This article first appeared on Benojo on May 16, 2016. Image courtesy of Eat Me Chutneys.
Eat Me Chutneys is a social enterprise created by mother and son team Jaya and Ankit Chopra. The pair describe themselves as a ‘self-professed chutney queen’ and ‘an annoying Michelin-trained chef’ who make socially good jars of very tasty chutneys and pickles. Ankit took some time to share their story with us.
An organic evolution
Eat Me Chutneys is one mighty impressive social enterprise start up. The Sydney-based business is a Certified B Corporation, their signature tamarind chutneys are Fairtrade-certified, and they are a business partner of the NSW Environment Protection Authority’s (EPA) Love Food, Hate Waste program. They rescue and use imperfect produce that may otherwise be destined for landfill to make their chutneys and pickles, use organic produce and Fairtrade sugar and spices, and they train and employ disadvantaged female job seekers. You’d think that all this was the result of a strategic vision shared by Ankit and his mother for Eat Me Chutneys, but he says this certainly wasn’t the case.
“We never had a grand plan of starting a social enterprise,” he explains. “It just kind of happened.” Ankit says that Eat Me Chutneys – a name taken from his father one day opening the family’s fridge door and claiming that the chutneys were saying ‘eat me’ to him – was very much an organic evolution, which was strongly influenced by his childhood and his family’s approach to food.
He cites fond memories of his father growing vegetables in their home country of India, and later New Zealand when they moved there as a family. “My brother and I grew up with vegetables that were weird and wonky. It was very normal for us to have carrots with two legs.”
“The funny thing was when we first migrated to New Zealand we went to the supermarket and everything [the produce] looked the same. We thought: What the hell is this? Aren’t they supposed to be crooked?”
Ankit says that Eat Me Chutneys started as a “little retirement plan of sorts” for his mother. He had encouraged her to make and sell her tasty tamarind chutneys, which were so popular among her friends and their community, at local markets. He admits he ended up “hijacking her weekend business” and worked with her to grow the business and range.
All for Fairtrade
Together, they spent many hours trying to identify Fairtrade sugar and spice suppliers and local farmers who sold organic and ‘imperfect’ produce. “We were calling up all these sugar and spice producers in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Afghanistan – everywhere to source all these things we wanted to be Fairtrade. Through that we learnt so much about how the supply chain works.”
Ankit says becoming Fairtrade-certified [for their tamarind and fig chutney] and recognised as a B Corporation have been personal highlights. “When we got our B Corporation certification, the lady that certified us joked: you’re a start up shouldn’t you think about breaking even first?“
A change is coming
Ankit says the decision to create a business that was sustainable and ethical was one that “simply made sense”. It’s a humble response from someone who is a graduate of the Stanford Social Entrepreneurship Executive program and was an INSEAD Social Entrepreneur in Residence.
Having dabbled in the corporate world, Ankit says he has sensed a shift in recent years on the part of businesses and consumers. He notes that during the early stages of the business they had to often explain and educate customers about food waste and why they used ‘rescue’ vegetables to make their chutneys. Now imperfect produce can be found in the fruit and vegetable section of most major supermarkets like Harris Farm and Woolworths.
“I think it is definitely changing,” he adds. “Gone are the days where corporates had a CSR arm, gradually now the CSR side of things is coming very much back into their core model. There is so much dialogue, interaction and promotion, particularly nowadays with social media. These issues [sustainability and ethics] aren’t exactly hidden away from people now. People are talking about these things day in, day out. People are starting businesses purely around a social issue. So I don’t think businesses can afford to be left behind. It may just take them more time.”
In it for the long run
“You don’t get into a social enterprise to try and fix something fast. Social issues don’t go away fast. You need to be in it for the next 100 years! You need to have that kind of mindset,” says Ankit of starting and growing a social enterprise. “I’m sure it will be a very exciting time ahead.”