Kannada Version: ನನ್ನ ಪಯಣ, ನೈತಿಕ, ಹಸಿರು ಉದ್ಯಮಿಯಾಗುವತ್ತ
I was staying bit low profile on this so far, but finally now it is time to announce it in open. I have started a new journey as an ethical, green entrepreneur. Though far from perfection or success, though quite exhausting and challenging, and though extremely risky financially, I am moving forward with baby steps.
In a nutshell, I co-founded a company named “Swamy’s Kitchen Pvt Ltd” with the goal of doing ethical and vegan business. At the moment, we have setup a vegan health food restaurant in Bengaluru: "Carrots, The Healthy Kitchen and Store", this will be open within next few days.
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/CarrotsTheHealthyKitchenAndStore
Website: www.carrots-india.com/ (still under construction)
"For Better Health, For Better Tomorrow" is our vision and guiding principle. We wish and strive for better tomorrow for all - for environment, for animals, and for us human beings. Being Creative-Conscious-Vegan is our mantra during everyday work and while coming up with long term plans. We believe in and promote Fair Trade & Organic Farming.
How I reached here?
Part 1 – Mental Buildup
I think the story really has to start from way back, when I became vegan and how I became one. That is an interesting story which I will write some other time. Here, let me start from fairly recent times. In 2010, when I decided to leave Infosys, all I knew was that I want to leave and experience something different. Luckily, I got an opportunity at Mangaluru itself, at MphasiS. I got a good hike and position, and many things were going well. It was really an eye opening experience to work in a different organization, after a long stint with my first employer. But during this time I also started thinking more and more about certain aspects of the IT industry, especially the direction towards which overall work culture was moving, the impact such work culture had on personal life, the ultimate purpose of the work we do, and so on.
Then a major development happened – my wife Smitha got into IIM-A, the best B-School in India, one of the best in the world. It was a one year program, from Apr 2011 to Mar 2012. It was a fantastic opportunity and not to be missed. But it also meant disruption in our personal lives - we were not happy about staying apart for even for one year, and who knows for who much more longer? This became a trigger for me too, and helped in shaping up my own MBA dreams. I decided to take a bold step, take a break from industry, move to Ahmedabad, and study for GMAT. Studying for GMAT and taking the exam was first priority, exactly what to do during the remaining period was an open agenda.
Meanwhile, I also started getting involved more and more with the hospital at my hometown Kasaragod, where my father is also one of the partners. There were certain challenges that needed fresh perspectives, there were opportunities inviting next generation, and also there were areas to improve service to mankind, which is the primary goal of a hospital. With job at MphasiS, I could not focus on hospital, but I thought the break would enable me to do that as well, and it proved right.
Studying for GMAT exam was one of the best refreshing experiences I had in recent times. I got quite a good score in the end, but what made me really happy was the enriching journey, I never thought such a simple exam preparation would carry that value. Anyways, once I got good GMAT scores, my next step was to apply to various B-Schools. I was very selective in this process and applied to only 3. One of them did not find my application interesting enough, and other two invited me for interview. Fortunately or unfortunately, I couldn’t make it through the interviews. But once again, the whole process was very enriching and humbling as well.
An important thing that happened during the break was that I started thinking more about green initiatives, importance of sustainability and so on. As a vegan for over a decade, this was anyway one of my interest areas, however the break really enabled me to get involved and think deeply. At IIM-A and outside, I got opportunity to research on various related subjects, discuss with many interesting people, look at various products and solution proposals, and also wonder why there is such a high level of insensitivity even among highly educated people holding responsible positions. My increased interest in this area led me to think if I should try and get into “Sustainability Management” programs instead of regular MBA programs. Some such options were available, but there were several obstacles and factors to be considered, evaluated. Considering our personal priorities, I decided to continue the break until there is some clarity about Smitha’s job location. This also helped me get deeply involved with the hospital related work and influence, bring in some important changes over there.
