A moment with Kitchenette’s Cynthia Shanmugalingam

Published: 4 April 2014

Food Edited.’s Romy van den Broeke met with Kitchenette founder and all-round food enthusiast, Cynthia Shanmugalingam.

Following the release of her informative report, A Steak in the Economy – which reveals the many problems encountered in the early stages by young start ups and provides solutions that could help grow their businesses – Shanmugalingam discusses the importance of social and legislative change affecting start ups in the restaurant and street food industries. A key figure in the campaign for improving financial and legal support for food entrepreneurs, she has since gained backing from some of London’s most inspiring restaurateurs, including Iqbal Wahhab of Roast and The Cinnamon Club and Yianni Papoutsis who founded the ever-expanding MEATliquor restaurant chain. With Kitchenette well on its way and a gradually changing attitude within the industry, Shanmugalingam envisions an exciting future for London’s food start ups. And so do we.

Cynthia, tell me a bit about your relationship with food and where your love of it came from?

It came from my massive Sri Lankan family who were all kind of food mad. I feel like food replaces expression of emotion in most Sri Lankan families, and of course mine. I went on lots of family outings as a kid and that would revolve around the preparation of lunch, which required everyone to wake up at 5am so that everyone would be ok for lunch when we got to our destination. Food would take priority over everything, even seeing us self-cater weddings. I think my love of food must have come from there. I’ve always enjoyed eating out, but until now have never really worked in the food industry, other than the odd bar job! It’s always been more me as a consumer, and growing up with a food loving family.

Three favourite foods:

I really like simple pasta dishes done well, with sage butter or something. I love Japanese food, just in general. In America you can’t get really good organic, healthy Japanese food, like udon and chicken. I love that kind of thing. I like Israeli, Middle Eastern food too.

Three favourite restaurants in London:

Raef Hodgsons’ 40 Maltby Street is a really classic restaurant. It doesn’t feel super trendy and super hipster. It has a very serious and straightforward attitude to food. There’s this Little Venetian bacaro near where I live on Mare Street in Bethnal Green called Ombra by this Italian guy who used to be an architect. It’s a really small local neighbourhood place serving prosecco by the glass. Everything tastes good and it’s a really sweet little place. Actually one of the Kitchenette entrepreneurs, Kimchinary, makes these delicious Korean tacos and is so rigorous about her sourcing, she even makes own Kimchi. I think that whole Asian fusion thing is great. And everything she serves is locally sourced, even though food concept comes from somewhere totally different.

What is it about the London food scene that sets it apart from other cities?

I think to some extent we’re playing catch up actually, you know, compared to New York we don’t have quite the same vibrant food scene yet. But in the past year, two years, the pop up food scene has exploded and I feel like this, and of course supper clubs which started in London, have really been taken up a level recently. I think that because London is such a cosmopolitan city, you can eat anything here. There’s also openness, a willingness to try new things. London’s markets are so vibrant too, what with some of them being the oldest in the world and built into the design of our city. Look at Smithfield Market, Borough Market, they play a pivotal role in the way we interact with each other. That tradition is amazing. And our wholesale markets are amazing because they have great sourcing access to the rest of the UK. I was thinking about Alan Yau with Hakkasan and Iqbal Wahhab with The Cinnamon Club, you know some of the best Indian or Chinese restaurants in London didn’t even come from India or China, they came from London. That’s because in London you are exposed to so much. There is a real spirit of innovation in this city that makes it so exciting and unique. I think we are in an age of entrepreneurship, especially since the down turn in the economy because you suddenly see bankers and people from the marketing sector leaving their jobs and launching food start ups! We would never have predicted that to happen. It’s really amazing.

What do you feel is holding London’s food scene from reaching it’s full potential?

I would say firstly the need for a better understanding of the various regulations and requirements across London, including how councils interpret the guidelines. We need a demystification process – that would be really valuable. Entrepreneurs having their hands held by someone who’s done it before would also really help. To some extent the legislation is quite archaic; it is really difficult for new people to break into established markets. The waiting lists for some are two years, even if you’re one of London’s best new start ups. I also think a certain proportion of markets should be allocated to start ups, especially when you realise the markets play an important role in a start up’s success.

