Vidhi Shah Is Making The World Kinder With Her Imagine Cafe
25-year-old Mumbai-based Vidhi Shah is an architect with Marathon Realty. A certified foodie, her weekends often consisted of trying out new places to eat at in Mumbai which had made her quite the Zomato star next door.
A Lifestyle Change
Six months ago, she decided to make a serious lifestyle change and turn vegan. Her inspiration came from her colleague and best friend Ritwik Roy, a hardcore Bengali non-vegetarian who had suddenly turned vegan a year and a half ago.
“I am a Gujarati Jain and a proud vegetarian by birth. I never used leather products even before I turned vegan. The roots of compassion were always there within me but I always turned a blind eye towards the atrocities in the dairy industry and always consoled myself by thinking that being vegetarian, I was doing enough good. But then Ritwik slowly started throwing facts about the dairy industry at me and planted the seeds of my decision to turn vegan.” she explains.
The duo had just completed an important architectural project together when Ritwik decided to take a month off and try his hand at vegan cooking. Since he hadn’t eaten dairy for over a year, he’d call Vidhi for tasting assistance. She’d send him back to the drawing board with her feedback over and over again till they successfully made the perfect vegan cheese.
"The only reason I’d been choosing to ignore the atrocities of the dairy industry was because I loved my cheese, butter, paneer, and chocolate very much. But now I knew that I could have guilt-free versions of all these things which were way healthier for me as well our environment.
We slowly figured out cheese, cheese sauce, mayonnaise, butter and then started cooking with these core ingredients. I signed up for Veganuary 2018 and let me tell you I had the most foodgasmic January of my whole life. Every day we would cook a dish and eat it all by ourselves. I probably must be the first person to gain 5kgs in the first month of turning vegan!” she laughs.
There was no looking back for her and she turned completely vegan.
From being A Vegan To Owning A Vegan Café
Vidhi soon realized that it was very hard to find vegan delivery options. “There’s only so much triple Schezwan rice you can eat,” she says.
Empathetic to the plight of many fellow vegans probably facing the same ordeal, the two had the idea of opening their own vegan café.
"It has always been my dream - retirement plan actually - to open a quaint cosy cafe - and now it was seeming more and more important to open one. From personal experience, I knew lecturing wouldn't make people turn vegans - Only good food will. The reassurance that I won't have to give up on those cheese, paneer or chocolate or even meat cravings will convince people and give them the willpower to try and go vegan. Slowly we started calling our friends over to taste the food and give feedback. Their feedback gave us a lot of encouragement.”
Motivated by their friends’ feedback and a desire to make the world a little kinder to animals, Vidhi knew it was time to take the plunge.
“I am an odd Gujarati because I hate businesses. I really love my present job and was very happy with it. But this cafe was now no more a dream or retirement plan but a necessity for both of us. So we decided to build a business model mainly to figure out how much investment it would take, etc. while working on our present jobs. We told a broker to look out for available shops in a particular complex in Mulund since it was really close to our place of stay and work.
When the broker got back to us we came to know that there were only 4 shops left to be leased out in the entire complex with around 150 shops. This was when we knew we cannot just keep messing around in our kitchen anymore - If we want to do it, we have to do it NOW. And that's it, we did not overthink it. We chose the shop and paid the token. I think it was around 4-5 days time between the broker getting back to us and us paying the token. Once we started thinking, and planning and getting scared we had already paid the token for space and now there was no going back, just moving ahead.” she smiles.
The Café Vidhi Created
This was how Mumbai’s first ever completely vegan café, Imagine Café was created. Their focus is to make the food vegan and indulgent. "There is a popular vegan eatery in Berlin which has a big neon sign over the bar counter that reads: ‘no f**king salads’.
Many vegan eateries conflate veganism with no gluten, no sugar, and even no oil - this is very commendable and props to these places for trying to pioneer something new.
