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Women, food and business – an interview with Kitchenette CEO Cynthia Shanmugalingam

Kitchenette is the first UK food startup incubator, and it is headed by a woman, Cynthia Shanmugalingam. After being invited to the official launch of  their report”A steak in the Economy” – a study on the impact of the food and eating out sector British economy, my interest on the economics side of the food scene, which I love so much, has been rekindled. “A steak in the economy” , which you can download from here , is not just a statistical report; it is a treasure trove of interesting stats and includes some engrossing stories. There are interviews with the entrepreneurs and business masterminds behind some of my favorite London places such as the The Clove Club, Meat Liquor and Rochelle Canteen.

kitchenette food startup ceo

At the report launch, I had a chance to meet Cynthia Shanmugalingam, Chief Executive and founder of Kitchenette. As you know, I am especially fond of women doing business in food – traditionally a male-dominated sector, at least in the professional sphere – check out my post for “Girl lost in the City” about awesome women in food. I was fascinated by this young lady brimming with enthusiasm and passion for food and entrepreneurship.

Here’s my interview with Cynthia: 

TFW. Your passion for food is evident in all you do – where was it born? what is your earliest food memory?

Cynthia: I was three when we went on my first trip to Sri Lanka – and I remember eating a red banana, black “pootu” or rice cakes, and trying a bright green fizzy drink called “Nelli crush”. My mum’s side especially is completely food mad.

TFW:What do you look for in entrepreneurs who would like to be part of the Kitchenette project?

Cynthia: We look for passion for food, an ability to become nerdy or obsessive in the pursuit of excellence, because we think that’s what you need to produce great food that people will love. We look for entrepreneurs who have a sense for creating great customer experiences, the kind of person who if they invited you round for dinner, you’d expect to be looked after.

You need to have a sound head for business – to understand that you need to sell more than you spend, and price accordingly – it’s surprising how rare that is. We look for execution focus, someone who is going to relentlessly deliver, day after day, week after week, with a good eye for detail. You need to be hungry (!) – to want to build a business, to grow. And you need to be open, willing to learn, and humble – able to take advice and help from people who offer it up.

TFW. What is the most challenging aspect of your work at Kitchenette? Do you find it harder being a woman in the business?

Cynthia: The hardest thing is probably the hours – the people in this industry start very early and work very late, and sometimes that can be a bit grueling. I haven’t so far found it harder being a woman – although I’m frequently one of the only women around the table. I really admire the women I’ve met in the industry who are trailblazers – Melanie Arnold from Rochelle Canteen, Anita LeRoy from Monmouth Coffee, Petra Barran from KERB. They’re amazing.

So, next time you’re sitting down to eat (or stand on a street, queuing at your favorite food stall) remember- each and every restaurant, food truck or supperclub we love dining at is, or has been at some point, a startup – with its challenges, successes and setbacks, and an impact on the economy.

‘A Steak in the Economy’ is about the people who start up food businesses, how they make an impact on the economy and, in the light of their experience, what might help others to do the same.

Food has always been a sector where people from humble origins can make it big. Some of our nation’s greatest chefs and restaurateurs such as Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Simon Hopkinson and many others, left school with few qualifications, joining catering colleges or becoming kitchen porters before working their way setting up restaurants in their own right.

1.5 million people in the UK work in restaurants, cafes and other food service businesses1. In 2011, the sector contributed £25bn to the economy. The economic contribution of restaurants and catering grew by 13% from 2010-2011 when the entire private sector’s contribution to the economy grew by just 4%. The hospitality sector’s employment growth was the highest of any industrial grouping in 2011, contributing 58,000 new jobs to the economy. Eating out is enjoying something of an unlikely boom, against the terminal decline of the British high street. 25% more restaurants opened in the London in 2012 than in 2011.

Within the UK, great places to eat continue to breathe life into struggling and economically deprived areas, from Anfield in Liverpool to Brixton Village in South London. [ I have written about the revitalisation of Hoxton Street Market just recently- Hackney Council is leading the way in supporting this  food renaissance.] Collectively, the burger bars, curry houses, street food stands and coffee shops springing up even in this harsh economic climate, have the potential to create jobs, attract tourists, support British suppliers and revitalise forgotten and derelict areas of our cities.

from the Kitchenette report 

If you are toying with the idea of starting up your own food business but don’t know where to start, need inspiration or are just curious about the “behind the scenes”, Kitchenette  is running a series of food and entrepreneurship events this summer in Islington – all bookable through Edible Experiences here.

The Kitchenette Summer will feature food pop-ups run by the startups from the incubator first cohort (including brunch by The Good Egg- highly recommended, I loved their shashuka eggs) and Viet street food traders Bunta’.  The “Food & Founders series” will feature established businesses like  superstars like Meat Wagon, the group including Meat Liquor, Meat Mission and Meat Market- don’t miss the talk with founder Yanni Papoutis. As a food lover and a marketing junkie, I can’t miss it – hope to meet some of you readers there!

kitchenette food startups events edible experiences

You can read more about the “A steak int he economy” report and Kitchenette on this Channel 4 article.

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