They do one summer there and demonstrate that their idea works whilst generating some funds to continue. So, street food plays a pivotal role in helping launch new businesses that will succeed in this difficult economy. Reserving start up pitches in markets and changing the legislation to make it easier for start ups is important too. I think if you look at some councils, they are far more forward thinking than others. Look at Hackney Council – who we talk about in the report – they have actually helped find entrepreneurs a site. This is something other councils should take on, rather than seeing pop ups as a problem or food markets as something which needs to be contained.

What are the key aspects of Kitchenette’s work?

We aim to do two things. One is to enhance survivability of start ups. A whole set of people are currently cut out of the new trends that are democratising our food community, like being established on Twitter and Facebook. Those skills aren’t available to everyone and so Kitchenette aims to open it up to those people. But it’s hard to know what is ‘cool’ and to then translate it for the gourmet target market, you know essentially the middle class audience. The failure rates of start ups are still really high. It’s a very risky business. Part of improving the survivability rate is discussing the potential pitfalls and mentoring them through them. It’s also about building a community, one similar to that of the tech world. They have blogs, meet ups and so much information online to support people with their technology start ups but the food industry doesn’t have the same. We are trying to build a community like this and there are other incubators like KERB doing the same thing. It’s a nice thing to be a part of.

Founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast, Iqbal Wahhab, is one of the mentors. How has he influenced, inspired and worked with the entrepreneurs?

He’s certainly been involved the most with our mentors. He’s seen all of the entrepreneurs regularly and played a key role in helping build their confidence. He actually did that for me too – I approached him about Kitchenette a while ago and he saw potential in my business idea and gave me the much needed vote of confidence to get it off the ground. With the Kitchenette entrepreneurs, he gets involved with everything; he’s seen all six of the them. The other mentors do varying things, from half an hour over a coffee to getting more involved over a longer period of time like Iqbal. He is quite candid about it all. When he started The Cinnamon Club he was given a million pound bank loan; that just doesn’t happen anymore. Now you have to start on a shoe string. Iqbal hasn’t been in that position and he is very aware of that.

So your Kitchenette Summer Pop up in Islington ran for two months. You hosted talks and events with the likes of MEATLiquor founder, Yianni Papoutsis and food incubator, KERB. What was the response to those events?

We’ve had a lot of interest. In America food incubators start with a building and from that building offers courses, talks and dining experiences. We started differently- with a programme which was hosted by existing restaurants. But now we’ve been able to take on our own place which has made events such as these much easier. This venue (the Citroen garage on Upper Street) is temporary and was the perfect opportunity to try and test a few different ideas. The success has meant we can now look into a permanent residency, but that probably won’t happen for a few more months.
And what are your future plans for Kitchenette?

We are also going to have a Kitchenette food truck, which will be a similar vibe to this (pop up). A ‘Kitchenette presents…’ thing which will rotate different entrepreneurs in the truck. We are also recruiting for our next batch of entrepreneurs which starts in January. The past entrepreneurs are all set on their paths and because we are shareholders in their companies we are in it for the long-hall too. We want to see them succeed and of course give them access to Kitchenette in the future if needed. Hopefully they will go on to run talks too and be future mentors. You know, sometimes a person just 6 months ahead is more valuable than someone twenty years ahead.

How can we, the hungry consumers, help to improve the future for food start ups in London?

I feel like giving feedback is really useful. And not just bad feedback. Letting chefs know when the dish was good, what you particularly liked about it, and what you didn’t. I think that the more people are engaging or opening up to new things the better. That helps entrepreneurs try new unique stuff out and increase their consumer base. Being interested in sourcing enables entrepreneurs to source better food and also explains why sometimes you have to pay a bit of a premium for it. I suppose generally just going to pop ups, eating, spreading the word and enjoying the food…

Download Kitchenette’s report ‘A Steak in the Economy’ here.

Photography: Jessica Klingelfuss

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