Arts & Life
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Poke through most refrigerators in town and you’re almost guaranteed to spot a container of mustard resting next to a bottle of mayo sitting next to a jar of relish.
Ashish Selvanathan, founder of Cheeky Foods Co., a two-year-old, home-based operation that turns out all-natural Indian foodstuffs based on decades-old recipes originally developed by his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, is hoping to add chutney to that list of everyday condiments.
"In India, chutney is the type of thing you would pick up each time you go to the store, much like how milk and butter are here," he says, seated in a St. Mary’s Road coffee shop, dressed in a dark sweater and jeans. "In Canada it’s more of a specialty item people grab only when they’re having something like samosas. My goal is to change people’s mindset, to get them thinking about using chutney on burgers, hot dogs, eggs... anything they’d normally top with something like ketchup or salsa, pretty much."
Selvanathan, 32, was born in Varanasi, a historic city in northern India that is also the birthplace of musician Ravi Shankar, whose proficiency on the sitar heavily influenced the Beatles and Rolling Stones. His mother Nandita isn’t just an accomplished chef. She’s also a biological research scientist whose early work took her across her home nation, as well as throughout the United Kingdom. By the time Selvanathan was 16, he’d attended, by his count, 15 different schools, a set of circumstances he didn’t particularly enjoy at the time but currently looks back on more favourably.
"It was quite confusing, conversing in Sanskrit in class and speaking Bengali at home with my mother and brother," he says. "Then we moved to Ireland, where I was taught Gaelic, then to England where I had to learn Latin. Growing up, it didn’t seem like the best childhood but now that I’m older I realize it was probably one of the richest experiences I could have asked for."
In 2004, Nandita was recruited to do research at Winnipeg’s Loveday Mushroom Farms, recently acquired by American producer South Mill Champs. She and her two sons moved to Winnipeg in September of that year, just in time for Selvanathan to enrol at Gordon Bell High School. Compared with private academies he’d attended abroad, roaming the halls of the public, inner-city school was a bit of an eye-opener, he admits.
Manitoba’s climate — OK, the winter months — also took some getting used to. "I had never seen snow before. I come from a region in India where it gets to 44 above (Celsius). Trying to explain minus 40 to family back home was impossible. ‘You simply have to experience it,’ I’d tell them."
After completing Grade 12, he attended the University of Winnipeg, graduating with a degree in neuroscience. He landed a government position in his chosen field soon thereafter. Disillusioned with his "nine-to-five existence," however, he started thinking about heading in a different direction, career-wise, in March 2017.
"Nobody in my family had ever been an entrepreneur. Almost all are researchers, scientists, mathematicians, lawyers…. However, I always felt business was a very creative field in and of itself," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "It gives people enjoyment of the product or service one is providing and I wanted to explore that side of me, rather than just the academia I’d achieved to date."
Selvanathan can’t put his finger on a specific, a-ha moment when he hit on the idea of establishing a personal line of Indian foods. Rather, it was a bit of a drawn-out process during which he spent weeks pondering what he could conjure up that was new and different, or superior to what was readily available. While shopping he had noticed almost all the commercially produced chutneys in the grocery aisle contained additives, colouring agents and preservatives, nothing at all like the made-from-scratch chutneys he’d grown up eating. Perhaps that was an avenue worth pursuing, he thought.
After developing a few recipes in concert with Food & Beverage Manitoba and Red River College’s Prairie Research Kitchen, it was time for a name. Some suggested he tag his fledgling biz something along the lines of Taj Mahal Chutney or Great Indian Chutney. It was his girlfriend Jennifer who proposed Cheeky Foods Co., a moniker he embraced immediately. It’s catchy, smart-alecky in a way, he agreed, "like a cheeky little monkey."
Cheeky Foods Co. made its official debut in 2018 at the Downtown Winnipeg Farmers’ Market. Describing himself as "not really a public speaker, relatively reserved," he says it was initially difficult to to put himself "out there" in an attempt to persuade passers-by to to try out chutney flavours such as mango and tamarind. "Those first few markets felt a little overwhelming at times but at the end of the day Winnipeggers were very, very responsive. People attending markets like St. Norbert and Pine Ridge (Hollow) are expecting to discover new things and tastes, I would say, and they seemed more than happy to give my stuff a chance."
By February of this year everything was coming up... cheeky. In addition to bottled chutney, Selvanathan had developed a line of masalas, or powdered spice mixes, that were readily available in a few Sobeys and Safeway locations. His masalas work a bit like Hamburger Helper, he explains. Add the contents to cooked poultry or seafood and presto-change-o, you have butter chicken or vindaloo shrimp, ready in five minutes. Besides that, he and his mother were also heading up a series of well-attended cooking classes, during which they imparted their knowledge of Indian cuisine to as many as 20 students at a time. All of that, including in-store demos, ground to a halt in mid-March owing to COVID-19.
"Unfortunately, almost all our momentum was lost because of the pandemic. For a while we did not make any sales," he states matter-of-factly, stressing that while there was much discussion on the evening news about grocery store shelves being emptied out, that applied more to toilet paper and bleach than chutney and masalas. That said, toward the end of April an interesting development began to take place: Winnipeggers familiar with his wares from local farmers’ markets — people unaware it was available in select stores — started getting in touch.
"They reached out through social media channels, mentioning they love my stuff and asking how to get it. Through my website some purchased 12 (packets) at a time. Not only was this exciting and completely out of the blue, I got to meet many customers face-to-face for the first time, and gained some insight into who is a fan of what."
Selvanathan has spent the last several months, his "downtime," he calls it, developing a new line of all-natural, superfood blends for smoothies (coconut and chai, anyone?), while also burying himself in philosophy tomes and working out; with local gyms shuttered he converted his living room into a makeshift workout space. This month he began breathing new life into his brand, with the intention of appearing at as many fall and winter pop-up markets as possible. (To find out where he plans to be from week to week, pandemic-willing, check out his Instagram page.)
"There is an analogy on the internet that says starting a business is like chewing glass and staring into space at the same time. It’s painful and you don’t know what you’re looking at. And while it was definitely challenging going from a steady cheque to figuring out how I was going to pay the bills, week to week, day to day, it’s been very exciting at the same time. Whenever you make a sale it gives you a sense of confidence, by reassuring you that you have something to offer the world."
For more information go to www.getcheeky.ca.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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