These are some of the articles that wrote, hoping to share knowledge that I gained at Ahmedabad with others:
Soon, our destination was confirmed and we decided to spend at least next few years in Bengaluru. I was continuing to deeply think what would be the best thing I could take up as part of my own journey. Once we reached Bengaluru, found a good place to settle down, I decided to seriously explore one of my dreams i.e. setting up a vegan restaurant; there were several ideas but this came up first in the list. Veganism is a positive lifestyle and philosophy that is good for health, environment and animals. So, a business following this principle would obviously be a very ethical one, and close to my heart. To avoid unnecessary distraction and confusion, I consciously decided not to reapply to any B-School at the time, and decided to pursue the dream of setting up this ethical business.
There was also one more thought process behind this decision. To do MBA in a premier school requires a small fortune to be spent. I thought a “Practical MBA” would also be a good choice, with that kind of fund. Of course, in the end I won’t get a degree certificate, but I was open for such life experience. Smitha was anyway equipped with formal education in management studies, so I thought such backing should be good enough for us to think big and boldly join entrepreneurial bandwagon. To be frank, Smitha was still slightly apprehensive of the idea, and felt few more years should pass and some more experience had to be gained before we go in that direction. But I was more enthusiastic, eager and dreamy about the whole thing. Now, looking back I do agree that she was not totally wrong.
Part 2 – Actual journey of setting up Carrots
In May 2012 I started exploring various things about restaurant business. And then a vegan friend introduced me to Krsna and ‘Swamy’s Kitchen’, a (almost) vegan and health food restaurant that he was running at Puttaparthi; basically, Krsna is a German citizen and a Sri Sathya Sai Baba devotee. And most importantly Krsna was interested in setting up one at Bengaluru. I thought partnering with someone like him would be very good since I lacked experience in food industry. I checked the website, menu and felt it was fantastic.
Then I decided to check it out in person. In June 2012, I travelled to Puttaparthi, stayed there for couple of days, tasted wonderful food at “Swamy’s Bakery” (what originally started as Swamy’s Kitchen had moved to a different location with a slightly different name), had good talk with Krsna, and got a positive feeling that doing a project with him would definitely be a good idea.
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/SwamysBakery
Website: http://swamyskitchen.com/ (Yet to get updated to reflect details of ‘Swamy’s Bakery’)
After returning back to Bengaluru, I started searching for the right location for our restaurant. Before I began the search, I was not considering this to be a big challenge. I thought finding a decent space in this jungle of buildings would be fairly easy. But I ended up spending next 4 months in this process. The experience was quite enriching as well as frustrating. My initial focus area was Indiranagar, but after sometime shifted focus towards Koramangala. Finally in late Oct 2012 we finalized our location.
Swamy’s Kitchen as a formal entity
Meanwhile, we decided to execute the project under a very formal umbrella, and formed a private limited company. Hence, born “Swamy’s Kitchen Pvt. Ltd.” Krsna was very keen on this name – to him ‘Swamy’ was not just Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the word represented the creator, the god with any name or form, and then the word ‘kitchen’ meant the entire creation where many things keep happening, created and consumed. So, the term ‘Swamy’s Kitchen’ meant the entire creation and our company was a tiny part of the same. Personally, I am not a religious person and I did have my apprehensions about this name. But with the above generic meaning, I agreed and we proceeded. However, we decided that the restaurant name would be different.
The restaurant name – Carrots
We wanted a name that has a single word, not attached to any religion or region or controversy, something that clearly indicates that it is related to food industry, something that can be closely associated with vegetarianism, health and wellness. When ‘Carrots’ name was proposed by Krsna, I instantly liked it. The colour of carrots was also attractive for us to choose this. And finally the way 2 carrots are positioned in our logo to indirectly highlight “V” turned out to be fantastic.
With similar and deep brainstorming we came up with several other important phrases that truly reflect our idea, goals and concept.
