Thursday 18 January 2018

The flying pizza

This story was originally published on in 2010.

Khalid's dreams ran wild, and in times as grim as ours, he felt he could not afford to lose them – he had no choice but to chase his dreams. That is why Khalid al-Jawahir, who appeared to be an ordinary carpet weaver, married the prettiest girl of Tehran, gave her five sons and then decided to give up his steady income and follow his dream to open the first Domino's Pizza in Iran.
The night Khalid told his wife Yasmin about his decision, she made sure he didn't see her cry her eyes out. She wanted to support her husband, but secretly, she wondered why Khalid didn't feel as strongly about supporting his family. How would she be able to feed their sons if this whole thing failed?
Khalid's father was the first to oppose him. Not because he was worried about his son's financial position but because he didn't want his son to abandon the family tradition: creating magic carpets.
"But father," Khalid said, "don't you realize that nobody wants magic carpets any more? I haven't used our magic since you introduced me to the craft. I've spent all my days, weeks, years weaving ordinary carpets, without a single flying thread to them. I think our market is satisfied."
It was true, their clientèle was a very select group of people, and all who knew about the family's speciality already owned a beautifully crafted al-Jawahir carpet.
That's why Khalid travelled to England to take part in the Domino's Franchise Development Programme. Because the smallest muscles in his fingers had been exercised by years of weaving intricate patterns, he turned out to be marvellous at kneading, rolling and spinning the dough and chopping up toppings. His trainer was impressed with his entrepreneurial skills as well. Everyone was convinced Khalid was the right person to bring the first Domino's to Iran.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Leader disagreed. He decided Tehran had no need for an American fast food joint. Disappointed and embarrassed, Khalid had to return to the carpet weaving workshop. But he couldn't let go of his dream, and every night when he got home from work, he joined Yasmin in the kitchen to exercise his pizza making skills.
Two weeks after he had forbidden Khalid to open a Domino's franchise in Tehran, the Supreme Leader of Iran was in a meeting with the Council of Guardians. The twelve jurists were going on and on about matters that were of incredible importance, but something kept distracting the Supreme Leader: a gnawing feeling in his stomach. He kept shifting in his chair and staring at the setting sun, until one of the Guardians asked him directly what was on his mind.
"If you must know..." His agitated voice frightened all who were present. "I'm hungry."

At that exact moment, Khalid was rolling out a very thin pizza base. He felt an exhilarating breeze brush over his hands. He had only felt something similar once before: when his father showed him how to weave a carpet in order to make it fly. With the greatest care, he spread liquid cheese, mozzarella, tomato sauce, fresh tomato, green pepper, mushrooms, onion and sweetcorn over the pizza base and popped it in the oven. He couldn't shake the tingling feeling and kept watching the oven door as if it were a television, until the pizza was done. The moment he opened the oven, Yasmin entered the kitchen and she witnessed the miracle. The Double Decadence Vegetarian Supreme was floating in the middle of the oven, it's base baked to crusty perfection. It tilted a little bit, as if to nod or show its best side to its maker, and then raced out of the window to deliver itself the hungry Supreme Leader.
The next day, Khalid received a message from the Supreme Leader, thanking him for the delicious meal. The note said: "though I am still opposed against opening American fast food joints in our capital city, I have changed my mind about Domino's Pizza. After yesterday's outstanding performance, I have realised that Domino's is not a fast food joint. You managed to deliver good, freshly prepared food fast. There's a difference."
To the Supreme Leader's delight, Khalid recruited Yasmin, his father and his oldest sons and launched the first Domino's Pizza in Tehran that same month. And whenever the Supreme Leader spoke the magical words I'm hungry, an enchanting breeze would brush over Khalid's fingers. 


Wednesday 17 January 2018

Make your dog work for you

This story was originally published on in 2010.

          "I've found the most reliable business partner in the world," says Millie Harris, one of Surrey's most remarkable entrepreneurs. "When we decided to take a puppy, we would never have guessed that he would double our family savings!" She's talking about her dog Ollie, who is a professional waiter and entertainer.
          We're sitting in her suburban living room with French doors that lead to a spacious garden. Millie sees me look at a large painting of a boy and girl with a big blond dog. "We knew Ollie was good with kids. That was the main reason why we wanted a Golden Retriever. They are always up for a cuddle and eager to learn new tricks."
          "One day, my husband, who is a builder, came home from work and he was absolutely knackered. He sat down, switched on the telly and told me to get him a beer. Ollie immediately followed me to the kitchen. When I opened the fridge, he looked at me with those big eyes, as if he was asking: 'Shall I do it?' I thought it would be a laugh, so I put the can between his jaws and sent him back in."
          "Two weeks later, Ollie demonstrated his trick on my birthday party. Not everybody likes drool on their cans, but the idea of having a dog butler was a major hit. One of my friends asked if I could teach Ollie to pull a trolley on his wedding reception. We taught him some more tricks, and before we knew it, our dog was performing every weekend." Millie lovingly pets the blond Labrador that's sitting next to her. "He's fully booked until August next year. A London-based company even tried to book him for a fundraising dinner in 2014. But we've said no. We can't predict the future. Right, Ollie?"

