Anishya Kumar is a food entrepreneur and founder of the innovative food brand Zinda Foods. She was recently awarded Businesswoman of The Year in the British Indian Awards. Having been given the opportunity to sell her own ready meals at a local convenience store in 2014, Anishya noticed that her filled wraps were proving the most popular with shoppers. She founded Zinda Foods in 2016 and set up her small factory producing hand-made wraps in West Drayton, Middlesex. Now her unique, award-winning palm oil free AirWraps are available in selected Tesco stores.
Anishya, can you tell us a little about your background and how you first got into the food industry?
I was born into a multi-cultural family in Bombay and this set the stage for my culinary adventure with food. The food served on our dinner table at home represented this diversity, with my mixed background and today I draw inspiration from this wonderful assortment of micro-cuisines I have been influenced by as a child.
The products I trialed and tested had influences from around the globe. Some influenced by the mixed heritage I was born into and the rest from travel, ingredients and cooking techniques I’m hugely passionate about.
When I relocated to the UK 13 years ago, I found that the only way to eat the food I grew up on was to cook it myself, so I tried my hand at small- scale catering. It was certainly a far cry from my avowed profession as a highly qualified business consultant. The local independent stores Londis and Budgens listed my products even though they were not predominantly food-to-go focused stores.
The products did well in the stores and the consumer repurchase was significantly high. Considering they were all distinctly different products to anything else on the shelves and devoid of any elaborate branding, packaging or marketing. We also had industry recognition and validation through awards which led me to believe that our products filled a much needed-gap in the market. I took a leap of faith by switching over to a professional business-like approach by setting up a bespoke factory that could scale-up operations and make the products on a commercially viable level while still retaining its rustic handmade charm.
Now our kitchen table product has leapfrogged onto the shelves of the largest supermarket, Tesco. Starting with 50 stores we are now being ranged nationally across all the high-density food-to-go Tesco stores across the UK.
There comes a time when you realise there’s no sense in waiting for the perfect moment. You just have to jump in and hope for the best.
Our growth has been very organic. Nothing forced. I like going with my instincts and draw positivist from every opportunity that comes my way and gain important learnings or take-aways from those that don’t. There is always a purpose in walking away from things that are not meant to be.
Considerable strategic planning and implementation is done ahead of what the route to market should be. But trusting one’s gut is as important and sometimes you have to believe in the natural path the product will carve for itself especially in our case where it is a consumer driven one. I like to feel the pulse of the market and the heartbeat of the consumer!
How was the concept of the AirWrap born?
The product was born out a raw natural state. It has simplicity in terms of ingredients but complexity in process with the skill required to make it. Upon refining it from a kitchen table concept to making it commercially viable I had to trademark the recipe and process. And so the product was named as the “AirWrap” as it reflects the technique required to make it, as well as the descriptive nature of it being super light- as light as air!
What was so different that people liked?
A natural and fresh tasting product will always win over an ultra-processed industrialised one. I think the clean fresh taste of our handmade Airwrap with its light flaky texture helps the fillings shine through. It does not have a doughy bottom like most tortilla wraps do. It’s also versatile and soft and delicious when warmed up holding the moist fillings well inside the light, paper thin wrap.
The filled AirWraps come with the added benefit of being better for you too. Each filling has been carefully created to give balanced nutrition with compelling claims like having 1 of your 5 a day, high protein, low saturated fats and all below 400 calories. Achieving this while not compromising on flavour and taste was our main priority.
To set the benchmark high and to stand out from the rest we drew inspiration from Michelin-starred Chef Alfred Prasad for authenticity of flavour profiles and provenance of ingredients. We didn’t want to cut corners anywhere. So for example our Chicken Caesar, is not just your average Chicken Caesar. It has 10 times more premium ingredients in the mix & 70% more protein (lean chicken) in it, but still the lowest calorie Chicken Caesar wrap in the market today with no compromise on flavour and gives our customers value for money.
One of the key things about your AirWraps is that they have no additives, no preservatives, no trans fats and no palm oil in the base. Why is that important?
I think they’re unnecessary and we’ve proved that you can produce in equal measure or volume a better alternative to the ultra-processed tortillas, free from all these nasties. Our AirWrap is a bread based product and bread has been at the centre of so many international cuisines and feasts for generations. It’s one of the most natural products in the world.
We have to change our mindset about buying such a functional product where we don’t question some of the nasty ingredients in them such as calcium propionate and trans fats. We have to ask ourselves if we think it’s ok to have a packet of tortillas last for 3 months in an ambient shelf and those same ones used to make sandwich wraps. It’s simply not natural to have bread based product last that long! It’s as simple as that.
Palm oil is a double edged sword. It’s used either as an oil, fat or derivative to increase shelf life. Since we didn’t need this to start with, we naturally didn’t have this as part of our ingredient list. On the sustainability front, deforestation in any form is something we as a company cannot subscribe to. And since sustainable palm oil and full traceability of using sustainable palm oil is very much only at a nascent stage, we have opted out.
What are the main challenges in the food industry today?
The food industry faces a number of challenges such as Brexit, allergen control and declaration, health versus clean label, hugely changing consumer trends and needs and the list is endless.
My approach as an entrepreneur is to adopt a very hands-on approach. I try to understand every aspect of my business thoroughly. Food safety is my number one priority. People management is also challenging and in my opinion, the most critical skill one needs as an entrepreneur.
Having worked in India I was accustomed to deal with uncertainties, unreliability and ambiguity of many situations. Learning to assess situations quickly to problem solve has been critical to confront and overcome the many obstacles we face as entrepreneurs on a daily basis.
Who are some of the characters or people in the food world that have most inspired you?
There’s a small café in India called “Sheroes” close to the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It is run by female victims of acid attacks. I find it amazing to just be there - to feel the energy and positive vibes from the women who run it. Food cooked and served by these incredibly strong, independent, brave women who have come out of hiding from the world, having gone through such brutality, is inspirational.
It motivates me to hear their stories and the passion they put behind their new found life in the cafe. I always remember a quote from them “We women are getting something more powerful than revenge, we call it: independence.”
Have you ever had a moment where you wanted to give it all up?
Several! I’ve had many moments where I’ve wanted to throw in the towel. But I always try and look at the bigger picture. I keep telling myself that no matter what “I will always back my product”. I stand by what I’ve created.
Facing difficulties has taught me to focus, self-analyse and overcome odds when they arise. And the only way to surge ahead is to have self-belief, grit and determination. It helps me maintain symmetry with my objectives and goals.
Do you feel more creative and irrational, or the other way around?
I miss the creative thrill, as daily production of the same products can get monotonous. Which is why NPD is driven by me. I like to get my creative juices going by really thinking out of the box. We are an innovative company and so to bring any creation to life it has to be distinctly different to anything out there.
What is the most important ingredient in your kitchen?
The AirWrap of course! Without the base (carrier) there’s nothing to wrap the fillings into!
Do you have a secret to living a fulfilled life?
Life is a purpose unto itself. Most of us have become a bundle of thoughts, emotions, ideas, opinions and prejudices. And for that reason, I do not feel I need to invent a purpose for life, as then I’ll spend more time thinking about life rather than living it! The way I look at it is that we’re all here to contribute in some way and in doing so we make this a conscious process of contributing to everyone’s life through work, family and other aspects.
I see how I can give my best to everything and everyone around me. And then I don’t worry about it or live in regret of not doing or giving as much. That for me is fulfilment.