But it’s not the kind of food we always crave. Sometimes we want that sloppy burger and we want to dip the fried cheese in some melted cheese. Our menu will have a lot of indulgent food. I think it’s important to know that you have these options and we believe the inclusion of these indulgent foods will help make the process of turning vegan and staying vegan a whole lot easier.” she says.
Another guiding force for them is Miyoko Schinner, an author of a book on vegan cheese. Her brand Miyoko’s Creamery is positioned as being ‘phenomenally vegan’ - and one look at the offerings and you can see why.
"This stuff is not an imitation of the old non-vegan stuff, it’s so much better. It’s better for your body, it’s better for the environment and you’re not putting cows through the trauma of animal farms so that it can land on your plate. And it tastes so damn good! We’ve followed her lead and make our own cheeses - these cheeses are aged and develop complex flavours that are pretty incredible. We’ve done taste tests with about 50 people so far and the response has been phenomenal - even the omnivores think this stuff tastes better than its non vegan counterpart. Brands like Miyoko, Beyond Meat, and Ripple milk are paving the path for this ‘Phenomenally Vegan’ movement - it’s no longer about imitation, it’s about forging a new path altogether.” she explains.
Creating their own cheese and butter in-house, is what makes the food at Imagine Café so scrumptious. Vidhi and her team make sure that the food is as good for the palate as it is for the heart and the environment.
Co-owning a café along with having a demanding full-time job cannot be the easiest feat in the world. Especially when the venture is still finding its feet. We ask Vidhi how she manages.
“It is not easy for sure. It has only been possible because I have the Best Boss ever - Parmeet Shah,” she smiles. "He heads the in-house design team at Marathon Realty and truly believes in me and my passion for both design and the restaurant. I have flexible work times and freedom to work from home. I took a couple of weeks off from work but even then was taking work calls and coordinating the execution of the project I am currently working on. Now, I divide my day between work and restaurant and even when at the restaurant and have some spare time to work remotely from there. Also, since my work, home, project site and the cafe are all within 5-10 minutes driving distance, my scooty and I keep going to and fro.”
Getting the café up and running came with its own fair share of challenges. "Once we had paid the token there were thousands of things to do. We had to form a company, without which we couldn't sign our final rent agreement. There were so many steps - opening a bank account, applying for all the necessary licenses, designing the space and starting the work on site, hiring and training the chefs, choosing each and every tile, fabric, faucet, crockery and so much more. It took us 50 days in all to start serving in the restaurant since the day we laid the first brick on site. There are challenges in life at every step. Nothing goes as planned. You just need to be focused on your goal and keep solving problems as and when they come.” she says.
Traditional families may not be the biggest fan of upheaving a smooth life to try your hand at something new. But Vidhi seems to have no qualms of that sort.
”My family has been extremely supportive. They were a bit worried about how will I manage my present job and do this as well but besides that the most supportive family anyone could ever get. My mom learned how to make vegan dahi (curd) so that she can pack me a glass of chaas with my lunch every day. She loves cooking and very wholeheartedly experiments and cooks vegan meals for me.” she smiles.
And of course, the duo have had each other’s back all throughout. "I think Ritwik and I have both been each other's biggest support system. This cafe wouldn't have materialized if it was either of us was trying to do it alone.” Vidhi says.
The Road Ahead
Exciting times lie ahead for Imagine Café.
"As of now, we have just started our dine in services. Within a week we plan to open our home delivery services.” she says, "And the big step for us is to start selling our cheeses and butter. To be frank - How often will you go out for dinners to a cafe especially if it is really far from where you stay? The bigger impact will be when our cheeses and butter reach people's home so that they can use it in their everyday life. This is what we are really excited about. Because this is what according to us make their life easier and determination stronger to live a cruelty-free life.”
Vidhi truly is an inspiration for women like us and leads us to believe that nothing is impossible if we put our mind to it and work hard.
"Don't be scared to try and achieve what you want in your lives. Overthinking at times scares you and pulls you back. Just believe in yourself, go for it and keep working hard. Nothing is impossible and nothing is possible unless you give it a try.” she says.