In the spring of 2012, Shikha Jain and Shiv Puri founded Bombay Sandwich Co., a vegetarian quick serve food business with sandwiches, salads, chutneys and smoothies inspired from Bombay to Brooklyn. Their concept of serving healthy, high quality on-the-go meals quickly grew a following at the infamous Smorgasburg food festival in Brooklyn. They've become so popular, in fact, the duo is opening their first cafe in Chelsea NYC this October.
We had the opportunity to chat with Shiv Puri of Bombay Sandwich Co. about being a successful food entrepreneur and his experience in the food startup process.
LFL: Why did you and Shikha decide to launch Bombay Sandwich Co.?
SHIV: I had always wanted to get into the food biz, and after after celebrating a birthday party in 2011 at Smorgasburg on the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn - and sampling a handful of the countless artisanal, specialty food vendors, we thought that being a vendor at Smorgasburg could be a low-risk way to test out our own concept, and that if it doesn’t work out then we can fold up, and if it works then we’ll see how it goes as we learn.
Shikha and I decidedly made a menu that reflected our own dietary needs: as health-conscious, active and vegetarian New Yorkers on the go, we were growing tired of limited vegetarian options at eateries throughout the city, which were usually tasteless, trying to imitate the taste of meat and cheese using highly processed ingredients, deep fried and unhealthy or all of the above. So we put some of our favorite home recipes into sandwich form, and paired them with fresh, homestyle chutneys and salads that are prepared gently and with ayurvedic herbs and spices for optimal health. We use local and organic ingredients and some popular items on our menu include our Organic Quinoa & Chickpea Sandwich which comes topped with tamarind and date chutney, green apple and mint chutney, shredded carrots pickled with mustard and coriander seed, crunchy chickpea flakes and optional “Super Spice Me” hot sauce - a special recipe from my mom’s farm in Punjab, India.
What surprised you the most about the food startup process?
How important it is to stay organized and be on top of your business. There are so many things you have to do when you start: legally setup your company, get a federal tax ID, a Certificate of Authority, a food handlers license and a permit from FDNY to use propane at outdoor festivals, purchase insurance and most important: figure out your operations - from ingredient sourcing, keeping track all receipts and all income and expenses for accounting and bookkeeping, setting up a bank account, paying taxes, knowing which equipment to buy, how to store items, how to coordinate how much food to make depending on the weather forecast for the food festival...the list goes on! I’m a spreadsheet guy (my background is in finance), so I keep track of all this in a master spreadsheet using Google Docs.
What business concept was the most eye-opening as you launched your startup?
Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. We received so much great advice and avoided some mistakes by asking those more experienced from us (restaurateurs, other vendors, and also friends and family who had started their own business in various fields and industries). At first it was a little intimidating, but we soon realized that most people were often open and friendly enough to talk.
Which professional or personal individual were the most crucial as you grew from idea stage to pilot stage?
It certainly helps having a partner in business. I’m really lucky to work with my wife who is much more “business savvy” than me! Having someone you trust to bounce a million ideas off of, and get honest feedback from, has helped us fine tune what we’re doing. It’s not always rosy working with your spouse, but we tend to make a great team by working off of each others strengths. I’m really very thankful for that.
What did you learn from your customers that surprised you?
We make a hot sauce with a recipe from my mom’s family farm in Punjab, India and though I can handle my share of heat, I personally think it’s quite spicy! Which is why we keep it on the side - none of our sandwiches or salads are inherently spicy since we prefer a more balanced approach. But if you want your sandwich spicy I put just a little drop and it seems to do the trick. What surprises me is that every now and then a customer will come up and gobble spoonfuls of it down without flinching! I'd say that 90% of our customers like it spicy - much higher than I would've anticipated.
What are your plans for growing Bombay Sandwich Co. going forward?
We’re in the process of opening our first brick and mortar cafe by October. It’s on 27th St. and 6th Avenue in Chelsea, NYC. This is a whole other topic in itself, but again staying organized is the only way to navigate everything from finding a suitable commercial space, negotiating a lease, dealing with lawyers, contractors, architects, city agencies, and of course, your landlord.
What advice do you have for food entrepreneurs who are just getting started?
Take risks, but hopefully they’re calculated risks and you’ve thought it on paper. You have to know what you’re getting into, and be prepared to constantly learn and adapt. Before I had made up my mind of going into the food business, a lot of people tried to talk me out of it. “Oh, it’s too much work. It’s backbreaking." "The failure rate in the food industry is so high, it’s too competitive." "Customers can be tough." "Your employees will be even tougher." "Don’t do it!” But I asked for help, stayed organized and was open and willing to adapt and change. I do believe that luck and timing has a lot to do with it, too. You have to be in the right place at the right time, otherwise it can be a slow, drawn out process that can be draining. We’re lucky to be serving nutritious vegetarian food when a lot of people are changing to a healthier diet and are more aware about the foods they eat and how they’re prepared.
Anything else you'd like to add?
We’ll be on the Cooking Channel on Kelsey’s Essentials on September 18th! And come visit us at our first cafe opening in Chelsea this October!
Follow Bombay Sandwich Co. on Twitter.