How a six month career break and trip to India inspired Rekha Mehr to turn her childhood love of Indian sweets into a luxury bakery.

Pistachio_Rose_inspired_by_travelTo most Brits, the phrase ‘Indian food’ conjures up images of masalas, vindaloos, bhajis and poppadoms – these anglicised versions of curry dishes have become a part of the national psyche.

But India is a huge country with much greater culinary diversity than this, and as Pistachio Rose founder Rekha Mehr discovered during a trip to India, Indian sweets and baked goods make up a huge part of the cultural diet.

Started in 2012, luxury Indian-inspired bakery Pistachio Rose aims to introduce these sweeter flavours to the UK. Rather than simply aping traditional sweets and desserts, Rekha lifts their distinctive flavours and infuses them into contemporary cakes, biscuits, bread and patisserie, creating fragile and elegant treats that please the eye as well as the palate.

Pistachio Rose’s unique treats have certainly caught the eye of some major industry figures; listed in luxury London department store Fortnum & Mason after just six months, the company was voted one of London’s best biscuit makers and has received glowing testimonials from BBC Food and the London Evening Standard, amongst other publications.

Here, Rekha tells her story:

Where were you when you got the idea?

I think it had always been lurking at the back of my mind but only really became clear when I was in India in 2011. I’d taken a six month career break and was enjoying a lot of local food!

Why were you so inspired?

I’ve always had a very active sweet tooth and grew up eating traditional Indian sweets as a result of my Anglo-Indian heritage. I fell in love with them straight away but as I’ve grown up, I feel that the flavours are being drowned in unnecessary butter and sugar.

I wanted more people to appreciate them by showing that, with careful balance, these flavours can be delicate.

Were you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it just seem too good to pass up?

I never thought I’d want to start my own business but I didn’t have a role waiting for me and it seemed like the perfect time to see if I could make it work.

sweetsHow easy was it to start the business on your return?

In theory I had it all figured out – I’d volunteer to get the necessary work experience and decide whether to open with a premises or to sell wholesale to start with. The reality of actually doing it can be quite overwhelming.

What research did you have to do?

I knew the flavours I wanted to create (given the unofficial research I’d conducted in my 30 years!) so I just practised until I achieved them. Being a keen baker came in handy and friends and family were more than happy to approve them! I also have a family base that I can take up when I need more inspiration.

What market data did you look at to be sure there was an opportunity in the UK?

There is very little public data on Indian sweets so I decided to look at a more local level and couldn’t find anybody producing sweet fusion bakery.

I worked in a cafe and spoke to other cafe owners to understand the operational input that would be required as well as the investment over the first few years.

How did you replicate what you’d seen overseas or use your experience there?

I did some research amongst extended friends and family and decided there was a definitely a need for something more delicate. I decided to start with minimal investment – given I didn’t have concrete proof of concept – and create a brand to be sold to food retailers rather than look to open an outlet.

How much did you invest in getting started?

I used my own savings to get started and spent £2,000-£3,000 in the first year after all takings. I was lucky to have friends work on my branding and charge me ‘mates rates’ on my website. I bought domestic cooking equipment as I knew it would be sufficient to get me through the first stage.

My most expensive purchase was a label printer to give me the flexibility of adding to my product range and to help keep a high quality finish without the high price tag. It’s pretty much paid for itself now.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you’d describe as ‘success’?

Hmm, they say you have to celebrate every small victory so you could say my first success was my first paid order just days after Pistachio Rose officially started. The next was selling at my first food market and making a profit a month later. Then I’d say it was more of the same for a few months which was great for confirming the concept and then being accepted into Fortnum & Mason.

Where did you go for advice?chocolate_festival

This was my biggest struggle as I was entering a new industry and had a lot of fear about making the wrong decisions. I tried looking for a mentor but it seemed overpriced and I felt I should have been able to cope without one. Big mistake!

Instead I went to lots networking events to find other people at the same stage or a little further ahead than me. I also started meeting other food businesses at the exhibitions and markets which was great.

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

Travelling is a hugely inspiring experience, not only because you see, taste and experience new things but also because you’re often left to absorb the full impact without stressful daily distractions.

I would say keep your eyes wide open and take little notes of new ideas that come your way – you never know how they might all join up in the end.

What are your future plans?

I plan to extend the availability of the products into top end delis and food halls and to actively market wedding planners.

My mission is to change the perception of Indian sweets and desserts in the UK so I’m open to any opportunity that helps me fulfil it!

Ryan Platt, published this post originally on startups