SCHENECTADY -- Aneesa Waheed rarely balks at a challenge. In less than a decade, she’s opened a retail store, a catering operation, two restaurants, launched a line of condiments, birthed two children, maintained a happy marriage, and is in the process of opening a new wine and tapas bar adjacent to her newly developed Moroccan spa.
So what’s her secret?
“I know it seems like everything is happening fast for us but it’s been in the plans for about a decade,” she said.
For her and husband/partner Muntasim Shoaib (who met in Morocco in late 2006 and married three months later) their success is the final movement in a carefully orchestrated symphony. Each note, trill, moving bassline and sweeping crescendo has come from careful analysis of the marketplace and how to incorporate their love for Moroccan culture with the needs of their community.
Waheed’s latest composition is Lotus, a small wine and tapas bar and hammam (a Moroccan-style bathhouse and spa) that is housed inside the Foster Complex, a Sequence Development project on the corner of State and Lafayette Streets in downtown Schenectady.
Lush, vivid jewel-toned green walls and ceiling envelop the room (a nod to the jadeite green tiles, textiles and leafy ferns pervasive through Marrakech, Morocco) and are punctuated with gold fixtures, including a grand staircase within the bar space that leads to residential units within the building.
“It’s not just another wine bar scenario,” said Waheed, just as her Tara Kitchen restaurants (now in Schenectady and Troy) were not just “another” eatery.
At Tara Kitchen, Waheed brought north African cuisine to the Capital Region, making it familiar by incorporating better-known Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors that were deeply ingrained in Moroccan cooking because of a history of ingredient swapping through the Silk Roads, but made it distinctive by offering Moroccan mint tea at the start of each meal and serving entrees in a tagine (a conical-shaped Moroccan piece of cookware).
Prior to opening the restaurant on Liberty Street (in the shadow of City Hall), Waheed ran the Tara import shop on State Street and served Moroccan food to-go at the Schenectady Greenmarket.
“We were the pilgrims of Liberty Street” said Waheed, laughing about her beginnings at 431 Liberty St. and how she utilized a “something from nothing” mentality to create a cornerstone dining establishment in Schenectady.
When the restaurant opened in 2012, even though Tara had name recognition from Greenmarket patrons, convincing people to see Schenectady as a dining destination was challenging.
When Tara Kitchen’s second location at 172 River St. in Troy opened in spring 2017, “we were on top of that mushroom cloud of development,” said Waheed, and success meant finding a niche among an already-populated dining scene.
'Exhilarating and cleansing'
At Lotus, Waheed is teetering between ground-level development and a bustling market. While the 204 Lafayette St. building that houses the project was gutted down to essentials and historic details, it is also piggy-backing on the hearty revitalization of downtown Schenectady.
“Lotus is not meant to take away from any of the other great bars in the area,” said Elizabeth Young Jojo, chief operating officer for Sequence Development.
Instead, the concept is to create a space that is a starting-off point to an evening out, or a way to wind down the day.
Waheed described the menu as, “fresh, raw and clean” with about 15 well-priced items (seasoned olives and “fekkas,” a Moroccan cracker, for example) that are small nibbles to accompany a beer or glass of wine from the sparkling wine and champagne-focused drink list.
Waheed aims to make the menu, “as global as we can make it,” to portray Morocco’s history as an international crossroads and will likely use biodegradable serviceware since the food prep space is only about 6 by 15 feet in dimension.
“We want it to be luxurious and decadent,” she said, and that hope applies to the hammam, as well.
The concept of a bathhouse is a new experience for most in the area, and while it remains popular through the Old World (“it’s a community thing where body image and shame don’t really exist,” she said) it never really caught in the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s exhilarating and cleansing," Waheed said. "I thought, ‘How can I bring that experience here to people?’”
That experience includes a 50-minute treatment that begins in a room heated to 110 degrees so that guests can relax and absorb the space. An attendant cleanses each client with a special black soap and a “kesse” (a sort of exfoliating glove) before rinsing with water. A Moroccan lava rock oil rubdown completes the treatment to rehydrate the body.
Will Lotus be a new hotspot for business development and sharing of ideas?
Waheed laughed and slyly smiled: “Maybe alliances are made in a hammam.”
The Lotus concept is slated to open this spring (late-April is the projected target) and Waheed will hire five to eight people for both the bar and hammam initially. She said she is optimistic about the reception this space will receive.
“In our area it’s different because people are more intentional of where they are going," she said. "We found such an incredible home in Schenectady. I want to be in Schenectady. The community and people have been so embracing to our ideas and business. We have a sense of responsibility to give back."
'Failure is not an option'
Schenectady is her adopted home; she moved here as a teenager in 1993 with her family from India. (Her husband emigrated after their wedding from his native Pakistan.) The mentality of an immigrant is imbued in all she does.
“It’s pure and simple hard work," she said. "You have to give things up and make sacrifices.”
“Being an immigrant, that’s inherent to your DNA," Waheed said. "There are no other options. Failure is not an option.”
She has combined that with her corporate background in print publication production management, which gave her an “eagle eye vision,” she said, to see all moving parts of a project and make sure they come together in harmony. “It’s all about being organized and tough with time, learning to delegate," she said.
Waheed made the decision to close down Tara Kitchen at 3 p.m. each day it is open (between lunch and dinner service), allowing her to mother or attend to personal needs. She spends her days working alongside Shoaib and they are stringent in making sure each works in accordance to their strengths and feels fulfilled in their roles.
“When you feel good and take care of needs being met, it makes you a better worker,” she said, a concept she instills in her employees: “We become a support system to them, not the other way around.”
Perhaps, then, Waheed’s best and truest secret is learning the intricate tone each of these mentioned elements -- work, community, purpose and passion, family -- produces. She takes a maestro’s approach to inserting them onto the blank sheet music of her life, creating an impactful score that resonates with her goals.
In her own words, “We constantly have an ear to the ground. We listen.”