I think it was August 25th that Wadah and I met in Mcdonald’s of all places, haha to discuss what would ultimately become Plant Sumo – our vegan food delivery service.
I’d been toying around with the idea of launching some kind of food business over the last year spanning 2019-2020.
My affinity for food had started long before that, however.
My Culinary Journey
Being raised inan Indian family with a mother who worked at a supermarket – freshly cooked food using organic ingredients from where my mum worked (Coop and then Morrisons) was just the norm.
Fresh chapatis, lentil and chickpea curries, aubergine’s, peppers, spinach and all manner of vegetables made their way into my mother’s dishes.
Many of the dishes would have a consistent base of Garlic, Ginger, Onion, Chillies, Vegetable Oil, as well as some regular players such as coriander, turmeric, cumin seeds and more.
I didn’t really realise it until I was older, but growing up eating fresh food every day – with a healthy helping of side salad (usually peeled carrots with the occasional cucumber and lettuce, and these days to include broccoli) was just the norm.
It made sense then why microwave and oven-cooked food proved to be such a turn off for me throughout my life to this day.
Over the years I was in several relationships where international cuisine was also the norm from Caribbean to Nigerian and Ghanian food before I would ultimately meet Strawberry back when I was 25 years old, and discover Italian food.
Strawberry was like me in many ways. She’d grown up in a small village in Italy and had only come to the UK when she was 27 years old – and it meant she was used to the full and rich flavours of Italy.
There was no microwave in her family home, no kettle, and ingredients sourced from local supermarkets and local butcher shops.
It was precisely the kind of food you’d read and dream about and through her food and her family, I’d discover what Italy had to offer.
It’s of little surprise then that shopping trips with my mum when growing up would be from the vegetable sections of local supermarkets to South Asian produce markets and cash & carries.
When I got a little older I’d then see my good friends and early relationship partners visit markets as well to get food, and then with Strawberry as we moved into the city – it became Waitrose and Whole Foods as the places of choice.
Salt, Oil, Sugar and Chocolate
One thing I have my upbringing to thank for is my distaste for sugar, salt and sweets.
My father from when I was around 15 years old got hit with a medical warning because of his weight.
At that time in my life, our food was also rich with liberal uses of oil and salt to satisfy the palette of us all.
Chocolate had just never been a big thing in our family – and as it was ultimately processed – my body didn’t seem to agree with it so much – so I’d always struggle with finishing off whole chocolate bars.
Just yesterday, I managed to eat one bar from a Twirl before putting it in the fridge to be eaten the next day (only for my mum to eat it lol). When Strawberry and I visit restaurants she will begrudgingly share bits of her desert with me as I’ll often time never order anything for myself (unless it’s vanilla ice cream).
Sweets have never done much for me.
And so when my father got his health scare, he decided to turn his life around and radical transformation occurred within our family.
Salt was reduced, oil was reduced, white bread was changed with brown bread, butter on chapati disappeared, fried foods reduced…
And yet the beauty of my mum’s food did not change.
And so these changes stuck with me as I grew up.
As I’d journey through Indian restaurants in sequence with my family, I also began to do the same with friends.
As it turned out – for several years – Britain’s favourite food was actually curry – which meant that as part of my internships at Deloitte or evening’s out with friends and cousins and all – Indian food was a straightforward choice.
Even Strawberry, who was sure (and still is) that Italian food was the best on the planet – discovered that she also shared an affinity for many Indian meals.
However, the salt, sugar and oil and processed ingredients that I could often taste in the meals I had impacted my love for them.
As my confidence to speak my mind has grown over the years – wherever I go (Wagamama, Nando’s are just two examples, alongside a string of independents) I’ll specifically ask them to use ‘less oil/less salt’ when they prepare my food.
It didn’t however, stop the service from being shoddy.
This perhaps is the curse of those who are Shukla’s.
We (Shanti & Kanti I’m thinking of you two specifically) love to have a good whinge.
I have, over the last several years come to realise that great service combined with great food is something that is sorely lacking in restaurants around the world.
During my 20s I spent a lot of time abroad living in Rio, Lisbon, Malaga, Amsterdam, Lausanne, Turin and more to discover that I can figuratively count the places on one hand where both were found in abundance.
There was a delightful spit-roast chicken place in Lisbon that was excellent and I loved spending time in. Then a Brazilian buffet place in Lisbon as well – but then it was a buffet so no ‘service’ to speak of.
My mind is drawn also towards Maurizio Barca in Fulham and the Crepe Factory – both places I enjoyed both food and service.
There are indeed many others, but there are many many more places where it’ll result in me asking for a discount, or being unhappy and vowing to never return with Strawberry.
All of this was why I loved the idea of starting my own restaurant. Strawberry would laugh at the idea – because she knew that I knew basically nothing about cooking.
But she also knew that I knew several other things.
I knew that my mum’s food was excellent. I knew what good service in general meant.
Running an SEO and Lead Generation agency that charges clients several thousand pounds a month means that expectations of service and results (for things you sometimes have to wait months for) are high.
This requires regular and robust updates, clarity over everything, attention to detail – and often being criticised for lack of results, poor work, poor planning, bad communication, improper expectation setting.
You name it, I’ve been through the grinder with it all – and have come out on the other side every time there has been a complaint seeking a remedy as quickly as I possibly can.
This has taught me much about customer service, and so the idea of having my own restaurant also appealed to me.
It was on my 34th birthday, then with Strawberry that the idea hit upon me to name and develop a restaurant based around my mothers cooking came to life.
I would call it, I told Strawberry as we walked along Lake Como on my birthday….
THIS would be the restaurant I would open, during the pandemic no less.
Deon, Wadah and Me
Restaurants in terms of them being a business I could even consider all begun with Dion, an Indian-South African chap whom I met working in my local Caribbean restaurant called JRK Kitchen.
Strawberry and I wanted to try out the local places in Fulham back when we moved into the area in early 2018 – and so this was a place we found listed on Google maps.
As we began regularly going to this Caribbean restaurant having really enjoyed the Jerk Chicken Rice and Peas from there – I got to know Deon who worked on the tills.
I even did some marketing for them at this restaurant and their second venue in Bayswater which was ultimately short-lived.
However, as I hit it off with Deon we’d have throwaway discussions about the restaurant business as he’d opened and launched several Nando’s restaurants and had ambitions and insights of his own.
At one point we’d discussed opening a juice bar as well as my buying an off licence from a guy he knew – discussions which never materialized into anything concrete.
Wadah, the man who would ultimately become my business partner was someone I met through happenstance.
One day when I wandered into their shop, I met a Sudanese guy (I didn’t know that’s where he was from then) at the front of the store, smiling and taking orders.
We got chit-chatting for several minutes as I explained how often I came to their restaurant, how much I loved the food, that I told friends about it and that it was just positive all around.
After an animated discussion, I found out that Wadah was actually one of the owner’s.
I felt relieved.
How lucky I actually really liked the place (most places I didn’t) and so I suggested we simply keep in touch because it was great to know a local business owner.
That was in mid-2018.
As I had all of these things happening in my life – many other food-related things were also taking place (and they continue to)
A New Diet, A New Health Kick
Thankfully, Strawberry and I have health and fitness in common – and as a Pilates Instructor and Osteopath in training – diet is something that is important to her.
So ZERO oil, ZERO salt, cooking with water, using lemon as dressing, working with Kale, Spinach, Broccoli, Brown and Black Rice and beans have become commonplace in our home.
I’ve discovered almond dough, homemade pizza using sprinkles of cheese, homemade banana bread with no sugar, tactical uses of pralines, eating chestnuts, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and more have all entered my diet.
And so our culinary adventures have continued.
And after watching Game Changer’s, and attending some alternative health seminar’s and visiting a homoeopathic doctor and getting my nutritional levels checked via blood testing and moving into the Nootropics space – my desire to be healthy has only continued.
In 2020, before Plantsumo even existed I reduced my cow’s milk, pork and beef intake by 75%. White bread all but disappeared. Almond milk came in. Chia, Hemp, Cumin, Pumpkin seeds and more came into the diet. Weetabix got replaced with muesli..and my caffeine consumption reduced by 50%.
Books followed such as ‘Born to Run’, ‘Finding Ultra’, parts of ‘The China Experiment’ and switching to Food Delivery service Key To Food commenced.
A Love For My Mum’s Food
2020 was a big year for my diet. I’d turned 34, and thoughts of how I was going to find longevity in my life had become a conscious thought.
And as I’d got older, I’d come to appreciate all of the nourishment in my mum’s way of cooking – and it helped that I absolutely loved it as well.
Maybe it’s no surprise then that I’d return (and still do) as often as I can home for the love of my mum’s food.
‘Indian spaghetti’, ‘Fish’, ‘Chicken’, ‘Chana’ and multiple other dishes as they are so named inside the Shukla household see me returning on a weekly basis to eat as much as I can of what my mum has to offer.
A Biology, Physiology and Psychology for Mass Food Consumption
Several elements in my life converged to give me a voracious appetite for food.
My metabolic age (an approximate calculation for how old my metabolism is in human years based upon my rate of the conversion of food into energy) at 27 was that of a 12-year-old.
The two personal trainers who tested me independently in Lisbon in a gym in 2014 and then before that at the 2013 London marathon exhibition said that was the youngest they’d seen someone of my age.
As a youngster who’d gone through growth spurts – I’d also been told by a doctor who’d conducted a full body scan and a blood test that he noticed my blood cells had a shape not too dissimilar from sickle cell.
But in my case, it meant that I converted oxygen a little more efficiently than the average person.
These in combination explain to some degree my energy for life and explain why I ate so damn much well into my 20s.
Amongst a family of healthy eaters, I am and was famously known for ‘eating like a wolf’ and guzzling down all (and more) that was put upon my plate.
My mum, having been raised for her first 7-years in a village in India and my father for 16 years – had a very precious relationship with food. None of it should ever be wasted, ever thrown away.
And where I couldn’t finish, my mum would force me to finish, and where others couldn’t finish, my mum would finish for them.
Going to university then, when I finally left the family home – it was always the case that as mindful about money as my parents were – and I finally needed to actually cook for myself – that my mum would say.
‘Don’t worry about saving money to eat – spend what you like on as much as you like – because it’s important that you eat’.
This would then mean I’d, with Edward Smyth, wolf down mountains of spaghetti bolognese – which would become my favourite meal (and still is) that I enjoyed cooking.
Between us, we’d wade our way through 500 grams of pasta EACH, and couldn’t really do much once we were done.
Through university I took to weight training quite seriously which meant my food intake was significant, being a skinny boy who found weight gain tough.
Not much on that front changed, except that I switched from weight training to marathon running and my appetite for food found its way to continue unabated through my running efforts.
With my siblings and I (we are 5) with myself being the youngest, all running 100+ km per month – it’s little wonder we all keep eating, eating, eating.
Days Too Busy For A Lost Art
It saddens me as I write this (but does nothing to change my mind) that I don’t cook as much as is ideal.
You heard about Spaghetti Bolognaise…but there isn’t much else.
My work and my relationship with Strawberry and my family occupies my time and cooking doesn’t fall into that matrix – not that it does anything to diminish my love for eating lol.
However, it did mean that I would find myself eating all manner of junk food as I sought to find something to see me through lunchtimes.
These days, because, by trying to grow an amazing business like Plant Sumo, I can ironically make it all the way to:
And still not have eaten anything other than drinking two pretty weak cups of coffee (which probably stunts my appetite I’m sure).
Before I know it then I’m starving and I’d just run out of the house to try and find something quick to eat (Subway, Pizza, Sushi, Microwave Rice) before returning to my work
The one good meal of the day would be if Strawberry was cooking…
Ingredients. Delivered. Hello Fresh (and Gousto!)
Given this had become a trend, and the quality of my food intake had diminished – this was something I was conscious of and wished to solve.
Strawberry and I made our attempts with ingredients that were delivered to us so that I could follow instructions and cook it all.
It seemed a good idea in principle.
In practice, however, it’d still take me 30 minutes to an hour to cook, and because of my inexperience with cooking – things that were much faster, more than likely, for Strawberry took me forever.
So my time-poor problem wasn’t really resolved through such subscriptions.
And the nail was in the coffin when some of the food began to go bad after several weeks’ supply and it became apparent that this was not working for me.
Pre-Cooked Food. Delivered
As my understanding of my time-value grew, and I realised that it was ok to ‘get a cleaner’, ‘ok to order food’ and ‘ok to not cook’ – I soon realised that maybe it was also ‘ok’ to try a food prep-service.
It would also take away the strain of Strawberry worrying about whether I’d eat or not.
Not that I had any expectation that she would cook for me – as we entered lockdown and almost all of our time was spent at home – my penchant for forgetting to eat was something that played upon her mind.
And as she’d wander in and out of intense lectures via Zoom, her figuring/feeling guilty as to whether I had something for lunch as she quickly organised something for herself was something I wished to free her from as well..
Enter Key To Food.
A 5-day per week food subscription service that would supply me with all of my lunchtime meals.
Within a week it was an absolute revelation; one that I wrote several blogs about.
I didn’t need to cook. Nor worry about food shopping. No dishes to clean. Strawberry knew that every lunch I was covered as well.
I switched soon from the ‘build’ diet of 5-days a week to 7-days a week. Being a pig, their build plates would sometimes still not be enough for me and I’d supplement it.
Having meat each day on every plate became tiresome and I switched to vegetarian plates only and my meat consumption fell even further.
I’d now sometimes find Strawberry eating some of their plates when she was hungry and couldn’t be bothered to cook either.
A true revelation.
Trying to Launch Sita’s Way
So as all of these changes occurred in my life, and I’d discussed the idea of Sita’s Way with Strawberry and my mother – I began to do the actual business research behind it.
I spoke to a local restaurant owner about the capital costs involved in setting up a restaurant – and how marketing worked.
I reached out to some friends who I thought might know some restaurant owner’s and had a good chat with a restaurant launch consultant.
Googling was also part of the research matrix, alongside talking to Kat and Wadah.
Kat was extremely helpful from discussing her experiences of running a cafe in Italy as she’d done for several months – and provided tons of excellent advice.
Wadah, whom I’d since met up with several times since first meeting him at JRK Kitchen was also someone I sought advice from.
He was in fact ideal.
He’d exited JRK Kitchen, started and closed another restaurant venture – Wing Jam which got caught launching during an unforeseen pandemic – and had been in the ‘food game’ for several years and was a foodie who was entirely self-taught.
We’d discussed several times before the possibility of working on something together over the years – but nothing concrete materialised.
So the ideas of getting a stall, then a van, then a popup for Sita’s Way were all raised as ideas – which I’d then duly google to get an understanding of it and then think about how that would actually work.
As I’d been discussing the various ideas I had for a food business – the general consensus was that opening a restaurant during Covid 19 was good for getting below market value prices but mostly bad because it was a horrendous time to open a restaurant.
Strawberry had family friends who ran pizzeria’s in Italy and said it was a ‘labour of love’ that was a lifestyle business that was extremely challenging to run and required passion and determination.
Thankfully she knew how obsessive and determined I was when I put my mind to something – but nonetheless – the idea and capital costs (going up to 100k) – meant that this was an idea I’d ‘plan in 2020’ and launch in 2021.
But even then, startup costs were high.
How could this cheaply be tested before doing a big launch?
These were questions that swirled around my head and questions I’d relay to Kat, Wadah and google – and saw that costs were high, success was low, and that it took real grit.
‘It kind of popped into my head all by itself’ I might flippantly tell others when I’m not thinking about it with any depth.
But in reality – Plant Sumo was the outcome of lots of planning, and converging factors in my life that meant NOW was a perfect time for me to get involved in a business that has such great potential.
I’d attempted to work with the team at Key To Food – and had written a blog championing them on my website, as well as a blog on theirs – such was I a fan of this business.
And I’d been ‘interested’ in the business of Key To Food as a consequence of them having a Whatsapp support channel, ordering through their website and seeing it was a Squarespace website with a Stripe backend – and that it wasn’t straightforward always to change my subscription.
Also, because the idea was so novel to me – I had relatively low expectations – and was happy paying the £174/208 per month I’d pay depending upon which subscription I chose.
And so, when I pitched the idea as a possible way to ‘test it’ with Wadah – he bit my hand off at the chance of getting involved.
After some intense back and forth on Whatsapp – we met that same day on August 25th in the only place we could find open during lockdown at 8 pm for a cup of tea…
And it was on that evening, August 25th of 2020 – that Plant Sumo as a concept was born.
Well – it’s now 4.5 months since we had the idea –
And a lot has changed since then.
We have a team, prospective partners, a chef, a kitchen, weekly orders and huge ambition.
In other ways, however – nothing has changed.
It’s a Sunday and I’m at my mum’s as I’ve sat here diligently for the last 90 minutes typing away – and I AGAIN haven’t eaten breakfast but will wrap this up right here and head to the supermarket to get some ingredients for my mum to cook.
I do love food, I love the reality that I’m in the food business with my great friend and partner Wadah with Plant Sumo and I’m excited about what this business will bring.
And this – my dear reader – is MY journey in food, and how this business got started 🙂