Community Spotlight – Aushi Meewella, co-founder of Kolamba
Aushi and Eroshan Meewella are co-owners of Sri Lankan restaurant Kolamba, which offers ‘Glorious home cooking, Sri Lankan style… slap bang in the buzzing heart of Soho’. Also owners of interior design and property development company ‘Whitebox London’, the couple tried their hand at restaurateurship after identifying a gap in the market. Since opening in 2019, they have delivered astonishing Sri Lankan food both at their Soho restaurant, and across the nation with their home kits. We spoke to Aushi about working in the industry, challenges and achievements.
Frankie: Tell me a little bit about yourself and about your Sri Lankan restaurant, Kolamba?
Aushi: I grew up in Sri Lanka and moved to the UK when I was 17 for university. I have a lot of connections back home; my family, my sister, my mom, all my closest friends still live back in Sri Lanka. Despite being away for more than 20 years, it’s very much home. My career has always been in advertising and marketing, then about ten years ago I switched to interior design. It was something that I was always interested in. My husband has a property development company and I had fun styling his projects. I thought maybe I should get trained and get a qualification in this? So that’s been me for the last ten years. I do residential interior design for property, for developers, as well as for private clients in central London.
My husband and I work very closely together, and we’ve wondered why anyone hasn’t opened a Sri Lankan restaurant in London? The only other company that has brought this into central London is Hoppers. Otherwise, if you want good quality, authentic Sri Lankan food it’s predominantly in people’s homes. You get little cafes in Tooting and Wembley. But if I’m honest, it’s more casual. There’s no experience- It’s very much a basic offering. Three and a half years ago, after a trip to Sri Lanka, my husband said, nobody’s done this! So I said, stop moaning about it. If you want to do it, go and open the restaurant. We’ve run our own business for the last ten years, between his expertise of property and mine with interior design, and he’s a huge foodie. What could go wrong? Let’s give it a shot. And from that, Kolamba was born.
Frankie: What has been the most important lesson that you’ve learned since Kolamba was born?
Aushi: Try not to open during a global pandemic? No, I think the most important lesson is…because we are small we are able to pivot and understand and rectify and respond to any sort of crisis. Whether it’s a front of house staffing crisis or we’ve locked down and we have no access to customer supplies. The lesson there was flexibility and having a really strong and supportive team that’s dynamic and able to pivot in the same sort of span of time. We work very quickly and that’s probably because for ten years he and I have worked together. We’re very decisive but we’ve also been blessed with a team who understands that work ethic and are able to embrace it. I think that’s been our strength in surviving the pandemic – the ability to really adapt.
Frankie: What’s the biggest challenge you faced?
Aushi: There’s constant challenges but that’s what every restaurant goes through. There’s staffing issues post Brexit. The pandemic is a pretty big one because lots of restaurants that seemed like they had good businesses or good trade suddenly went under. One of the comments that our PR team made to us in the opening days was, how the hell did you guys bring to market a nationwide delivery kit when brands like Dishoom haven’t been able to? We work constantly, but we know exactly what is needed to survive. It’s like going into survival mode and because we’re small, you’re able to make those decisions really quickly.
Like I said, we’ve been blessed with a really flexible and dynamic team. In the same light, we had a very understanding landlord who has been hugely supportive and helped all their operators during the Covid crisis. Landlords got a really bad rep during the pandemic but we kind of see it from the other side because of our property knowledge. We understand that it’s not as easy as saying you don’t have to pay rent for the next six months. There’s always a payment that has been made at some stage. But they were very supportive and understanding.
Frankie: What are some of the biggest achievements that you’ve had?
Aushi: I think the biggest achievement is that we are still standing. We’ve gone from being a single site operation to being able to offer nationwide feasting kits for homes nationwide. That’s a big thing because when I came to university here, I went to Bristol where you think that people have travelled and are quite worldly, but a lot of colleagues were like, oh, Sri Lanka’s part of South India? That understanding of where Sri Lanka is, our cuisine, our culture, our language, that was still very infantile. Now people are curious about specific niche cuisines, and we can deliver that to all areas of this country. It’s huge.
On a personal front, it was definitely winning GQ’s Interior of the Year award. That was massive because we did this restaurant on a budget. To really be able to deliver an experience that we felt captured the spirit of our little island, as well as without really sacrificing on major finishes or creativity, that was huge for us. We were nominated against some really big designers with endless budgets. So that was pretty cool.
Frankie: Is introducing people to Sri Lankan food what you enjoy the most about working in the industry?
Aushi: Absolutely. Whenever I’m on site and talking to customers I sound like the Sri Lankan tourist board. I’m immensely proud of being Sri Lankan. For me it’s not just about a restaurant in Soho, it’s about really educating people on the country and the culture. Also interacting with people who have been to Sri Lanka, have eaten the food or have travel plans. That’s huge because this country has had exposure for over 50 or 60 years to Indian food, and suddenly we’re hearing about Nepalese food or Pakistani, regional Indian, Sri Lankan, and that’s exciting- before it was just lumped as ‘curry’. How is a Sri Lankan chicken curry different from a north Indian chicken curry? It’s vastly different. The ability to bring my culture to London, to my new home, is hugely exciting.
Frankie: Do you find it a challenge to work across such different industries?
Aushi: There’s definitely overlap. I oversee anything to do with aesthetics, anything visually creative, as well as social media marketing. What is exclusive to both is attention to detail. Whether you work on interiors in property or you work on the floor of the restaurant, it’s attention to detail. How is the customer feeling? Has everything been set up right? What’s the experience like? What was the takeaway from that experience? That doesn’t change whether we’re designing someone’s home or they’re dining in the restaurant. Those are the skills I feel my work in interiors and working with private clients has really helped. It’s about understanding what a customer wants, how we can deliver that, and how we can improve on that.
Frankie: If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the beginning of your career, what would it be?
Aushi: Probably to have more confidence and to go with my gut. I think that especially as a woman in a creative field, I tend to always second guess myself. I don’t like blowing my own horn. Looking at males peers who walk into a room, and they command it, they know exactly what they want. I think that’s a note to myself and to other women. If you feel strongly about something, go for it. Whilst you can always take advice and have support from others, really try and go with your gut. Most of the time, especially in the creative industries, there’s something that will always take you to what you know is right.
Frankie: The future of hospitality is…
Aushi: Having a much more open mind when it comes to recruitment and support of staff. With a desk job, we’re very flexible, we give staff the ability to have a work-life balance. What strikes me about the hospitality industry is that it’s acceptable to expect people to work 80 hour weeks and it’s gruelling. You forget as a 40 year old what it’s like when you’re standing on your feet for hours waiting on tables, it’s 12 o’clock at night, you have to take a night bus home from Soho. There has to be flexibility if we are going to recruit more women. How can we make this a more inviting and more enticing environment for women? I think there really needs to be more of that in hospitality in order for us to really be able to thrive, grow and develop, especially in the face of a massive labour shortage in this country.
It is tough being a woman in these environments. I’m hoping that over the last two years, with everything that’s happened with Me Too as well, that the industry understands that women in this environment need to feel secure, they need to feel supported and we need to be able to break down the stereotypical brute-ness of this industry. Unfortunately a lot of guys don’t really see it like that, and never think about getting home at 1am and thinking about their safety. There has to be an understanding and a conversation.
Find out more about Kolamba.
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