“For Better Health, For Better Tomorrow” is our vision and guiding principle.
“The Healthy Kitchen and Store” describes our unique eating/shopping place.
“Creative-Conscious-Vegan” highlights our personalities and values.
Connecting with Organic, Environment friendly products, people, organizations
During this time of searching restaurant space and setting up the company, I also attended many events and fairs related to organic farming & produce, environment friendliness, veganism etc. I met several wonderful people and organizations in this process and developed connections. Along with the restaurant, we also intended to have a conscious store to promote/sell various vegan, environment friendly, healthy products. Hence, this exposure was quite helpful.
Though I had spent lot of time and energy collecting the information and developing these contacts, I did not want to keep such information to myself, so I decided to openly share such information, and I intend to do this in future also.
A special mention about Dr. Nandita Shah: though I had heard a lot about her, I had not met her personally earlier, but that was solved during this period, in one of her healthy cooking workshops. I was quite happy to see her efforts in spreading the awareness related to health and veganism. She also came forward as a big admirer/supporter for our venture. We look forward to work with her in coming days.
As many people say, one of the most important challenges in restaurant business is to hire staff and to retain them. Luckily I got through the first part easily, especially for the most important position – main chef. When I published job opening, Chef Anantha came forward with a desire to take up this unique project as a challenge. That is exactly the attitude that I was looking for and he was hired in no time. During the setup time, he did not get opportunity to be very active due to lack of a well setup kitchen, but now he is into action, and numerous appreciations are coming at his preparations during the tasting sessions.
To every staff we hired, I explained in depth our philosophy and highlighted how we are different and constantly try to make an overall positive difference. Our hiring is still in progress, so far the 4 staff we got are fantastic. I hope we get remaining staff also with same attitude and spirit.
Setting up the restaurant space and other things required to start operations
This was the most difficult part of all. Since we took up a place that had a running restaurant earlier, we thought we might be able to start very soon, with minimal modifications. But the ideas changed, the expected timelines for various work were not met and the budget also overshot.
I realized that the experience I had gained through software project management won’t be always useful while dealing with such projects. In IT world, it is easy to apply certain processes, set expectations, track progress, take actions and so on. But in non-IT projects, when many people (vendors, consultants, workers etc.) are not accustomed to such a work culture, and when challenges are of totally different kind, applying that knowledge in effective way is a different ball game altogether.
I had even gone for a workshop that was supposed to throw lot of light on effectively setting up a new restaurant, but it was not very useful. There was another such workshop which I avoided after not-so-great experience with the first workshop, but apparently that was much better, I guess I just missed it.
Another important point is the difference between developing something from scratch vs. doing alterations. At one hand, already existing restaurant space makes life easier, but on the other hand modifying it for our concept becomes very challenging, because there would be many unique obstacles.
Adhering to environment friendly principles during each step of the work, ensuring that people who work on the ground get fair treatment/wages/facilities etc. – these were also extremely challenging, especially when the clock was ticking and budget was limited – striking the right balance was a daily puzzle for me throughout. If these two aspects are really important for someone, I would strongly suggest doing an extensive homework and be ready, even before signing the lease, because otherwise it just makes things slower and exhausting.
Overall, it was truly a humbling experience for me and I can clearly feel that I have become a wiser person with this experience. If anyone wishes to get my advice or suggestions, feel free to contact me.
Personally, I would like to thank several people who helped me come so far in realizing my dream. The list is long, and I would feel bad if I end up missing someone’s name, so not daring to attempt to do that. But I hope those who helped me are indeed feeling the appreciation and reciprocation from my end in different ways, and at least be assured that I am trying honestly wherever and whenever possible.
Last but not least, all this would not have happened without tremendous confidence and support that my family has shown, in good and bad times. This is just starting of the journey, and I hope this leads to some success, so that I can make them prouder and happier, and most importantly less anxious soon!