Navina Bartlett, the founder of Coconut Chilli,
Ethical food entrepreneur Navina Bartlett on launching Coconut Chilli, a start-up food business that produces healthy, award-winning southern Indian cuisine, and why she is empowering the next generation of female leaders.
I grew up in a town called Lancaster, in the North West of England. It was a university town but it was not particularly diverse so being Indian was something of a novelty. The school had a few Indian girls, maybe three in total out of 600, and I think there was one black girl, so it was predominantly white. Looking back it was a really empowering experience because I don't think the teachers really put the restrictions on the girls there about what field they could go into. We were really encouraged to go to university and study subjects such as sciences, engineering or medicine that were not really promoted elsewhere.
I didn't really notice anything wrong or different about the lack of diversity until I moved to London for university. I was pleasantly surprised by the eclectic mix of the friends I made in my first term at Middlesex University, because they were from all over the world; Zimbabwe, Greece, Jamaica... I found that I had a lot more in common with the people that I met there rather than my school friends. I was really lucky at the time as there were a lot of employment opportunities, and because I studied in London and wanted to get into media marketing, there were plenty of work placements that I could do at various companies.
ESTABLISHING THE BUSINESS
I built up experience in advertising, digital marketing and direct marketing, which came in handy when I set up Coconut Chilli. I moved to Bristol, an incredible foodie city and met lots of chefs and restaurateurs who really gave me the inspiration to start something on my own. Since the street food scene was embryonic in the UK, I launched Coconut Chilli as one of the food stalls within the street food collective. We created a really strong brand and brought other street food vendors on board with us because I knew it was very important to align my food company with other people who were doing innovative street food cuisines from around the world.
The thing that really differentiated us was telling customers about the ingredients we were using, for example, salt marsh lamb that we sourced from the Gower Peninsula. We were also cooking koftas on charcoal, showing customers the passion and innovation behind what we were doing and that we weren’t compromising on quality.
Starting off on the streets, I was doing all the cooking myself, but it was very difficult to scale up the business in Bristol because there weren’t enough opportunities and we weren't yet operating in London. However, I decided I would use my marketing background and set up a range of products rather than setting up a restaurant, because I wasn't able to leave my daughter and work late hours. Unfortunately, that did backfire because I put a lot of effort and passion into that side of the business without realising the significant investment that I would have needed to raise to be able to get out to market and start operating efficiently without compromising on the quality of the products that we producing.
Customers absolutely loved the food though. We would cook south Indian curries on rice with a fresh herb garnish but to get into the supply chain it's about shelf life and logistics, which are absolutely key with chilled food. I had to make a really difficult decision last August when I decided to completely stop doing meal pots which gave my ego a little bit of a battering. But in with the long-term view of the business, it was absolutely the right thing to do because the other side of the business was actually going quite well and we were growing it organically.
We were doing bigger events like food markets, festivals, working with The Financial Times, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, for his Diwali celebrations. I've got an amazing chef and so now we're focusing on that angle. We're also catering to lots of offices in London mainly through various office delivery platforms as well as doing more private events and private catering, and it's going really well.
CHALLENGES AND RESILIENCE
I think of giving up sometimes several times a day, and the highs and lows can be phenomenal. However, when something catastrophic happens closely followed by something completely amazing it kind of gives me a bit of perspective. Ultimately I really enjoy what I do and I am very thankful for the flexibility that my job gives me and I want to show my daughter and other girls that it's possible, regardless of personal circumstances, to go out and achieve their dreams. Being a woman of colour, I've only recently started to recall incidents or missed opportunities and with hindsight, I can see that other people might have had an easier ride. However, this experience has made me even more determined. I'm really passionate about creating healthy Indian recipes and substituting ingredients for healthy ones, thinking about portion control and eating less sugar.
At home, I make fresh healthy salads and I use some quite ‘out there’ ingredients like chia seeds for example, which the Indian community don't really cook with. I like using nuts and seeds and fresh vegetables, eating seasonally and being very conscious about how you eat without losing the flavour and I love to create colourful plates of food that taste amazing.
The biggest challenges facing my business at the moment are uncertainties to do with sourcing ingredients especially with Brexit on the horizon. Another issue is staffing and finding chefs with Indian food skills. I don't necessarily think that chefs have to come from India or have an Indian background as it's something that can be learned as long as they have the passion for food and have a good understanding of ingredients.
Price squeezing is a massive factor and also within the events industry as there are a lot of VC funded platforms that are coming in and acting as middlemen and taking margins away from smaller food operators.
ROLES MODELS AND INSPIRATION
I love Michelle Obama; she is such a great role model for women, particularly women of colour and young girls. I love her passion for food and eating and she really shows what's possible and I love the way that she carries herself, the way that she articulates herself and the way that she's just a beacon of hope for everybody.
I think something that would really help to empower women is seeing more people succeeding within the restaurant industry, we need more female chefs. There's definitely a dearth of female talents within big food companies and that absolutely needs to change. I think in smaller and family-run businesses and the artisanal food industry, there are lots of women who are doing really great things. These women are very passionate and want to encourage more girls and young women to get involved. I think my old definition of success was climbing up the career ladder and getting more career advancement and more money. Yet, I think now it's really much more about doing something worthwhile and having a flexible work-life balance.
The future for me is about growing Coconut Chilli organically at a comfortable rate. Just growing the team as and when we need to, without putting too much stress on myself, so that I can create a really great working environment for my team. This is really important to me because I want them to be able to feel like they're doing well at work and that there's not too much pressure.
There are a lot of people contending with zero-hours contracts in hospitality or catering, and that's definitely something that I don't want to do. I want to create good, solid full-time employment, especially for working mothers. On a more general scale it's about growing Coconut Chilli into a B-corp which is a for-profit business with social and environmental concerns at the heart of what we do. It's something that we do anyway so it's not like we're a big company needing to change lots of operational issues or reconsidering our supply chain. It's easier for us to do at the size we are at now and certainly on a global basis it's something that the big food companies are really tapping into.
Millennials in particular want to know where their food comes from, how it’s produced, and they want to know that the animals are being treated well. Or if they're avoiding eating meat entirely that's absolutely something that we're aware of and we're producing more veggie and vegan dishes, which south Indian food lends itself to anyway. It has all been very strategically important for me but really I don't want to run a business that's just for profit. It's not something I'm interested in.
I do think it's incredibly important to keep learning and developing your skills throughout your career. Certainly for myself it has mainly been about personal development so far, because I felt as a female business owner I lacked confidence and I really needed to work on my own beliefs about whether or not it was possible to be able to go out there and run a successful business.
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