The Curious Pear Meet Karma Cans
11 March, 2015
In just one year, London-born sisters Gini and Eccie Newton have slowly but surely crept into the capital's culinary focus. Their lunchtime delivery service, Karma Cans, is inspired by Mumbai's seamless tiffin system, where office workers receive a home cooked lunch in stacked tins delivered to their desks by a team of deliverymen. These Dabbawala's hook the tins in mountainous piles onto their bicycles, returning them home at the end of each day. The tins are not labelled, colour-coordinated or marked, but the right meal is placed on the right desk in offices of hundreds without error every day. The system has confounded researchers for years, even prompting a team of academics from Harvard to observe the system back in 2010.
Inspired by this system and noting the demand in India's offices for homemade, wholesome food, Eccie founded Karma Cans with the intention to bring truly healthy food to London's own workplaces. Each tiffin tin is delivered by bicycle and fetched later that day, and the two have just introduced recyclable packaging as an option. "Lunch breaks may be shorter and more isolated than ever,' Eccie tell us, 'but they're also the best time of day to squeeze in nutrients, eat healthily and give yourself something to look forward to."
Formerly a chef in Michelin-starred Richmond restaurant Petersham Nurseries, Eccie uses her extensive knowledge of flavour and ingredients to create one meal a day for Karma Cans patrons using locally-sourced produce and exploring a range of different cuisines. Meanwhile Gini upholds the marketing and PR side of the company, helping out in the kitchen when orders come in thick and fast. The two recently topped The Magic Elephant's list of 'Female Entrepreneurs Under 30', and have appeared in The Huffington Post, Jellied Eel and Courier Paper in the last few months.
The two are ascertaining the force of fresh thinking, and are offering Londoners an exciting alternative to their stagnant lunch routines. At just 22 and 24, Gini and Eccie are developing a business that looks poised to flourish, with orders multiplying and loyal devotees rising. It is the mix of delicious, exciting food and sustainability that have grabbed the attention of London's food crowd. After all, what could spice up the daily grind more than a gifted chef whipping up a lunch hour feast for you each day? "Because there is only one choice we have to keep things interesting," Eccie explains, "It means tempering the experimental and balancing health with fulfilment."
We pull the two out of the Karma Cans kitchen to ask them what they're doing, where they're going and whether working with a sibling is really as sunny as they make it look.
The Curious Pear: Tell us what made you want to establish Karma Cans.
Gini: Both Eccie and I have always loved food. We noticed the London lunch market is saturated with unhealthy, unsatisfying and just plain unexciting food. We were bored of sandwiches that all tasted the same and salads that are as unhealthy as McDonald's. We wanted to bring excitement back into lunch while being as sustainable as possible. The concept for Karma cans was inspired by the Tiffin delivery system in Mumbai. It's a slightly different system out there, where your mother or wife is usually the one who makes your food from scratch in the morning, packing it in your tiffin and letting a dabbawalla take it to your desk.
Eccie: It was actually pointed out to us by a couple of friends who worked in the city and couldn't leave their desk at lunchtime. More than anything we love our product - packed lunches have always been underrated and we think it's time people saw them for the gold that they are!
CP: What inspires the recipes?
E: A lot of our recipes are inspired by travel. Last year I went to Myanmar for a few weeks and learned so much. Burmese food is incredible - really simple, fresh, and unexpected. This year when Karma Cans closed at Christmas I visited Japan, where I was amazed at the precision of the cooking and use of ingredients. They manipulate flavour in a whole different way. One thing that inspires our menu is our customers. We try to respond as much as possible to them. Because there isn't any choice, it's important to have a good idea of what's important in a lunchbox for our clients. We don't always get it right but we're flexible and we learn from the mistakes.
CP: Where do you typically source your ingredients?
E: New Spitalfields Wholesale for veg and J.T salads for rarer leaves and herbs. Mckenna Meats, too. Those guys are the best, they always cheer us up don't they Gini?
G: Yeah! ! Whenever Eccie makes me go to the butchers, at first I really dread lugging 4 massive bags of chicken to the kitchen, but they are so great they always make us smile.
E: For fish we go to Billingsgate. Lelu and Morris fish have a board above the stall that details where all their fish is from and how it was caught/farmed - helpful in the murky world of sustainable fishing.
CP: How is it working as sisters? Have you found out new things about each other?
G: At the beginning we had a lot of arguments, from how much coriander we should use to who makes the coffee. We have learnt that we work better when we do not get involved in each other's roles, meaning I don't get too involved in the kitchen. There are arguments because our creative ideas sometimes clash. The great thing about being sisters is that we can be completely honest with each other, for example if I hate Eccie's illustrations I will tell her, and she will definitely tell me. At the end of the day, blood is thicker then water so she has to forgive me…
E: I agree with Gini… makes a change doesn't it?! We both have our stronger and weaker areas. When Gini came on board it was obvious that she was a natural when it came to marketing, she's just really good with people in a way that I'm not. She's the mayonnaise in the sandwich and I'm the pickle! I see that it's her who forms most of our partnerships and collaborations, while I focus on the product. One thing that I really did discover was how organised she is. I'm not that organised and it's a bone of contention, but if that's the only tension then I'm happy.
CP: What's the company philosophy?
E: A great product delivered sustainably and you don't get a choice about that.
CP: Highlight of the year so far?
G: For me I think getting a book contract…you will have to wait and see what it's on. It was an amazing moment for us; at the same time we are still unbelievably panicked. Every success we have is riddled with fear. It's those big steps that are so overwhelming but exciting.
E: When you try and start a business, for every good thing that happens about ten bad things happen immediately afterwards. So for me, having a slow build up of little things is the best feeling. This week we moved into a real kitchen, got ten new followers on Twitter, a few customers emailed to say they liked a lunch, and we broke our record sales 4 weeks in a row. We had to fight for all those things.
CP: Where are you hoping to take Karma Cans further down the line?
E: I'd like to do 1000 lunches a day within the next three years.
G: We want to set up Karma Kitchens all around London so not only central London can enjoy our healthy lunches.
CP: Favourite places in London for a nutritious lunch?
E: Karma Cans, of course…! Yoobi in Soho is awesome, their Temaki is great. Also can I just say, Wagamama is great.
G: I really love Ottolenghi - I always enjoy lunch there or even cooking his recipes at home. We often go to Leather Lane for lunch. It's not always the healthiest option but Eccie and I love falafel so when we have had a really busy day there is nothing better then a falafel wrap from Chick.
CP: Favourite cuisines?
E: Everything! If someone really cares about the dish they're creating and they're skilled at making it, it's always going to taste good.
G: I agree, but I never get bored of Japanese!
Follow both Meg and Issue on @thecuriouspear and thecuriouspear.com