From comedian to shopkeeper – “There’s never a good time for change”

Smoothies made of fruit waste launched Ali Jahangiri’s career in retail. However, before becoming a shopkeeper, he made a career as a recognized and financially successful stand-up comedian. What did the transition require?

Smoothies made of fruit waste launched Ali Jahangiri’s career in retail. However, before becoming a shopkeeper, he made a career as a recognized and financially successful stand-up comedian. What did the transition require?

In summer 2012, Ali Jahangiri, out of work at the time, was sitting on a bench at Citymarket in Jumbo Shopping Centre in Vantaa. He had recently completed his master’s degree in economics and lost his job as project manager at Trainer’s House.

Ali realized he didn’t have enough money to pay his bills that month. While sitting on the bench, he watched one of the store’s employees cart away trollies, filled with fruit, from the fruit and vegetable section. He figured they had to be waste.

Ali immediately contacted the shopkeeper, Matti Himberg, to explain his idea. Could the fruit waste be used for smoothies? Himberg gave Ali one month to show whether there was any money to be made of it.

Ali had 60 euros in his account. He stomped off to buy a blender and got down to work. The first day, he sold eight smoothies, the next, 16. Maybe this can pay some of my bills, Ali thought. Shop manager Janne Johansson showed him how to price the products and put them on display. Over the latter part of the week, Ali sold 170 smoothies. His blender, designed for home use, could not cope with such volumes and broke down. Ali got a replacement from the store. He went through six blenders before the salesperson from the home appliances store happened to visit Citymarket and realized how Ali was using the device. What Ali needed was a 5,000-euro blender designed for professional use that was fit for long-term cooperation.

Ali’s idea worked so well that Himberg, the shopkeeper, said he was sorry he had not come up with the idea himself. Ali and his father ran the smoothie stand for the next five years. They managed to make such good use of fruit waste that it actually showed in the store’s biowaste bills. The shopkeeper was impressed by Ali and encouraged him to apply for Kesko’s retailer academy. Meanwhile, Ali’s career as a comedian had picked up, and while his interest in retail had been piqued, he didn’t find the time was right.

Ali had a mortgage to pay off and a wife who was pregnant. However, he also had savings worth one year’s expenses. Ali made a deal with his wife. He would focus fully on stand-up for one year and see what came of it. Truth be told, he also worked on other things on the side. Among other things, he tried to create the first online car portal in the Middle East while based in Finland, but bigger players took over the market.

Fortunately, his stand-up career was going strong. Ali came to be known as a comedian whose stand-up dealt especially with the prejudices met by immigrants. In 2016, he became the first comedian to be awarded by the Uusimaa Regional Fund of the Finnish Cultural Foundation. Despite his success, Ali has always considered stand-up a dear hobby, rather than work. The latter would ruin it all for Ali.

“In recent years, it has been a very profitable hobby. The income has allowed me to buy dream cars and a single-family home,” says Ali.

A few years ago, Ali realized he didn’t want to do stand-up as a 60-year-old just because he had to. How to ensure he didn’t have to?

It was time to apply for the retailer academy. There could hardly have been a better time, as the coronavirus pandemic had just begun its surge, and Ali’s calendar was wiped empty of gigs. Ali completed the application forms, went to nine interviews, took the psychological tests – and passed. He began his first retailer apprenticeship at the K-Supermarket in Konala in Helsinki in 2021.

Fear is not an obstacle to change

Losing his job at Trainer’s House was the biggest single disappointment in Ali’s career. It was blow to the young man’s ego. However, as Ali puts it, project management duties called for more competence and less showmanship. When Ali left Trainer’s House, Jari Sarasvuo, the company’s founder and then CEO, uttered the unforgettable words: “Everything will turn out well for you, don’t you worry.”

The biggest success in Ali’s career comes from the courage to fulfil himself. Financial success is just a result of it, not a value in itself. What Ali considers more important is that he can now offer his children very different conditions. Ali and his family came to Finland as asylum seekers from Tehran in Iran in 1991.

“My younger brother Erfan and I rose from a poor and humble background and moved up the social ladder”, Ali says.

Erfan is a doctor and also does stand-up. Ali called his brother, excited, when he was buying a bicycle for his son. The boy was given permission to buy any bicycle he wanted. That was never possible when Ali and Erfan were growing up. But the best thing about the bicycle purchase was that Ali’s son had learned to choose the most suitable bicycle, not the most expensive one. It had both brothers crying.

“We realized we had made it to a point where money wasn’t something we needed to worry about.”

Ali has noticed that many people dreaming about a career change do not do anything about it. He believes fear is the reason for this. The shift from comedian to shopkeeper has forced Ali to also face his fears.

“We are afraid that the change is not worth it or that we’ll lose everything and wonder when it’s a good time for change. But there’s never a good time for change. If you know in your heart that you want something different, you should move towards it.”

Many expect change to happen at once, but that is not how it works in reality. The same old Ali is still at the helm, and he is terribly slow to change. It is important to be compassionate with yourself. Give yourself time and space. If you truly know yourself – what you are and are not capable of – change is not as frightening.

For Ali, the most important part of entrepreneurship is the ability to fulfil himself, but it is possible to get used to a certain level of fulfilment, and then change again feels too hard.

“If you’re not willing to change things, you’ll never be able to fulfil yourself at a level no one else dares reach for. Tiger Woods changed his swing at the top of his career. What’s your excuse?” Ali wonders.

The day-to-day life of a shopkeeper

In April this year, Ali began running K-Market BiiliTalo in Kamppi in the centre of Helsinki. The shop’s name was Ali’s idea. The days are filled with work, as Ali is currently working on the shop, a tour and the gym.

“There’s always something I should be doing or have forgotten to do,” Ali says.

With less leisure time available, Ali had to give up something. For him, it was aimless hanging around. Ali’s days are now more systematic and carefully prioritized.

Today, the shopkeeper’s day began at six a.m., as usually. Ali and his wife have three children, whom Ali took to daycare and school. At eight, he was at the shop. While giving this interview, he is filling ryebread ham sandwiches. Next, he plans to check that the shifts are in order, what the previous day’s sales were like, and how they compare with the budget.

Ali believes the shop’s employees are the soul of the place. Being a shopkeeper is largely about people management. It does not come naturally to Ali, so he wants to learn more about it.

“I struggle most with my own doubts about whether I will learn.”

As a shopkeeper, Ali wants to be true to his own values and stand out with his own personality.

“Humour is a big part of this. I’ve made a reputation with it, and I want it to show in the shop.”

However, this does not mean that Ali can walk around the shop telling jokes to customers. Instead, BiiliTalo uses Helsinki slang – in the names of the shop’s own products, for example. Even now, the shopkeeper keeps close tabs on waste, even if he no longer makes smoothies.

According to Ali, one of the best parts of being an entrepreneur is that you can change direction any time.

Ali Jahangiri

WHO Ali Jahangiri, 42, a new K-retailer and a well-known stand-up comedian. Also a partner in a gym. Ali has made a long career as a comedian, and he received recognition for it in 2016, when the Uusimaa Regional Fund of the Finnish Cultural Foundation rewarded him. Ali holds a master’s degree in economics.

BUSINESS Alintatalo Oy, established in 2023; A.L.I Arctic Laughs International Oy, established in 2010; a partner in TFW Puukko Oy since 2020

WHAT NEXT “I hope I learn to more quickly surround me with people with whom I can do unique things in new fields. I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”

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TEXT Inka Ikonen
PHOTOS Johanna Erjonsalo