Nostalgia is a definitive by-product of grandmothers’ cooking, triggering memories of food made with love, intuition, and authority. It pales the experience of swift and perfunctory ease of “ordering in” from a dozen options at the swipe of a finger. Tapping on the same sentimental value and her Parsi heritage, Gurugram-based Shelley Subawalla, 43, has been delighting foodies with Zarin’s Secrets, a business hinged on her grandmother’s ingredients and recipes.
“As a Parsi, I was brought up with pride for the community. Most of it was associated with food, and the one person who was the epitome of this, was my grandmother, Zarin Gimi. It was only fitting to name my dishes and ingredients venture after her,” says Subawalla.
Before setting up Zarin’s Secrets in 2015, Subawalla’s career trajectory included a multitude of roles and sectors including interning at a leading advertising agency, being a marketing lead at an American startup, managing online back end support for a life-coaching group and administration for an advertising company again. Compared to the different hats that she has worn, including that of a homemaker, being an entrepreneur has been the most challenging and fulfilling.
“I never thought that my passion for cooking would become a business venture. Friends and family encouraged me to give home-made Parsi spices and recipes a chance in the market. I didn’t realize that there would be a sustained demand for something I’d been making for my family for years,” says Subawalla. It’s been almost three-and-a-half years, and the demand has only increased. “Since overheads are not too much, Zarin’s Secret has been profitable from the word go,” she says.
Why the idea worked
“Many of my friends find Parsi food exotic and difficult to prepare,” says Subawalla. “The idea was to bust this myth and offer packed condiments and ingredients, along with recipes of dishes that one can prepare with them. It’s the perfect amalgam of home-made food with the thrill of eating something new.”
But friends alone did not trigger the move towards business. Subawalla is passionate about showcasing her culture. The dwindling number of Parsis in the country and fading authentic traditions have been on her mind for a while. “My venture started due to generations of recipes handed over to me. If I didn’t have a particular recipe someone wanted, I foraged around and was given recipes from other families. For example, my limbs nu Bachchan and green curry masala come from the Jalnawala family. All the products in the Zarin’s Secrets repertoire come from either my great grandmother or some other Parsi family’s great grandmother. All equally old, equally authentic, and precious,” says Subawalla.
Managing the business
The one-woman show is run from Subawalla’s home in Gurugram, where the kitchen is the main stage. Two part-timers help to keep the “buy, chop, cook, seal, pack and dispatch” wheels churning. “I have a contract with a courier company that delivers all over India, and I go to the post office to send the international packages,” explains Subawalla about her operations. The next most important part of the business is an online presence. Subawalla handles social media, photography and sales generation on her own and credits social media for a large part of her sales. “I keep my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages active by posting regularly. Since the visual appeal is so important, posting images on different platforms help my dishes get more resonance with the audience,” she says.
Not being taken seriously by vendors or being squeezed for prices on the assumption that she may be a weak negotiator are battles that Subawalla meets daily. And then there is the work-home tight rope as a mother that is essential to walk on, every day. Subawalla does feel that delegating some of the work would be blissful and plans to take up a small office and kitchen space soon.
Being covered by favorite food blogs and featured in Parsi publications are personal achievements for Subawalla, but the real delight comes from patrons, who strike an intimate relationship.
“A newly married lady messaged requesting me to WhatsApp the recipes of dishes that I showcase on my Facebook page so that she could learn and cook for her husband. Then there was this 90-year-old lady, who called after reading about me in the Parsiana (Parsi publication) and had a wonderful chat on the telephone before ordering. My uncle especially messaged to say that the vacant (Parsi Chawanprash) I had sent him reminded him of his grandmother, who was known for her cooking and vacant. These are the wins that make my heart swell with pride,” says Subawalla.