Building the modern curry house

Meet one of the first vegan retailers in London: SpiceBox. Always slightly ahead, their founder Grace Regan talks honest food, tech startups, and the increasing importance of knowing customers personally.

The food business is a notoriously difficult one to get into. That’s why SpiceBox are making ‘veg with edge’ – vegan Indian food with a side order of personal service. Currently in their transition from street food at KERB, to a bricks and mortar site, it seems SpiceBox are definitely on the rise.

We spoke to founder and CEO, Grace Regan, who’s proving that you don’t have to be in tech to be forward thinking.

Curry with a kick

Grace started selling curry from her front door, cooking it all at home, and then “sort of fell” into street food, getting picked up by KERB, a vibrant street food market. Now she’s expanding and looking for a site to build out her first permanent curry house.

“We’re putting a modern, fresh spin on the classic British Indian curry house by making it vegan and making it as authentic as possible. We will do some dine-in but have a really strong focus on delivery and take-away. I go to India a lot, and make sure that I stay with local families and spend a lot of time in the kitchen with them. Home Indian cooking is definitely the root of everything we cook.”

“I do believe we’re building the modern curry house: I believe that the future is vegan, so it’s modern in that sense.”

From tech startup to food tech

Interestingly, this is not Grace’s first business. Even more interestingly, it seems her career began in an entirely different sector: in apps and tech. Grace founded a tech startup post-university and took it to an accelerator programme in Silicon Valley.  These accelerators are usually an intense 4-6 month programme whereby startups take on investment, build their business model very quickly and pitch the idea to investors at the end. Grace explains why the tech startup ‘dream’ wasn’t all it initially seemed:

“The thing is, it's very easy to come up with a theoretical idea, raise loads of money and never really follow it through. Everyone's got business ideas but they're not real solutions to real problems. There's nothing tactile about it: it felt like hot air and not much else. Obviously there are exceptions, but that's why food was such a necessary antidote to that world. With the food industry, you’re making a physical product: buying ingredients for a certain amount of money, spending a given amount and then selling it on for a price. It was a welcome break.”

Street food means working around the clock and there is a growing amount of competition in the market. But starting a food business in street food means that you can get to know your customer base, build relationships and gain recognition without some of the risk of opening a full restaurant.

“It's more hard work than anything I've done. But if you want to start a food business I can't really see a better way to do it. Some people just go straight in and open restaurants but it's a baptism of fire. I think our hard work in street food is definitely paying off.”

A little ahead of the curve

Grace’s time in California inspired her to think differently about food. There was a high variet of vegan food and different food branding that didn’t exist yet in London. Grace explains that the vegan food market has come into its own in London since she set up SpiceBox.

“Even just two years ago when I started...  we were only the second vegan trader with KERB. Obviously, there’s lots of vegan street food around now, but there wasn't when I started. We do a tandoori cauliflower with coriander chutney, which was always our signature. We did it before cauliflower steak was even a thing– we'd turn up at KERB and barbecue steaks of cauliflower rubbed in spice over charcoal, and everyone would say 'this is crazy I've never seen anything like this'. And now, lo and behold – it's everywhere!”

On keeping the personal touch

With forward thinking food, its unsurprising that the service that SpiceBox intend to deliver from their new store is also going to be slightly different. They are planning on doing delivery in-house, as a cultural response to the delivery giants like Deliveroo, where customers know the delivery company bringing the food, rather than the restaurant themselves.

“We’re really focused on community and that really personal interaction you have with the places you eat and the places you like going to. I think – why not know the people that make and deliver your food? Technology is a great thing and it will enable us to do lots of things, we couldn’t do before, and way more efficiently, but there's going to be an increased demand for personal business practice, for want of a better phrase. Food is such an intrinsic part of our day-to-day survival, it’s such an emotional thing. I think the 'food tech' industry is a walking contradiction. You know ­– we're humans and we'll always want people to be nice to us. It’s all just a bit different. It's harder, but a bit more interesting.”

Look out for SpiceBox and their vibrant vegan food at KERB – and for updates on their new, permanent location.  

‘Image source: https://www.bighospitality.co.uk/Article/2017/10/23/Currying-favour-SpiceBox-hunt-for-a-permanent-site-after-raising-450k

by Frances McMonagle
Originally from “Up North“, since moving to London a few years back Fran has made it her mission to make the most out of living in the city. She can usually be found with a green tea, coffee or cocktail in hand busy taking far too many photos.

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