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20 April 2014 Last updated
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Seema Shetty on her passion and striking a balance

In less than a decade after becoming a director of the NMC group, Seema Shetty has set up six restaurants including Zari Zardozi and BiteRite. She tells Zenifer Khaleel how she now hopes to improve children’s eating habits for a healthier, happier future

By Zenifer Khaleel
22 Jan 2013 | 12:02 pm
  • Seema’s interests range from her restaurant Zari Zardozi to her giftwrap store.

    Source:Supplied pictures Image 1 of 2
  • Seema Shetty

    Former president of India APJ Abdul Kalam with Seema, right, and sister Reema during his visit to the UAE in 2009.

    Source:Supplied picture Image 2 of 2

Seema Shetty is the ultimate multi-careerist with a lot of fingers – and cooking utensils – in a lot of pies. A graduate in marketing from Boston University in the US, one of the first things she did in 2004 after taking over as director of the Abu Dhabi-based New Medical Centre group was to diversify and branch out on her own to set up Zari Zardozi, a fine dining restaurant in Abu Dhabi.

This was soon followed by the BiteRite restaurants in 2005 – there are three – and in 2008 the Foodworld restaurants, of which there are two outlets.

The same year, she decided to enter the grooming and wellness industry and set up Zari Spa for men and women in Abu Dhabi.

A year later, keen to give vent to her creative abilities, she set up a gift wrap store called Dancing Bird Flowers and Gifts, which aims to elevate the art of present giving.

“The idea is to make a gift a bit more special with the right kind of box and packing – it makes people feel special when giving and receiving a gift,” she smiles.

Seema says that being the daughter of business tycoon Dr BR Shetty, who heads the NMC group, and Dr Chandrakumari Shetty, who is group medical director of NMC, has helped her. Both have given plenty of advice and guidance on how to succeed in the business world.

“Dad’s advice has come in useful on several occasions, while I learnt a lot by watching how Mum deals with her staff including managers and key drivers when making major decisions.’’

A self-confessed foodie, the ‘30-something’ Seema enjoys talking about food and discussing the finer details of a dish with her chefs. “I can spend hours talking about recipes, cultural influences...’’ she says. “Food truly is an awesome subject.

“Life, I believe, is to be enjoyed to the fullest. But to do so you have to be responsible enough to work hard.”

But right now, her aim is to educate the public on the importance of healthy eating. To this end she has created a concept of encouraging the younger generation to choose healthy options when it comes to food.

“My dream is that the BiteRite concept of healthy eating be implemented in all major schools and hospitals across the country,’’ she says. “As part of a generation that grew up on chips and soft drinks, I know the problems it can create in the system and in the region and
I want to rectify that.’’

She is focusing on “packaging meals well to make them attractive to the average person – including children – who is most likely to cheat on his or her diet plan’’.
She is proud that her healthy food concept has been accepted in several hospitals as well as four schools in the UAE. “We are seeking more schools to team with us so we can offer healthy options for children.’’
Seema shares with Friday her work ethics, principles and how she hopes to alter the eating habits of people in the region “so they are healthier and happier’’.
 
Work

One reason I ended up putting on a lot of weight a few years ago is because in the
process of creating the menu for Zari Zardozi, I would taste everything. I was living my passion – appreciating food. When chefs notice that the owner is interested and excited in
their creations, they begin to feed you more and more.

I didn’t realise I had a problem with my weight until my family spotted it. Mum insisted I consult a nutritionist, who created a diet plan for me, but I could not stick to it because for me my business was more important and I simply had to taste all the new dishes being created by the chefs. It was during this time I realised how one could get carried away if one is not careful about portions and number of servings and could end up putting on unnecessary weight.

Food is truly my passion. Wherever I travel, I spend hours exploring the local restaurants and tasting the different cuisines. Almost all my spare time I spend talking with chefs, learning more about food and getting to know the working of restaurants and hotels.

All that came in handy when in 2004, I opened the first fine dining Indian restaurant in Abu Dhabi – Zari Zardozi. 

The ambience of the restaurant reflects the three faces of India you see today – the rich royal heritage, the tribal textures and illustrations and the modern up-beat vibes.
We also brought a lot of innovation to our cuisines offering not just authentic but experimental food as well.

We organise many cultural events such as fashion and art shows, and music and dance performances.

I found that what needs to change is the mindset towards food. Instead of just reducing the meal size or avoiding food, what is important is to make the food healthy and more nutritious while not compromising on the taste. And for this to happen, everything from the ingredients, to method of preparation to cooking style had to change.
 
I began to research this together with our endocrinologist – who treats diseases that affect the glands – a nutritionist and chef. We created a wholesome, balanced diet plan suitable for any age, gender and nationality.
 
Of course, I first tried it out myself and after a month found that I had lost a significant amount of weight – around four kilograms.

I also found that my triglyceride – a type of fat in the bloodstream and fat tissue, which can contribute to the hardening and narrowing of your arteries if you have too much – levels, which had spiked, were back to normal. It was a life-changing experience.

