It all began after the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK when Malanie Tillekeratne and Michael Hooper, two professional chefs, moved to the Northwest and settled in Levenshulme. Both already had experience starting a food business at home in the South, Malanie is passionate about sharing the unique taste and flavour of Sri Lankan cuisine, her birthplace, with the people of Greater Manchester.
Using the recipes passed down from her mother, Malanie and Michael prepared Sri Lankan curry ready meals for delivery. Since then, they have enthusiastically joined the city’s bustling street food scene by serving various authentic Sri Lankan cuisine and ‘Short Eats’ at different markets throughout Greater Manchester.
Afterwards, Malanie and Michael have started a series of Supper Clubs, offering a unique dining experience by serving authentic Sri Lankan family cuisines and sharing the linkage of each dish with her family. With dedication and hard work, the name Little Sri Lankan started spreading through the recommendation from regulars, and the business finally took shape.
While working their magic in the kitchen, the couple have not forgotten other aspects of their business development, especially financial planning, and cash flow management. This is where the EnterprisingYou programme came in and offered their professional advice to the duo. With the help of the programme, Malanie and Michael achieved peace of mind while maintaining a balance on the tightrope of the ever-changing business environment.
Let’s meet with the chefs and hear the story in their own words.
Evolving and adapting to the ever-changing market
Malanie and Michael, what was it like starting a food business during the COVID Lockdown period?
Malanie: In 2020, during the first COVID-19 lockdown, my partner Michael and I relocated to Levenshulme from the South. The pandemic had caused many people to be placed on furlough and stay at home, making it difficult for us as newcomers to settle in a new city. As professional chefs with experience in the food industry, we naturally considered starting a food business here. Although we had always dreamed of starting our own business, the circumstances at that time forced us to move much quicker than planned.
Michael has vast culinary experience and works for different hotels and restaurants. I have worked at a hotel, and my speciality is pastry. Going with the name “Little Sri Lankan,” we prepared some curry ready meals in our home kitchen for delivery in Levenshulme and Stockport. It has been welcomed by customers in the area as they have longed for something different while they are forced indoors. It all began here.
With the success of the pre-cooked meals, we started joining various markets in different parts of Greater Manchester by serving authentic Sri Lankan cuisine.
I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka and moved to Britain when I was 4. The recipes we used have been passed down through the family and taught to us, mainly by my Ammie (mother), just like she was taught by her aunts, cousins, parents and grandparents, each adding their own little twist. These recipes were taught, not with exact measurements, but by teaching us what each type of dish should look, smell and taste like.
How did you adapt your traditional recipes for the Mancunian palette?
We have learned a lot about the taste of Greater Manchester people in the time when we are doing street food in Sri Lankan style at markets. For example, when we do authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, the way we use curry and chilli is quite different, and the flavour can be quite strong. In addition, the kind of spices and ingredients we use might also be difficult to obtain here. When we prepare foods for selling in markets, we also need to apply our own twist to the recipe according to the taste of our customers.
We are faced with furious competition in markets, with food stalls selling burgers, pizzas, burritos and sausage rolls. Customers here are much more familiar with those foods than our offerings. Sri Lankan Cuisine is a niche market here, and we need an environment for us to approach our target customers. That’s why we have approached various hotels and venues this year to host supper clubs. In a casual and unusual setting, we can showcase our authentic Sri Lankan cuisine individually and tell the stories of each dish on how it connected to my family.
After a few events, the number of regulars increased through the word-of-months, and they started to look us up on social media, following us on the news of the next supper club. This is our best year since we began 2020. Doing a food business in such an ever-changing business environment is like walking on a tightrope; we need to balance many different aspects of our business, and we finally found the sweet spot now. We plan to organise more supper clubs this year and make them more regular.
We are also doing some corporate events and wedding parties now. We hope these on-request based catering events can be another source of income.
A food business outside the kitchen
You two have learned a lot in the past three years of operation. So, how do you know about the EnterprisingYou programme, and why would you like to participate?
Michael: Malanie and I both come from a background in the culinary business. However, to sustain a business operation, there are a lot of different aspects we need to learn and take care of. Recommended by a friend who does Indian-inspired food, I joined the EnterprisingYou programme to learn more about operating a business outside the kitchen.
My most pressing need for advice is on business planning, you know, to understand more about financial planning and cash flow management, which is extremely crucial for sustaining our operation. The mentor assigned to us by the programme provided good advice to us on these aspects. Most importantly, he is just a phone call away when I need him.
Before joining the programme, I did not have anyone I could ask while working on the business plan. The mentor put me in the right direction and provided details on what I needed to do to achieve the target, which is extremely valuable.
As our business model evolves, we know that to expand our operation further, we will inevitably come to the point where we need to pull in outside investment. That is when the business plan is crucial to determine the outcome. Currently, we are still focusing on building our brand, but some days later, we might want to get some loans and draw in outside investors. The EnterprisingYou programme's mentor is helping us work toward that area.
In addition, we would like to know more about cash flow management as we must have our business running in a secure and stable model. The current economic environment of England is fluctuating, and the price of everything is increasing. We need to carefully manage the cost of doing business.
We fought hard to earn our living and finally got a home and everything. We don’t want to sacrifice the comfort of our life right now to go down. Maintaining a balance in the business is definitely a critical aspect of the current situation.
To sum up, what is your experience with the EnterprisingYou programme and will you recommend the programme to others?
Michael: I remembered some advice the programme mentor gave us when we discussed looking for outside investors to join our business. He said the most important thing is to find someone passionate about the food industry and who loves your business instead of someone who only cares about making money. You must have people around you passionate about your business and love your food. What is the point of having someone who does not care about your brand?
And we are so grateful that the programme’s mentor is actually someone who cares about us and, just like he said, is passionate and loves our business. Having someone I can turn to when I encounter a question or doubt about the business operation is good. He is always there to provide an answer and insight to us with his knowledge and put us in the right direction.
I will definitely recommend others to join the programme.