In 2012, Damini Mohan was feeling anxious about the future. She had been laid off from her job in Edmonton, and work opportunities were scarce. She applied for grad school, law school, and spent a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking her favourite meals.
“I would just stay home and cry because I had nothing going on,” Mohan says.
Her niece urged Mohan to dry her tears and put her passion to use: “Do something productive. You cook really well; why don’t you try selling your food? Open a café or something!”
She initially brushed her niece’s words off as a joke, shaking her head over what she thought was a far-fetched idea. But after chatting with a cousin who echoed the sentiment that Mohan was a phenomenal cook, she realized there might be something to the idea after all. She found herself reflecting on how she could start her own business.
Mohan had fond memories growing up of going to the farmers’ market every weekend with her mother, and that become her lightbulb moment. She decided she would cook delicious and authentic Indian food and sell it at farmers’ markets in Edmonton.
The only problem was she usually left the traditional Indian dishes to her family. Luckily, her mother was willing to teach Mohan her cooking skills, and together in their home kitchen they cooked and perfected the coconut chicken, daal, chana masala, and samosas they sell today.
With no experience in the food industry, and no clue how to run a booth, Mini Kitchen made its debut at one farmers’ market. Mohan remembers their first day at the market. They forgot the tablecloth, there was no signage, and they made less than $200 that day.
“It was a disaster,” Mohan laughs. “There’s three people I remember from the first market. They took pity on me and bought food on the first day. And they still buy food from me.”
Five years later the frozen meals are available at most farmers’ markets in Edmonton, available for purchase at 10 retail locations throughout Alberta, and delivered through SPUD and Organic Box.
Many of the people who buy from them are repeat customers, eager for Indian dishes that taste like meals spooned out at the family table. As more and more people were drawn to their products, Mohan learned to adapt their business plan based on feedback. Mini Kitchen started offering less traditional options, like butter chicken and vegan Thai curries, due to customer demand. Butter chicken remains to this day one of their most popular meals. Mohan decided that even with less traditional dishes, they would never compromise on spiciness.
“We don’t tone down Indian food.”
They source their ingredients locally whenever they can, from fruits and vegetables grown in Alberta to coriander seed from Saskatchewan.
While Mini Kitchen continues to grow, it’s still a family business. Mohan, her partner, and parents all play a large role in everything from cooking in the kitchen and managing employees, to being a friendly face at farmers’ markets, while her brother and sister-in-law pitch in when things get hectic. A dedicated kitchen staff keep the potatoes peeled and the carrots chopped.
Her advice to other small business owners is to invest in the business. That first step for Mini Kitchen was hiring employees.
One of Mohan’s first employees is still working for Mini Kitchen: “Prior to that she’d never had a job before. When she lived in India her husband worked. When she started working [in Canada], she could afford to send money to her parents in India rather than just her husband’s parents. It was very enlightening for us to realize we are actually making a difference in somebody’s life.”
A point of pride for Mohan is moving out of the home kitchen to rent a larger space and eventually building their own facility.
“I never thought we would move into our own facility. We moved from our home kitchen to renting a facility, to building our own, in five years. I think that is something I hadn’t even fathomed when we started all of this. That has been incredible.”
When reflecting on how far she’s come from cooking for comfort in her home kitchen and feeling unsure of her future, she’s also proud of figuring out how to navigate the world of small business on her own: ͞At school and university we are never taught how to run a business or do your taxes. You take things for granted. One of the things I’ve realized is how people take employers for granted. I used to do that too.”
While running the day-to-day operations of Mini Kitchen involves a lot of long hours, she doesn’t hesitate about what she loves most about the job.
“Getting up at 10 am,” she laughs. “Working on my own terms is my favourite part. And I love being in the kitchen!”