Convinced that it would work, in December 2005 I launched BiteRite, a chain of restaurants that provides healthy food that is nutritious and tasty as well – something not many restaurants were offering at the time.

During all stages of the launch, my father has been my constant guide. Although not a graduate from a management school when he launched his business (he did a course in 1997 from Harvard so he could be aware of new changes happening in the world of management practices nevertheless) he says he learnt everything from experience and used to advise me on everything.

I also trust my team and work closely with them consulting them on important decisions. This is something I learnt from my mother Dr Chandrakumari Shetty, who is group medical director of NMC.

For every management decision, she consults with a select group of people, the head of departments, quality, nursing, and reception – key drivers and executors. I have applied the same to my work – wherein for every innovation, or decision, I consult with multiple stakeholders, including our customers.

They always provide me with the best feedback for improvement or innovation.

In fact, I diversified from the food business and launched Dancing Bird Flowers and Gift Wrap store in 2009 following guests’ feedback and suggestions. It’s a one-stop shop for customers to bring their gifts to us for the final finishing so that we convert their gift from good to great and at a friendly price.

When faced with any obstacle in my businesses, there’s one piece of advice that my father gave me which I always remember. Obstacles and problems are necessary for any project to succeed, he once told me.

Only when there’s an obstacle will we work towards improving the quality, standards, systems and services.

Dad loves giving advice through aphorisms. And a beautiful piece of advice he once gave me was: ‘a stream creates music when it flows because of the pebbles on its bed’.

In other words, if you want your product or business to ‘sing’, you need to have a strong base... you need to get your fundamentals right and that means having efficient managers and staff. They are the ones who can make your business a success. It’s a piece of advice I’ll always cherish.

Play

We grew up around my father’s business. Our home was very close to the hospital where my parents worked so it was the centre of our lives. Right from our schooldays, my father would encourage us to spend our free time at his office learning how a corporate organisation functions. I and my siblings – sisters Neema, a dentist in Australia and Reema, who oversees business development, and brother Binay – used to spend our summer breaks filing documents, photocopying papers or running errands as he did not want us to while away our time watching television. By the time I graduated in Marketing and Entrepreneurship, I was attuned to work culture and familiar with workplace etiquette.

We’re a close-knit family and I remember however busy Mum was, she’d always drive us to school. In the evenings it was Dad who picked us up.

I enjoy learning new things and I firmly believe that we can learn something from everybody. People often tell me that I ask a lot of questions but I cannot rest until I am happy that I have answers to whatever I am seeking.

I love public speaking and have been the MC for several in-house functions of NMC. My father is the Patron of Toastmasters in the UAE and Binay and I would make it a point to attend every session and watch how people speak and assess their body language. I was also the first president of the first Youth Leadership Programme conducted by Toastmasters in the UAE. It taught me a lot. 

I have a lot of mentors from different fields. My biggest mentors, of course, are my parents. They have given me a very balanced view of life – Dad has a very risk-taking, come-what-may attitude to life while Mum on the other hand takes a decision only after much consultation and debate.
 
Another lesson I learnt from my father was to respect experience and value staff’s contribution. Having a degree in a subject and having a lot of experience in the subject are vastly different, he told me. And the latter is always more important. That said, he also taught me to treat everybody equally.

My husband Nirman Shetty, who is the Vice-President Corporate Affairs, NMC Healthcare, is exactly what I had hoped for. We have a very intellectually stimulating relationship filled with debates and sharing of ideas. I’ve a baby daughter Vivanya who is six months old.

Ever since I started getting involved in the food business, I have completely changed my attitude to deep-fried food, which is incredible, as I used to eat it for almost every meal.

Now I prefer Indian kebabs, which are grilled, the Iraqi dolma – a dish of meat and rice slow cooked with more than half a dozen spices – and I can never get enough of salmon sashimi.

I have a sweet tooth, but thanks to BiteRite’s cakes and cheesecakes, which are low in calories, I can afford to indulge it without worrying too much about putting on weight.
I enjoy the concept of eating every three hours and I am well aware of what portion sizes to consume.

I can read what my body is telling me when I consume food – whether it is too much or whether I need more.

Do I ignore what my body tells me? Yes…sometimes!

Dream

I would like the BiteRite concept of healthy eating to be implemented in all the major schools and hospitals across the country. We are also expanding our product line for supermarkets to include nutritious cereals for adults and children as well as delicious low-fat cakes.

I am also looking forward to having a larger family. Personally, I feel being a full-time mom is more challenging than running a corporate business because there are no designated rules or working hours. It’s a full-time hands-on job that cannot be delegated, though my husband has been very supportive.

I do not know if I am successful in what I am doing, but one thing I know for sure is we have a good base of loyal customers and in whatever way we can, we are making a difference to them – whether it is helping them celebrate special moments in life through Dancing Bird or Zari Zardozi or Foodworld, or helping them achieve their health goals through BiteRite.

The success of my business ventures gives me the confidence in what I am doing and also pushes me to do more.

My biggest dream is to create a healthy food culture for Vivanya and all the other children out there.

By Zenifer Khaleel

By Zenifer Khaleel