Rice Epicurean card maker Naghma Haq is a mix of Mother Teresa & Martha Stewart
There’s stuff at Rice Epicurean Market that I usually don’t find at other grocery stores. Stuff like Café Fanny granola, Blue Diamond oven roasted almonds (no salt), and those little jewels in the frozen food case called Marshall’s Buttermilk Biscuits. I swear they taste better than the ones Mama Moe (my great grandmother) used to make.
It reads on the package that Marshall’s has been in the biscuit business since 1924, which makes them only slightly older than Rice Epicurean. The original store, Rice Boulevard Food Market, opened in Houston in 1937.
At the Rice Epicurean Market River Oaks, on a carousel rack smack in the middle of the store, are jewels of another nature.
I was rooting around for birthday cards there when just down the aisle something caught my eye: Color.
Color in the form of hand-painted cards — with flowers, oozing out of buckets, hanging in baskets, spilling from vases. I looked at every card, and by the time I came to the cashier, holding four, I felt like I’d just come in from being outdoors in the country. Refreshed. After meeting the artist, Naghma Haq, double that refreshment.
Naghma, turns out, is also the specialty foods manager and gift basket designer for Rice Epicurean. I learned this after reading her business card, which she seemed sorta shy about giving me. In fact, weeks later when I sat down with Naghma, she gave the people at Rice Epicurean and especially her husband, Rizwan, full credit for her achievements.
“I’m a timid, non-talkative girl,” she said, “and I don’t take compliments very nicely.” Indeed. Naghma works from the inside out. From the soul.
Naghma received her college degree in fine arts at Lahore College in Pakistan. For a time, she worked as a designer for a textile mill. In 1987, she came to the United States with her husband and three children. They lived in New Jersey and then moved to Texas in 1992, where her husband worked for a garment firm.
Before landing her position with Rice Epicurean, Naghma worked at Leibman’s Wine and Fine Foods at Dairy Ashford and Memorial. She went with Mrs. Leibman to the Atlanta market and eventually became a buyer, but she recalls a few humorous hiccups along the way.
She was doing food basket orders when one day, a customer came in looking for sherry. Naghma politely told the woman, “I’m sorry, but there’s no Sherry here.” It took a phone call to the manager before Naghma realized that this sherry wasn’t a person.
When another customer inquired about dry champagne, Naghma couldn’t find any. Again she called her manager, who fell out laughing. Naghma explained that she’d been looking for a package where you just add water.
“I told my manager, ‘This is what you get when you hire a Muslim,’” Naghma laughed.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We don’t drink, or we’re not supposed to.”
But Naghma was a quick study, and over the next few years at Leibman’s, she became market savvy.
In 1999, Naghma received a phone call from Scott Silverman, vice president and director of specialty foods at Rice Epicurean Markets. During an interview a few months earlier, he had offered her a position as assistant manager, but she respectfully declined. “I’m sorry,” she told him, “I didn’t come here for an assistant manager position.”
Now, Silverman had a manager position open and was offering it to Naghma. She happily accepted, and completed 12 years with the company on last week.
Naghma thinks it’s about confidence. “It’s not bragging,” she said, “you just have to let people know what you can do.”
What gave her the idea of painting cards? That happened 30 years ago, when she told a company that she’d make their Christmas party cards. “This [painting] is my life,” Naghma smiled. She paints using three mediums — acrylic, pastels and watercolor.
She doesn’t have a studio separate or away from the house. Naghma and her husband agreed before purchasing their new home that the largest room in the house would be her workroom. Cool, huh? So is her husband, I thought!
Naghma described her workroom as a mini Hobby Lobby. “It has everything you need,” she said. “All the drawers are full of supplies. I have a work table.”
Good thing, too, because on top of her job at Rice Epicurean, she’s helping with a wedding in her family on June 26th, including festivities beforehand that begin this weekend.
With creating gift bags, cards and ordering the specialty foods (65 percent of which come through her department), who knows how Naghma finds time to practice her other passion — social work. Not professionally speaking, but as a person responding to others in need, one day at a time. “As people come to me,” Naghma said softly. Whether it’s encouraging a family member to develop their gift of writing or helping strangers in another land keep warm.
“I told my children,” Naghma smiled, “I just want to be M and M. My son said ‘That’s a band!’ but my daughter knew what I meant right away. Mother Teresa and Martha Stewart.”
Rice Epicurean's store manager, Tommy Taylor, described Naghma like this: “She takes pride in her work, but she’s not interested in recognition.”
True enough, I thought. During my last visit with Naghma, she asked a characteristic question:
“How is this story you’re writing about me going to benefit someone?”