I have been a proud vegetarian all my life. And not just a vegetarian, but a Gujarati Jain! I have never used leather products or even tasted honey as those industries harmed animals. But I have always loved cheese, butter, paneer,dahi and chocolates.
The roots of compassion were always there within me, but what was lacking was the knowledge and awareness about how cruel the dairy industry is. I knew that a vegan diet meant no dairy on top of a vegetarian diet but I had no idea why. I just assumed it was a fad or a diet for lactose intolerant people.
Suddenly, my colleague and best friend Ritwik(R), who was a hardcore Non-vegetarian Bengali, turned vegan! I was shocked and absolutely sure that this was not going to last very long! But to my surprise, this person who would have at least one non-vegetarian meal a day had turned vegan one fine day and he never looked back. It was from him that I realised veganism was not only a diet, it was a moral perspective. I slowly came to know about the horrors of the dairy industry. I realised that cows, like humans, have to be pregnant to produce milk! And that they are raped and artificially inseminated so that we can have our daily dose of milk, cheese and butter. I was shocked and would experiment and bake vegan cakes for R on his birthday but not yet strong enough to give up my cheese and paneer.
Once we finished designing and building NEXT school, Mulund ( I will write about that experience in my coming posts), R took a month off to try his hand at cooking. He had already been vegan for one and half years by then. Since he had not tasted dairy products for a long time, he had forgotten the taste of cheese and would call me over to give feedback. We did this to and fro for a month until we figured out the perfect cheese recipe. In the past few months, the only reason I turned a blind eye towards the atrocities of the dairy industry was because I loved my cheese, butter, paneer and chocolate too much to consider giving up on them. But now that I knew that I could have guilt-free versions of all these things (which are also way healthier for me and way better for our environment) there was no reason to continue doing so. We were fascinated by food-science and slowly figured out ways to emulate cheese, cheese sauce, mayonnaise, butter, and even ice cream. This took a lot of time to get right as most recipes and guidelines online pertain to a Western palette. Once we got it just right, we started cooking dishes with these core ingredients.
I signed up for Veganuary 2018 – Veganuary is a pledge to stay vegan in January – and let me tell you, I had the most foodgasm-ic January of my whole life! Everyday we would experiment with a dish to add to the menu and we’d “test” it all by ourselves. It took us 3 days and 4 batches of brownies to get it right, but we persevered! I must be the first vegan to gain 5 kgs in the first month of turning vegan!
And there’s been no looking back – I have been a vegan ever since.
Slowly we started calling our friends over to taste the food and give feedback. Their feedback gave us a lot of encouragement. It was my dream – retirement plan actually – to open a quaint cosy cafe – and now it was seeming more and more important to open one – because we knew lecturing wouldn’t make people turn vegan – only good food will! The reassurance that they won’t have to give up on those cheese, paneer, chocolate or even meat cravings will convince people and give them the will power to try and go vegan.
I am an odd Gujarati because I hate the idea of starting your own business. I really love my job as a designer. But this cafe was now no more a dream or retirement plan but a necessity for both of us. We had to prove to people that vegan food is just as delicious, and it was much healthier for our bodies & much better for our environment. We decided to build a business model to figure out how much investment we will need. We told a broker to check out available shops in an exciting, up-and-coming retail development in Mulund. It also happened to be really close to our place of stay and work (a common theme in my life!). When the broker got back to us we realised that there were only 4 shops left to be leased out in the entire complex – 146 shops were already taken! This was when we knew we cannot just keep messing around in our kitchen any more – If we want to do it , we have to do it now!
We did not overthink it – or even do the regular amount of thinking for that matter! We chose the shop and paid the token amount as a deposit. I think it was around 4-5 days’ time between the broker getting back to us and us paying the token. Once we started thinking, and planning, and getting scared we had already paid the token for the space and now there was no going back, just moving ahead. Now, there were thousands of things to do – we had to form a company before we could sign our formal rent agreement, we had to open a bank account, apply for all the necessary licenses, start designing the space and start the work on site, hire and train the chefs, choose each and every tile, fabric, faucet,crockery and so much more. It took us 50 days in all after the first brick was laid to be able to invite customers to the restaurant.