          When Millie goes to the kitchen to put the kettle on, Ollie follows her immediately. I half expect the dog to come back offering me a soggy biscuit. But he's a professional now, and he doesn't work on weekdays. Millie has to carry the tea tray herself and sits down again on the sofa. "As a builder, my husband knows what it's like to start your own business, so he does all the paperwork. All I did was make sure we chose the best dog insurance in the UK. Of course we already had one to cover the vet's fee. But when your dog is pulling trolleys full of wine glasses, you do want third party liability coverage. Even though we've got a clause in the contract that says that all accidents are the client's responsibility. Fortunately, we haven't had to use our dog insurance yet." Ollie yawns and settles down for a little nap.

          "As for marketing... word of mouth is working very well for us. We wouldn't even be able to deal with the requests we'd get if we would start a website!"

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Cellar in the city

This story was originally published on in 2010, under the title "Nothing to lose but your chains".

        "When I hadn't seen a crack of light for, well, I can only assume it was days, I promised myself that if I ever got out of that cellar, I would quit my job antravel the world. You can't imagine what it does to you to be completely alone, stone cold, hungry and not even able to see your own hands." Kate Farringdon has been locked up in a cellar for six and a half days before a cleaner discovered her and set her free. Three years ago, she sold her flat in Central London and booked a single flight to The Gambia, where she now works for a chain of internet cafes.
        "It was the most frightening thing that has ever happened to me," says Kate. "I was working as an accountant with one of the big firms in the City. It wasn't my dream job, but it paid particularly well. I was planning to work for ten years or so, save a lot of money and then follow my dreams." She shakes her head and smiles. "I can't believe I would still be stuck in that same job today if I hadn't worked late on the 24th of May 2004."
        "There was this project, I don't even remember what client I was working on, but at the time it seemed very important to me and I had to get things done. So I stayed in the office till midnight. I was the only one left in the office, and when I was finally ready to go home, I found that I had been locked in. The front door of the office was closed. I should have called security, but I thought it would be easier to take the back door. Now, you have to understand that I hadn't had dinner yet and had been staring at a computer screen nonstop for over 12 hours. I don't know what happened, but as I walked down the staircase at the back, I somehow missed the ground floor and walked into the basement. I knew something was wrong when I reached the bottom of the stairs and had to go through an unfamiliar door. But it's not like I was used to taking the back door – even if I would have taken the right turning, it would probably have looked unfamiliar."
        "I used my mobile phone as a flash light because the corridor was pitch black. There were black bins, mops and buckets, but no exit. I turned back to find that the door behind me was shut. I pushed the bar, but it was locked. At first, I couldn't believe how stupid I had been to allow it to close. Of course, my mobile phone had no reception down here, and it was running out of battery too. I tried to open the door with force, but to no avail. I was so angry with myself! But there was nothing I could do but wait for security to discover me on CCTV."
        "The next morning, the alarm of my mobile phone woke me up. I tried to door again, stamped on the floor, shouted and peed in a bucket. When my phone switched itself off, hours later, I was so thirsty that I started to contemplate drinking from that same bucket. I lost all sense of time until my phone woke me up again the next morning. I couldn't switch it on any more but the alarm still worked for three more days. After that, I knew it was the weekend. There was no soft bedding, no light, no food, no intellectual stimulus to distract me. And whilst I was locked up in that cellar, I realised how empty my life had been. For the last five years, my life had been nothing more than this imprisonment. In the same building even! The only difference was that I'd never had to face my situation because there had been food, soft beds and chairs and stress to distract me."
        Farringdon spent two days in hospital to recover after the cleaner had found her. "The worst thing was that nobody came to visit me in the hospital. My colleagues were barely aware of the fact that I had gone missing; they just assumed that I wasn't well. I hadn't talked to my parents for weeks, so I can't blame them for not noticing my disappearance. My life hadn't just seemed pointless from the damp darkness of a city cellar – it looked exactly the same from the hygiene of the hospital. So I kept my promise, quit my job, sold my house and put all my money in an online savings account. They offer competitive interest rates," she says. Apparently, the accountant in Kate hasn't completely vanished. But she quickly adds: "The best thing is that you're much more flexible with an online account than with a traditional savings account. I've got access to my money wherever I am, as long as I can get on a computer with internet connection."
        "It's hard to believe, but I'm glad I got trapped in that cellar. I could have died down there if that cleaner wouldn't have found me by accident. Especially since he had no reason for being there in the first place! Just like me, he took one flight of stairs too many. It makes me sad to think about it, but at least I can say I'm alive."