If there’s one success story that epitomizes the ‘Rags-to-Riches’ story in Pakistan, it is student biryani, now branded as Café Student. The brand has gone from strength to strength over a period of more than 30 years. And where did it all start? As a thelay wala biryani seller on the very spot where its first ever shop is now located in Saddar behind Rainbow Centre.

From a branding point of view, Café Student has done tremendously well, opening outlets all over the country with a consistent and uniform image and offering. What’s more, it’s now charging a brand premium on all its offerings which is a justified strategy. The only problem is, in its haste to expand to all corners of the country, the very factor that catapulted the brand to stardom status and the power to charge premium prices is slowly fading away.

And what’s that? Taste. How scrumptious the product is. How badly Café Student has fared on this factor can be gauged from the fact that the last time I had a ‘Wow’ moment at this place was back in 1999, eleven years ago! But it’s not just me that has noticed this yawning gap. Sometime back I was managing a BTL activity for my brand and I ordered the lunch from Café Student for my team, specifically their Rs.230 deal which includes a double chicken biryani, double kheer, shami kabab, raita, salad and a 250ml soft drink. The fury unleashed on me by my team for this simple gesture tells me more about the brand than if I had just gone to taste it myself.

I’ve actually seen huge leftovers of the biryani in their main outlet lying on the table. If I were the manager, just this simple observation would have been enough to compel me to go back to the drawing board to figure out what we were doing wrong.

But what precisely is wrong with the biryani that so many people are getting turned off by it? For starters, not only the quality of the rice has gone down considerably, the way they are being prepared is questionable as well. They just seem to have lost the art of making great biryani. The rice has ceased to be what we call ‘nikhray’. It’s more of a halwa of rice with a generous dose of cornucopia of spices. That’s it. Nothing more.

Maybe the fact that they have expanded their menu manifold is responsible for the dramatic downturn in the sumptuousness factor of their main offering- the biryani. Now they are serving everything from bbq to murgha chana to broasted chicken.

And this brings me to our latest visit to one of their outlets, one which we haven’t been to before, just to check whether there’s any variation in taste between the outlets. Unfortunately, the same taste and quality was witnessed at this particular outlet as well. No doubt they have really upgraded the outlets, making them good enough for families to dine in comfortably on pleasing ambience, but that is just the supporting factor.

We tried the biryani and the broast chicken at this outlet. The biryani was again having the taste problems. The broast chicken appearance wise looked every bit as KFC. Unfortunately that was the only similarity with the legendary brand. You need to have steel teeth in order to claw your way through Café Student’s thick crust of broast. And when you finally manage to break through the defences of the chick, you are in for a huge disappointment. There’s hardly anything inside. Must have been using some really poor chickens, belonging to SEC D or E. We have had better broasts at some of the unknown brands in the city. This one was right amongst the worst.

Student Biryani in 2004
Student Biryani in 2004
Student Biryani in 2004
Student Biryani in 2004
Student Biryani in 2004
Student Biryani in 2004

It would be far better if Café Student just discontinued this product. In fact, it would be better if Café Student cut down its menu by half and then focus on the remaining items. The brand essence of Café Student is biryani not broast or barbeque. It should therefore stick to its competitive advantage. If the consumer wants to have broast or bbq, he would head off to the specialist brands for those items instead of coming to Café Student. Why then waste your energy on something which is not going to yield rich dividends?

If I owned Café Student, I would have focused on the forte of the brand instead of diversifying the offerings. What does that mean?

That means innovating the biryani, akin to what Pizza Hut does. A fish biryani, a grilled jumbo prawn biryani, vegetable biryani, cheese biryani, barbeque biryani, fajita biryani, hunter beef biryani, broast biryani – the possibilities are endless. It could then hold biryani contests inviting the consumers to come up with new and innovative recipes and the winner’s recipe will be incorporated into Café Student’s menu.

That’s the sort of strategy Café Student ought to be pursuing instead of using hackneyed tactics used by the other brands. If Café Student keeps on following the current strategy of diversification with minimal focus on the star product, slowly but surely the brand essence will keep on diluting until the brand fades away into oblivion.

consumerater- Student Biryani