Sri Lankan food start-up cooking up a storm in London

Founded by New Radicals winner, Abi Ramanan, Papi’s Pickles is a catering startup making a difference. They work with women relocated to the UK during and after the conflict in Sri Lanka.

London-based Papi’s Pickles provide fresh and tasty South Indian and Sri Lankan food for events, pop ups and streetfood markets, made by women from these communities who relocated to the UK during and after the conflict in Sri Lanka.

They empower the women they work with through training, support, a London living wage, and the many immeasurable benefits that arise from meaningful employment. They reinvest all profits to provide jobs for the community.

Set up in 2014, Papi’s Pickles have worked with 14 women over the last three years. They currently have  four part-time trainee chefs, Ruby, Ragini, Chrishanthi and Inthumathi.

They have provided tens of thousands of pounds in salaries, created 5,868 hours of work and delivered over 5,000 hours of training.

Abi is as optimistic as she is inspiring, she believes that national conversations about immigration are damaging. ‘London is a city of immigrants’, says Abi, ‘we could speak about things more accurately, not enough is said about the great positives that immigrants bring’.

Combine this with strong-held beliefs about the future of business, ‘In five to ten years it will be impossible to start a business with the sole objective of profit. There has to be social return as well’, and you begin to understand the inspiration and drive behind Papi’s Pickles.

Re-located Sri Lankan women face a challenging road to employment

As a Tamil, Abi had a connection to the community. During the course of researching a documentary and following work in the charity sector she met many relocated Sri Lankans in the UK.

According to Abi, ‘unemployment in migrant and refugee communities is really high, particularly among women and employment is core to the process of integration’

Relocated Sri Lankan women face particular barriers to finding good employment. The women working with Papi’s Pickles have fled a violent conflict and have had to adapt to a new country, new culture and new language.

Even women who have found jobs face problems. They are often forced into illegal employment arrangements where salaries go unpaid and employment protections simply aren't there.

Making jobs, but transforming lives

Abi and Papi’s Pickles head chefs, Radhi and Shanthini, are familiar with the Tamil language and culture. This helps to ease new staff into the world of work.

Papi’s Pickles have also changed the way they work to fit the needs of their employees. Many of their staff have children so they offer flexible hours. London living wage salaries helps to make the work a valuable income stream for families. And in the future they plan to offer formalised English language programmes.

Abi is clear that what they offer is more than just a salary and training, "It has a transformational impact, it is more than just work". And it’s more than just a phrase. Simple things like providing letters acknowledging employment means the women the work with can access council housing.

Ruby’s story

“Ruby is, one of the chefs who's been with us the longest. When she started she had never really taken the Tube, hadn't travelled much around London.

"Last year, she was the head chef at an event we did with the Conflict Cafe, she was profiled in the Evening Standard and her kids actually took the newspaper to school to show their friends that it was their mum in the Evening Standard, which was a very special moment."

She's kind of the star employee, she works at the stall in Borough Market serving customers.”

5,868

hours of work provided by Papi's Pickles

5,000 +

hours of training provided by Papi's Pickles

14

women have worked with Papi's Pickles since 2014

Building a business that works differently

Papi’s Pickles is not a traditional business and Abi has had to adjust. "For a business of our size, if it weren't a social enterprise, typically we would have three staff, not eight. But employment is the purpose of the business, so our monthly outgoings in terms of salary are quite high, which means we need to increase the volume of catering clients we have accordingly – we are always looking for new opportunities here."

London has plenty of food startups so competition is high. It’s the quality of Papi’s Pickles product as much as the story behind it that makes it such a success.

"We have managed to establish a space for ourselves because of the quality of our products and the excellence of our service . People come back for the taste and then are delighted that it's a social enterprise as well."

Abi and Papi’s Pickles are still bubbling with new ideas. They want to take on new recruits and create employment for more women. To do this, Abi wants to find a restaurant space, commercial kitchen and community space to host English lessons for women in the community.

Abi recognises that others could replicate Papi’s Pickles model to support other communities who face unfair barriers to finding work. Whether this is through a franchise model or a toolkit for others  to use, it’s food for thought on how the catering industry can make a difference.

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