Anshu Ahuja talks to Business Matters about her vegan takeaway firm, DabbaDrop, and her golden rules for success.
Tell us about your business?
The idea for DabbaDrop came about when I was working as a TV Producer. Life was busy and there were always lots of decisions to be made.
My husband and I would order a takeaway and it would usually take a good half an hour to decide what to eat. Trying to find a restaurant that has good vegan or vegetarian options was always harder. By the time the meal turned up it would be 10pm; too late to eat. The food itself was never as fresh or delicious as we imagined it would be. Plus, there were often the plastic containers which we’d feel so guilty about.
I’m a Mumbai-born, passionate home cook who in 2014 was selected as one of the finalists on the food incubator scheme, Kitchenette. The scheme allowed me to launch a pop-up Indian tapas concept, Pao Wow at Stevie Parle’s Dock Kitchen.
However, it was Summer 2018, when I started cooking from home as a trial for what would later become DabbaDrop. Renee was one of the first friends to sign up for the trial and loved it so much it was a natural progression that she came on board to help grow the concept.
What was the main inspiration behind your company?
I was truly inspired by the dabbawala set up back home in Mumbai. Unlike a takeaway where you have to choose from an endlessly long menu, these delivery-only kitchens created weekly changing set menus of home-style food, so all you did was unpack and eat. Hassle-free dinner just when you needed it most! And no guilt; you just left the stainless-steel tiffin out to be collected next time around.
My business partner Renee said: “We wanted to create a convenient, tasty takeaway option that didn’t come with a guilty conscience. Customers pay a one-off fee for the reusable dabba (tiffin) which is then theirs to keep. They choose a frequency (either weekly or fortnightly), pick their start date and they’re all set! Our delivery cyclists collect the customers’ empty dabbas when they deliver the full ones – and so the cycle (of reusability) continues.”
What is your point of difference?
DabbaDrop is proud to be London’s first plastic and emissions free takeaway service. Customers pre-order with the subscription model so we know exactly how much food to cook meaning there’s minimal food waste. Our ethos is ‘planet before profit’ and by offering an alternative takeaway, we hope to encourage customers to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Since we started in November 2018, our customers have helped us save over 100,000 plastic containers from being used by delivering in our reusable dabbas. We’ve also made over 25,000kms of emission-free deliveries.
How do you spread the word about your business?
We work closely with our fantastic marketing, social media and PR team to help communicate what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Positioning ourselves as a lifestyle brand means we also share tips on how to live a more sustainable lifestyle which you can see on our Instagram.
How has business been during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Business has boomed over the last year! In the first lockdown we had over 800 customers on the waiting list as people were so eager for freshly cooked food made by someone else. We’ve since expanded to more areas across London and business continues to grow.
What’s the hardest thing about running a business?
As two mothers, we set up DabbaDrop to work around our families. One of the reasons for setting up on our own was so we could manage our own schedules and not miss pick-ups, drop offs and other school activities. While overall this works for us, we’re still always juggling, working after the kids have gone to bed and on weekends to ensure everything gets done. But having a co-pilot means the other can always step in if the other has a poorly kid or no childcare so the business is not affected too much if the other person is not there.
Have you received any financial support for your business?
We’re proud to say we haven’t received any investment for DabbaDrop. It started super small, providing meals for neighbours and then grew slowly over time which Renee and I completely self-funded.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
There are many things we are constantly trying to improve, and it’s been a gigantic learning curve for us both. Unlike Deliveroo and other delivery apps, we’re all about planning ahead. This idea took a while to grow on people, as of course so much of modern life is about being spontaneous and living in the moment.
But rather than change our model, we stuck at it, because we knew it was the right thing to do. When our customers plan ahead, it means we can buy the right quantities of ingredients and eliminate food waste in our kitchen.
We’d love to be feeding more people but we’ve learnt that changing people’s behaviour takes time. We’re starting to form a solid, loyal customer base who believe in our way of thinking, so it’s definitely been worth the wait and hopefully it won’t be long before people in other areas join our happy family of DabbaDroppers too.
What’s the best decision you’ve made so far?
By far the best decision we made was moving from a vegetarian menu to completely plant based. It was a no-brainer. We wanted our business model to be fully sustainable and we believe a plant-based diet is the future; for our health, for our planet. So much of Indian food is naturally vegan anyway so it was an easy shift and our customers loved it. Our customers have great things to say about our menus and we pride ourselves on celebrating the goodness of vegetables. If we can entice more people to follow a plant-based diet, even if it’s just one day a week, then that’s a win for the people and the planet.
Do you have any regrets?
I wish I’d started sooner. I’d been sitting on the idea for a while, but the timing was never quite right. If I could do anything differently it would be having the confidence to start sooner.
What are your three golden rules for success?
Perseverance, creativity and delegation! Basically, never give up on your dreams. There will always be obstacles along the way but with a bit of creative thinking you can find ways around them. And delegation – it’s tempting as a business owner to hold on to everything and do it yourself, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Although it’s hard sometimes to let go, passing on tasks to experts; from accountants to designers; things happen faster when you enlist the help of others.
I couldn’t run my business without…?
My Co-Founder, friend and confidant, Renee Williams! Starting out as neighbours and then friends, was a great basis for a business relationship and I feel really lucky to have found someone whose skills compliment mine. Renee and I share everything, running the business as well as childcare responsibilities. We take it in turns to watch the kids so the other can work and this set up works well for the both of us.
What’s next for your business?
We’re in the process of setting up a zero-waste online shop. We already have a wonderful community of DabbaDroppers who are helping with our mission to reduce plastic waste, and we plan to offer them a thoughtfully selected range of products that can aid a plastic-free lifestyle.
There’s also a couple of exciting projects in the pipeline, including development of some of our pickles and chutneys. We’re slowly expanding our current delivery radius across London and eventually we’d like to see Dabbadrop in other major cities across the UK.
DIY recipe kits are also on the cards. It would be much simpler and cheaper for us to choose single-use packaging for such things but that’s not what we set out to do. This means the development takes a little longer but we’re nearly there so watch this space!