By Aminath Ishrath
It’s a breezy day as I sit down with Ahmed Hashmath, or Hathu as he is known among everyone, to talk about the beginnings of Café Al Fresco over a cup of coffee. Let’s look back at the early 2000’s.
This was a period when the majority of Maldivians were not very used to the idea of eating out. The notion that you were among a group of people who sat outdoors eating and drinking coffee was still not very accepted here in Malé.
Enter Hathu and friends, who saw an opportunity. It was a night when Mezzo Mode was playing a gig in the open courtyard in the middle of the State Trading Organization (STO) building. During the gig, it dawned on them that this could be an ideal spot for a café. To hang out with friends, enjoy a coffee, talk about the city happenings and share ideas. Soon after, the proposal was presented, the process ticked off, and the beginnings of Al Fresco came into being.
The design of the spot itself was a first at that time. With the sail canvas shades and Dhoni counter paying homage to a truly Maldivian vibe, there was always a sense of familiarity about the place. In terms of the location, Al Fresco had hit the jackpot. With STO being a hub of commercial and travel activity at that time, it was often frequented by the executive crowd at most of the resort groups and the only telecom service provider at that time.
At this time when Nescafé was a household name, drinking coffee was still not a common culture among us. But what was working and catching on like fire was the old school teahouse concept brought into cafés. Short eats and a sweet cup of black tea was (and still is!) the go to during that later afternoon slowdown at work, and literally, everyone in the STO building started dropping by Al Fresco for this.
And then, coffee beans.
Hathu speaks fondly of hotspots like Cheers that started the coffee culture and friendly café atmosphere in the city. With his experience in the resort industry dominated by an Italian market at the time, he came to discover coffee beans and the culture of coffee beyond the Nescafé mug and spoon. With this love for espresso, the Al Fresco team introduced Illy coffee to Maldivians and with that, there came another evolution to the food scene in Malé.
This was 2002. Al Fresco was doing remarkably well as a place to come together to discuss ideas, formulate business plans, and pitch proposals to each other. It was also a time when the restrictions of the location started to show up a bit more. With the evolving food culture, it became important to be able to serve hot food to the customers. Just one thing; the café did not have a kitchen and was functioning more in a canteen style. It was this that led the team into figuring out another way to retain their clients.
Bring out the submarine! Yes, Al Fresco was the first to introduce Subway style sandwich subs to Malé. Mind you, this was at a time when you could not even get such buns from the Maldives so the team actually had fresh baked sub buns vacuum packed and shipped all the way from Malaysia twice a week.
On the heels of this sub, they also started introducing panini sandwiches. The idea of offering this Italian grilled pressed sandwiches to a community that had been solely eating toasted tuna sandwiches was another talked about first. For the 90’s kids among our readers, you may remember a time when these sandwiches were a hit item for your school lunches. Over time, Al Fresco also introduced club sandwiches and pasta dishes as part of a set lunch concept.
The location of Al Fresco has changed a couple of years ago. But the visiting faces, they remained the same. I asked Hathu why and I got an insightful look into the business of bringing people together.
Al Fresco was formed with a predominantly Maldivian team. From the friendly servers to the jovial captain at the cash register, there was always a sense of familiarity with those that visited the café. Often, the customers became close friends with the team, knew each other by name, and orders rarely had to be noted. Alongside this vibrant atmosphere, they were also one of the first to introduce the loyalty card concept to Maldivians. With quarterly celebrations to award loyal members with tablets and phones, retaining their clientele was key for Al Fresco.
This is the story of a spot that started out more than just a café. It was a hub for ideologies to be discussed, formed and shared. It became a second home for people who were seeking intellectual conversations. It was a hotspot to visit after the news, to debate between the lines. A spot where roundtable discussions started with 4 people and ended in the middle of the night with a crowd of 10.
This is the story of Al Fresco, the originals of brewing thoughts!