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Restaurant Industry News speaks with the founder of SpiceBox Grace Regan

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into the restaurant scene?

I dived head first into the restaurant scene with no previous experience! I grew up cooking at home and always knew it was likely I’d end up in food!

After I graduated from university I founded a media tech company called Clippet News. Whilst building that, I was asked to move out to Silicon Valley to join a startup accelerator. It was in California where I decided to go for it in the food world (see below)!

How was the idea of SpiceBox born?

The idea came about as a result of a number of different changes that were happening in my life.

After moving to Silicon Valley, I gradually became disillusioned with the tech world and the business I was working on. I didn’t feel that I was solving a serious problem and wanted to do something that aligned closer with my values and passions.

Around the same time I became vegan and, as a result, more engaged with the benefits of a plant-based diet – from a health, ethical and environmental viewpoint. Veganism was taking off massively in California and I knew the same would happen in London – this presented an exciting business opportunity too.

Prior to moving to the US, I had been sitting on the idea of a fresh, modern spin on the British curry house. My great aunt is Indian and, as a result I had grown up eating home-cooked Indian food and travelling to India. I always wondered why it was so hard to find a curry house that served up dishes that tasted as fresh and vibrant as the food my auntie cooked and that I ate whilst in India. I thought it would be cool to have a curry house that paid homage to both British-Indian curry house classics and also the fresh flavours you find in Indian home-cooking.

After I became vegan, I realised that Indian food was the perfect introduction to a plant-based diet as spices make vegetables taste amazing and so I put everything together and came up with SpiceBox. I knew it was now or never so I booked flights back to London and dived straight in.

What was the transition from street food to a bricks and mortar site like?

I was very lucky to be offered the opportunity of a pop up in a cafe in Walthamstow before we opened our first curry house. This made the transition from street food to permanent a bit easier as we had a chance to test out our menu and also ‘practice’ proper restaurant-style service in a pretty controlled environment. Another benefit was that we were able to build a name for ourselves in the local community before opening,

Having said that, the first 6 weeks of opening the curry house were some of the toughest of my life. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer physicality of working c.100 hour weeks and the mental stress of trying to keep team morale up whilst fixing the inevitable teething problems of opening a first site. I dread to think how hard it would have been if we hadn’t had the pop up to help prepare us!

SpiceBox serves Indian food, is this something personal to your heritage or a passion of yours?

It’s a bit of both! My great aunt is Indian (by marriage) so I grew up eating her amazing home-cooked food and travelling to India frequently. Spending lots of time in India helped cement Indian cuisine as my favourite (I could eat dhal everyday for the rest of my life!) – I just love the way spices can elevate simple ingredients. I am passionate about people eating more veg and think Indian food is the perfect way to show people how tasty plant-based food can be!

With many vegan shops and restaurants opening in most towns and cities, what do you do to ensure diners notice and choose SpiceBox?

Firstly, we don’t actually advertise ourselves as vegan anywhere at SpiceBox – it’s not on our frontage and it’s not on our menu and our team members don’t mention it unless someone asks. Our focus is on serving amazing food, which just so happens to be vegan. We’re a local curry house first and foremost.  I ensure that our diners receive amazing friendly service and are served with consistently delicious food – so far I think we’re doing a pretty good job with this! I’m actually really proud that most of our regulars aren’t vegan or even vegetarian, they just love our food and service!

What is your earliest food memory?

Cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches after school, on white sliced bread, with the crusts cut off and lashings of salt and pepper- delicious!

What can you say to people who say that say a vegan diet is boring and restrictive?

Come to SpiceBox and we’ll prove you wrong! I totally get that some vegan food can be tasteless but, as with any food, it all comes down to building different flavour profiles in to a dish and careful seasoning. People like meat because it’s a combination of great texture, smokiness, salt and fat. A great cook can impart all these elements into vegetables.

What are your current favourite ingredients?

I love leeks and cabbages – they’re so underrated. I cook mine with lots of oil, salt and lemon juice.

What is your favourite dish on the menu at SpiceBox?

Our chana masala – it’s one of the simplest curries we serve but has complex layering of earthy spices like cumin, black pepper and cinnamon that contrast amazingly with the sweet and sour taste of the tomato sauce. To top it all off, the sauce is packed with buttery chickpeas that melt in your mouth.

What advice do you have for other women wanting to start a business in the restaurant industry?

Go for it! But make sure you’re ready to work unbelievably hard in the early days! You can’t do this job unless you’re obsessed with the food you’re serving or the experience you want to give people. Find other women in the industry who inspire you and try and meet them. It’s still a super male-dominated industry so it’s important to have women to talk to and look up to otherwise it’s easy to get despondent!

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