in marketing but it became quite an intuitive thing for her, she saw that our community resonated with her sharing photos and words that exuded her personality and her passion for the food. This was also paired with the in house experience you would receive when you came to eat. Two of us sisters do have experience in marketing as this is what we do in our full time jobs, however we feel best to sometimes ignore typical marketing practices to maintain the authenticity of our offering. Saima’s energy is embedded in the way all of us sisters operate, as we are not just sharing our food but we are sharing our story.
What lessons have you learned along the way? Would you do things differently if you could start over?
During the six years we have been operating we have learnt that being a business owner means that you will be the only person to care so intensely about what you do. But ultimately if you don’t strike a balance with work, rest and play you will burn yourself out. For us, we prioritise self-care, wellbeing and checking in with ourselves to see what we may need on an individual basis but also as a family unit. If we could start over, one thing we might do differently is learning to take days off when your body tells you to! But ultimately, we have no regrets because our timeline of operating as MWC has taught us amazing life lessons along the way.
We can’t imagine how hard this last year has been for you with the death of Saima. She was always so friendly, smiley and lovely when we came in for dinner. We’re so sorry, and she will always be a big part of our community. It was very moving to be part of her journey, and so very generous of her and you all to share that with us. Having also had the pandemic on top of this, which has been incredibly hard on the hospitality industry, we’re so impressed that you’re still open and as passionate as ever. How have the events of this year and your own personal tragedy shaped the way you see your business?
This past year has allowed us the time and space for much needed reflection on what is important to us. We are excited to uphold MWC’s values and continue to share our amazing mother’s homestyle food with our community, but we are very excited about reconceptualising our space so that it works for us, and what our identities are, now that we have lost our big sister and the founder of MWC, Saima. We have had to learn the hard way that life should not be taken for granted and this is the ethos that we will be championing through various charitable initiatives and projects.
If you would like to donate to MWC charities, please find their details below.
Trekstock, who help young adults with cancer in the UK
Curry for Change, helping families in Asia and Africa who suffer from hunger
Goodness Gracious Grief, an inclusive platform for those experiencing loss to connect
City Read London, promoting reading and London’s culture, landscape and history
Action for Refugees in Lewisham supports asylum seekers, vulnerable migrants and refugees in south east London
Death Cafe aims to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives