A few enterprising women have expanded their home kitchens to small catering units
Santhi Krishna had never entered the kitchen until she was married. Once she started cooking though, she realised she loved it. With a husband and son who were always game for experiments, she tried her hand at numerous cuisines and quirky recipes for 20 years, all the while harbouring the idea that she should start a small catering enterprise with her talents. A year ago, she teamed up with her friend Kavitha Murali, and launched Subhiksham from their homes in Tripunithura. With over 200 clients today, Santhi and Kavitha join a handful of Kochi’s women entrepreneurs who now use their home kitchens to open fledgling catering businesses.
“When I began Balyaa’s Homely Food, many people asked me ‘How good can it be?’, ‘Can you match hotel standards?’ But people come to us precisely because our food doesn’t taste like hotel food; it’s homely,” says Srilakshmi N. Prabhu who has run a year-old enterprise from her Cherlai home. Santhi agrees, and adds that most of her clients are elderly couples whose children are away, can’t find permanent home-maids, and are too old to cook for themselves. They cannot stomach hotel food after a week or so, she observes. Such families opt for home-food providers because they can tailor-make food for their preferences. “There are those who prefer less spice, want food cooked only in sunflower oil, or don’t eat onions. If a customer tells me their preferences once, I remember it always,” says Srilakshmi.
Most such home-food providers have a dedicated clientele of four-or-five families for whom they provide three meals a day for months on end. Vibha Shashikanth Lodaya, opened her service almost a decade ago, and many other women in Mattancherry have also done so for years. Vibha’s day begins at 4 in the morning and she keeps tiffins of breakfast - bajra, moong, or jowar chapattis - ready by 8 a.m. Lunch dabbas with chapati, rice, two curries and a sweet are done by 12.30 and dinner by 7.30 p.m.. While most of Vibha’s customers pick up their food from her home, Santhi, who keeps a similar strict schedule, home delivers the food to customers all the way to Vytilla on her two-wheeler.
While she has eased now into the rigours of running a home business alongside keeping house, Srilakshmi says the early days had their challenges. “I wasn’t sure if the quantity I was preparing was sufficient, and I was always worried about getting the food ready on time,” Today, she’s an expert at providing quick meals for large religious festivals and family functions. A chunk of her business also comes from clients who want just chapattis, or individual dishes such as avial. Vibha adds she has constant orders for khandvi, a labour-intensive Gujarati dish. “During wedding season, families want to spend time with their guests instead of working in the kitchen , so while they may get large caterers for the wedding itself, I serve them on the days before.” Like Vibha, Srilakshmi has her Konkani specials such as goli bajji and vada curry, while Santhi says her community’s pavakka pitla and kathirikkai kootu are hot favourites. Irrespective of community though, all the women say North Indian preparations such as roti and paneer butter masala are what customers prefer for light dinners.
“Start small,” is Jigna Uthin’s advice to women entrepreneurs. She began catering from home after a couple of her food stalls at community festivals did well and since then she has expanded to include railway catering - where customers give her train timings and seat details for her to deliver food at the platform - and even tour catering, where she accompanies groups of a hundred tourists at a time cooking for them along the journey. Vibha too has grown to selling masala powders and snacks sourced from Mumbai from her home, and Srilakshmi has a growing pickle business and soon plans to open a cookery class of vegetarian cooking.
Across the board, the women say their families have been instrumental in their success. At Srilakshmi’s home, her husband helps her with provision and vegetable shopping, while her son makes his pocket money home-delivering her food and her daughter helps her with the cooking. “When I have large orders, my neighbours and friends come home to help me,” adds Vibha.
“I would encourage all women to do something like this,” says Jigna. “Your time is your own, you can work from home and it gives you immense confidence to run even a small business from home.” Profits aside, Santhi says the last year has given her a vast circle of friends all encountered by word of mouth through her business. “Above all, I’m happiest when people tell me they’ve liked something that I’ve cooked!” Most of the clients are elderly couples whose children are away, can’t find permanent home-maids, and are too old to cook for themselves.