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“I think to be totally honest, it was desperation.”

Those were the words of Siraj, who is one-half of the couple behind Mahmud’s Tandoor. Together with his wife Syirah, the duo’s tandoori burger brand first took root during the pandemic, born out of “desperation”, as Siraj put it.

At the time, Syirah had been working as a special needs teacher. But after five years in the industry, she needed a break, especially since the couple was expecting their first baby at the time.

Meanwhile, Siraj was working as a writer with SGAG. He told Vulcan Post that he really loved the job, but unfortunately after four years with the company, he felt like he wasn’t seen as a necessity and thus decided it would be best to resign.

“It was painful and shocking, but I guess if it did not happen then neither would this,” he opened up.

Image Credit: Mahmud’s Tandoor

“This” refers to Mahmud’s Tandoor, of course, which the couple initially intended to run as just one person’s full-time, while the other worked a day job. But as they found themselves in a situation where both were unemployed, they decided to go all in on the business.

“Courage, I guess, is necessary in every business, but fear too can be equally powerful if harnessed the right way,” Siraj said. “Our thought was, ‘If we don’t give this a try today, we’re going to regret it later. Besides we’re young enough to fail.’”  

With that YOLO mentality, Mahmud’s Tandoor was open for business.

A family recipe

The inspiration behind Mahmud’s Tandoor is actually Syirah’s dad, who had a tandoori recipe that the couple was fond of.

“It had a common heritage between both our races and it was something achievable, thus Mahmud’s Tandoor was born,” Siraj explained.

Image Credit: Mahmud’s Tandoor

Starting out as an online business, they offered tandoori wings and teh tarik, which received warm reception, but was in no way an instant success.

But slowly and steadily, with support from friends and family, Mahmud’s Tandoor began to gain traction. What really got them the extra boost, though, was social media.

One day, they posted a photo of their tandoori chicken, marinated with a boneless thigh, and put it in between two buns. Turns out, people loved the idea of a tandoori burger.

In the beginning, they fully kept to Syirah’s dad’s recipe. However, the feedback showed that the flavour profile was too strong for some.

Image Credit: Mahmud’s Tandoor

“So we had to go back and R&D and ask ourselves, ‘How do we keep the essence of the recipe yet cater towards a wider palate?’”

Their fried tandoori burger (dubbed Crispydoori), was one result of said R&D, helping make tandoori chicken more accessible and enjoyable for all.

“Some have called it a blasphemy of tandoori as it’s not cooked in a tandoor, but taste it once and you’ll understand the goodness of tandoori is still there in all its fried glory,” Siraj said.

And he must be right, since Mahmud’s Tandoor went on to be Winner of Halal Awards in 2020, and later opened up a brick-and-mortar location.

Balancing creativity and entrepreneurship

Aside from being a co-founder for Mahmud’s, Siraj also juggles being a stand-up comedian and writer, and of course, a father.

“I think as a creative, you don’t silo yourself into one thing ever,” he said. “Our lives are just one big ball of experiences and more often than not it all feeds into one another.”

He elaborated, “What I experience in fatherhood, often comes in my comedy, and my comedy then benefits my business as people recognise me, and that again feeds into my income to help have a better, balanced life as a working dad, thus having a bit more time to experience fatherhood and having more material for comedy.”

For those, especially from the creative field, who want to pivot into entrepreneurship, Siraj has some words of wisdom to share. First of all, money.

“The finance had to make sense no matter how passionate we were, and that was a bitter pill we had to swallow at the very start,” he said. “It was painful for us to have to raise prices for our customers, but we had to do it, so we could pay people properly and ensure the quality of our food and service.”

Image Credit: Mahmud’s Tandoor

Although Siraj recognises that having positive cash flow and earning a liveable income is important, he also emphasised that making “mad money” must not be the primary motivator.

“It’s a tough road with many challenges, but if your purpose and mission is strong, that will keep you going and if at the end of the day, it doesn’t work out, you’ll know that at least you fulfilled your purpose and mission,” he said.

Weathering the storm together

When asked to give some advice for those who are thinking to venture into entrepreneurship with their significant other, Siraj’s answer was: “Don’t.”

He’s joking, of course.

“We’ve had lots of time where the lines between husband and wife and business partners are blurred and arguments are brought over and get very heated,” he admitted. “We do our best to keep it separate but hey, work life integration right?”

Now parents of two, their kids serve as a good reminder to make sure they leave work behind and be with family.

Being partners in life and in business has its pros as well. For one, a business is like a relationship—both require trust.

Image Credit: Mahmud’s Tandoor

“Trust that the other person is looking out for the best of you,” Siraj said. “And if ever, that trust begins to fade or waver, then it’s time to talk it out and renew that trust and build on it. That trust and strong bond is the backbone of the business and your marriage, so always work on it and make time for it.”

There are plenty more challenges that Siraj and Syirah face as entrepreneurs. For one, having been employed previously, they remember the joy of having paid vacation, where you can just leave for holiday and not think about the company.

“Oof, nikmat oi,” Siraj reminisced.

Now even when the couple goes on holiday, they’re still on call and help settle and remedy situations since Mahmud’s is still so young.

“It’s just the way it is,” he said. “With time, we and the company will mature and have more systems and processes but till then we still have to be hands on.”

True to that sentiment, Siraj said that they have been slowly implementing more systems to make sure the staff is more self-reliant. He credits Syirah as the mastermind behind these efforts.

Image Credit: Mahmud’s Tandoor

Despite all the challenges, he has no plans of going back to a 9-to-5.

“I think that’s one of the things about entrepreneurship, it is a bug, I guess,” he mused. “Once you’ve got a feel of being a business ‘owner’, it owns you really, it’s hard to be on the other end as an employee.”

Going forward, the couple hopes to grow Mahmud’s Tandoor into a cult fast food brand. It doesn’t have to be the biggest player in the market, but they’d like to have a strong loyal following that swears by their food and return over and over again.  

“Are we going to be a multi-million-dollar brand with franchises around the world one day?” Siraj wondered. “Maybe, if that’s right for the brand. But for now, we’re happy in our small little booth, doing our best providing good food and good service to people.”

  • Learn more about Mahmud’s Tandoor here.
  • Read other articles we’ve written about F&B businesses here.

Featured Image Credit: Mahmud’s Tandoor

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