Zolsha has been going strong for 15 years and is looking to make the next 15 and more count
Azid Ahmed, or Ash as he prefers to be known, has taken an unusual path to opening his own curry house. No one in his family had former ties to the restaurant industry but over the last 14 years, he has established Zolsha as a destination restaurant, based on his passion for food and service and a willingness to keep on learning. The restaurant is based in Howden near Goole in Yorkshire and regularly attracts positive reviews from diners, who praise its ‘excellent reputation’, ‘varied menu’ and ‘friendly service’.
Ash knew from a relatively early age that working in the restaurant industry was what he wanted to do, despite having little experience.
“When I left school I went into the trade full time – it’s all I’ve ever known. By the time I was 19, I felt I was quite ready to open a business but because I was young people were reluctant to invest in me and my business,” recalls Ahmed. “They never said no but they did say let’s wait and see. My father used to work in the mills but I’ve always been attracted to the catering industry – I like interacting with people and I thrive in busy environments.”
Determination and wanting to follow his passion spurred Ash on – in his words, ‘you know when you enjoy something and there is a reward for it.’ His friends and family rightly had trust and conviction in his ability to run a restaurant, helping him to fund the venture. He opened Zolsha (which means ‘gathering’), in 2009 at the age of 23, on the site of a former pub and spent close to a year on renovations.
“I’m happy to have my place in Howden but I have been approached by others about going into business with them but I have declined,” he says. “I like where I am and continue to give one thousand percent, whereas it would be one hundred percent somewhere else,” he says.
Having started at an early age, Ash has had plenty of experience running all aspects of a restaurant, but his main focus is on the front of the house and ensuring that his many customers – both regulars and new ones are happy.
“We can seat around 65 diners and we like to focus on our customers – we have a lounge where they can have a drink first, so they can make an evening of it,” says Ash. “It’s important to think about the customers and to be able to see them – this is why we don’t offer a delivery service. People pick up takeaways directly so we ensure they get the meal in good time and we can do quality control.”
And Ash is always keen to learn on the job, particularly with his chef, looking at different cooking techniques and dishes. “I am always tweaking things and open to suggestions. It’s best for my business when I have a passion, which starts from when the customers arrive, to see what we can do with food, in terms of presentation and trying different spices, to their enjoyment of the dish,” he says. “Even in my spare time, I look at a lot of social media to discover what different chefs are cooking and creating.”
Ash is not someone to rest on their laurels – he believes in moving with the times and recognises that customers do not always want ‘same old, same old.’
“It’s good to introduce change – not just with the curries but with the surroundings too – we have done refurbishments over the last few years and now have quite a contemporary look, it’s about bigger and better,” he says. “ We also apply the same methodology to our menu and change this when we can, and we also test different dishes with our customers. They always give us tips and advice that we can apply to our new menu. We have a fantastic chef who is also a business partner; chef Shelim Uddin looks after our kitchen team.
The presentation of dishes is all important too. Even with his near-15 years in business – and having started a long time before the likes of Instagram, X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok took off, Ash is keenly aware of the power of social media.
“Presentation is all-important – when people eat they want to take pictures for Instagram, so the way the food looks is a big factor,” he says. “Many restaurants need to work on this, some are still serving and presenting food in the same way as when they first opened. I am willing to try different things but I also think it is important to move with the times. There is no harm in doing something new and knowing that it either works or does not work.”
Ash is certainly keen on taking risks but also describes himself as an ‘over thinker’ – he likes to be 100% sure of something before he tries it. One thing he is no doubt about is the threat of closures hanging over the curry house industry, due to the difficulties in recruiting staff, the increasing cost of overheads such as electricity and the higher price of ingredients.
“I’ve looked at the number of places that have closed down and I know plenty of people in the industry who are thinking of selling up – the time and effort we put in is often now not enough,” he says. “However, I’ve been in this industry for nearly 15 years and I intend to stay at least another 15 years if not more.”
One of the areas crucial to Zolsha’s success is its menu – while the restaurant originally had a big menu, Ash said he soon realised it was better to narrow this down, focusing on making the best dishes even better – one he is especially proud of are those featuring king prawns.
“We serve really big king prawns – they are not the typical ones you might have in a curry,” he says. “We love to serve quality produce and show our diners that Indian cuisine can vary so much depending on different regions.”
Making a difference
Given his time again, what would Ash do differently with Zolsha? Thankfully, there isn’t a lot he would change but he would have been a bit more experimental with the menu.
“If I could go back five, six or seven years, I would have invited different chefs from other regions to come and cook at Zolsha – just for a couple of days,” he says. “When you see other chefs from different parts of the UK, you realise that everyone has an alternative way of doing things – it might not necessarily be a better way, but it gives you ideas. A new chef can give a lot of advice and a new perspective.”
In the current climate, Ash is focusing on making his business the best it can be, and making sure his passion continues for years to come.
Goole DN14 7AB