We played of all the following roles between the 2 of us –
- Interior Design – We designed the space & procured the materials ourselves. We wanted the cafe space to be very simple, modern and vibrant. We custom designed almost all the furniture in the dining area and we even custom designed the storage, work tables and some of the equipment in the kitchen. We worked directly with our steel fabricator on the kitchen equipment – this meant we could build at a higher spec and at a fraction of the cost of branded kitchen equipment vendors.
You can check out the 360 view of the cafe here.
- Project management and site execution- We were there, everyday, coordinating the work at site. It was April/May in Mumbai and it was hot as hell, but it didn’t matter. We also placed all the orders for materials and managed the cash flow. It was made much easier with help from a good network of contractors and vendors from our day-job as architects.
- Raising investment – We pitched the idea to friends and family and raised enough money to make sure that we did not need a bank loan – this meant, long term, that the cafe was on very firm financial footing.
- Graphic design and social media – We worked on the branding with Keith – a long time friend and collaborator.
- Hiring & Training– This was the biggest unknown for the two of us and it proved to be the most difficult part to get right. The restaurant industry is filled with shitty employers which has led to a complete, systemic breakdown in trust between staff and management – this is for another longer post! It was hard work but we put together a very good team when we needed to start.
- Licensing – We had to get necessary licenses and permissions before we could start running the cafe from the health department, fire department, food safety authority etc. All this took a lot of research and follow up visits to the ward office.
- Recipe and menu design – We had created the recipes over the last 4 months – now it was time to be ruthless and edit it down to a menu that fit on a single page. We wanted to do a select few things but do it right.
Also for both of us it was very important that the menu was – Vegan and indulgent. All our core ingredients like cheese, mayonnaise, cheese sauce, butter are all made in-house. Our menu is loaded with cheesy stuff which is otherwise difficult to find in a vegan diet like burgers, pizzas, pastas, quiche, cheese sticks, cheesecake and even ice creams. You can check out our entire menu on our Zomato page.
We bake and prepare all our desserts in the kitchen as well – there’s almost no outsourcing for even basic ingredients.
There is a popular vegan eatery in Berlin which has a big neon sign over the bar counter that reads: ‘no f**king salads’. Many vegan eateries conflate veganism with no gluten, no sugar and even no oil – this is very commendable and props to these places for trying to pioneer something new. But it’s not the kind of food we always crave. Sometimes we want that sloppy burger and we want to dip the fried cheese in some melted cheese. Our menu has a lot of indulgent food. I think it’s important to know that you have these options and we believe the inclusion of these indulgent foods will help make the process of turning vegan and staying vegan a whole lot easier.
Along with our dine in service we also sell our cheese, chocolate bars, cakes, pastries etc. To be frank – How often will you go out for dinners to a cafe especially if it is really far from where you stay? The bigger impact will be when our cheeses and butters reach peoples home so that they can use it in their everyday life as it makes people’s life easier and determination stronger to live a cruelty free life.
Every week we do specials wherein we experiment with new vegan dishes so that even regulars get to have new dishes every time they come. We hold a lot of events and workshops at the cafe as well.
Are you wondering about how my family reacted? Well my family was very supportive of my decision and did everything they could to help whereas R’s mom had started crying when she came to know that he’s turned vegan. It took them some more time but eventually they got their heads around it and helped us by investing in the cafe as well. My parents were slightly skeptical about how I would manage both my day-job and the cafe but they got over that very quickly. My mom learned how to make vegan dahi so that she can pack a glass of chaas with my lunch everyday. She loves cooking and wholeheartedly experiments and cooks vegan meals for me. She veganises a lot of Indian dishes like dal makhani, shrikhand, methi malai matar, strawberry basundi and even makes chocolate shakes and cold coffees for me.
Starting Imagine has, for the first time in my life, made me feel like I am doing something for the greater good. The amount of happiness and satisfaction that we get with the knowledge that Imagine is helping people turn vegan or continue being vegan is incredible! This directly contributes to a world with less suffering and less environmental waste.
If you want to know more about the benefit of turning vegan you can check out these movies,books and articles-
and these documentaries –
Ethical – Dominion on Youtube, Okja on Netflix.
Environmental – Cowspiracy on Netflix
Health – What the health, Forks over knives, Game changers on Netflix
I will say goodbye for now hoping that you guys will at least check these movies and articles out with an open mind and take it from there. Also, do visit Imagine cafe whenever you get a chance!