Pars Cuisine Went From Diner to Albuquerque Culinary Heaven

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, October 4, 2010

Pars Cuisine looks a bit like the way you might imagine the inside of a Persian castle.

The ceiling in the restaurant’s main dining room is swathed in billowing sheets of fabric that are gathered in the center, giving the ceiling the appearance of a pin cushion made for a god. Emerald-green striped curtains filter light across elaborately carved high-back wooden chairs. Pillowed floor seating fills the main room. And then there are the hookahs.

Pars, which means “Persian” in Farsi, seems like a place from another world. It’s hard to imagine that the restaurant spent its first 16 years inside a food court.

Mohammad and Shahnaz Tafti, the husband-and-wife pair who own Pars, had never owned a business. Shahnaz worked as a specialist at SED Medical Laboratories. Mohammad was teaching physical education at St. Charles Borromeo School and Our Lady of Fatima School. They’d always wanted to start a business, and in 1984, they decided it was time.

Taking out a $5,000 loan against Mohammad’s retirement funds, the two opened the restaurant in Montgomery Plaza with a third partner for little more than $10,000. Since they were renting space in a food court, all they needed to buy was equipment. They kept their other jobs, alternating shifts in order to run the business. The menu, which features solely Persian and other Middle Eastern fare, was entirely Shahnaz’s creation.

Shahnaz is a vegetarian, so along with lamb gyros ($9.50-$18), mousaka ($13) and kabobs ($3-$19), there are lots of vegetarian options. Pars’ menu is financially versatile, with side orders such as fries starting at $2 and a “kabob feast” that serves four or five people for $78.

The third partner dropped out within the first couple of years. Business was never great, but it was enough to keep them going. Pars’ main clientele came from Del Norte High School up the street. Still, it took a lot of lunchtime rushes to pay their $3,000 a month rent. Later, when they were moved to a space above the food court, that figure changed to $800 a month.

In 2000, the couple, who were still working second jobs, decided “this isn’t enough,” Mohammad says. They had never advertised or marketed the business, and they realized it was time to get out in the community. That summer, when Mohammad wasn’t teaching, they set up a booth at Summerfest on Civic Plaza. Then it was the State Fair, then the Bernalillo and Santa Fe wine festivals, then the Corrales Harvest Festival. Slowly, revenue picked up and their name started to grow.

That’s when the big move came. Pars transformed from a food court diner—it was called “Pars Diner” back then—to the luxe gastronomic haven it is today.

The Taftis found their current space in The !25, a mixed-use development off Jefferson and Interstate 25, across from the Century Rio theater. Susan Kirkpatrick, who decorates hotel interiors in Las Vegas, designed the space as a favor to the Taftis.

Pars kept all of the dishes on its menu, so customers can count on favorites. But Shahnaz added dozens more dishes, doubling the menu’s size (it now totals more than 100 items.)

They hired belly dancers. Shahnaz left her day job, and Mohammad followed soon after. In November 2001, Pars Diner became Pars Cuisine. On its first day, it was packed.

Business grew steadily, and in 2008, the Taftis expanded the restaurant, remodeling it to include a tea room with free Wi-Fi and a back room that can be sectioned off with shades to host private parties.

The Taftis had grown their space from 1,000 square feet at Montgomery Plaza to nearly 4,000 square feet. But even with Pars’ expansion, the recession dealt it a blow in September 2009. Pars’ 2009 gross revenue was about $750,000. This year, it’s down 16 percent.

Mohammad says the decline is due to several factors, including a decrease in customers and catering requests and an increase in expenses. The Taftis have responded by decreasing prices for lunch, cutting a musician and a part-time dishwasher, and lowering their own salaries. But they haven’t compromised on ingredients. A word Mohammad uses over and over is “quality,” and he’s determined never to take culinary shortcuts because of money, or anything else.

Mohammad says Pars is still looking to hire two part-time servers, and the Taftis spend about $15,000 a year on ads for the restaurant.

Susan Goeke is one of five belly dancers who perform at Pars three nights a week. She’d never worked in a restaurant before—she did “belly grams” for 20 years—but when she started, seven years ago, she fell in love with it.

“I love being exposed to all the different cultures and the food—the food is fabulous,” she says.

Goeke, who is a grandmother herself, says what she loves most about Pars is the way she’s treated.

“They treat their dancers like family,” she says. “We’re their daughters. They look after us.”

Mohammad says he’s happy with the way he and his wife have grown the restaurant, but in hindsight, he’d do it faster the second time around. But that won’t be anytime soon. He’s not interested in opening a second location.

“People say we should open other places, but you can’t divide yourself,” he says. “I can’t open another location and keep the same quality.

“And my wife would kill me,” he adds with a grin.