In a year when many restaurants saw hard times and some closed their doors, Shivani Dhamija's small Indian takeout eatery in Halifax's Seaport Farmers' Market was among the casualties of COVID-19.
"It was a very hard time for me. And it was a very rough decision, especially because the restaurant was my baby. I had invested my time, my money, and my dedication to it," she said.
Dhamija closed the restaurant in August 2020 after two years in business. But that wasn't the end of the story for the business she calls Shivani's Kitchen.
Dhamija already had a side line of spice blends and ready-made kitchen sauces that she sold through 13 local stores in the Halifax area. With the restaurant closed, she poured her efforts into those products, which all use recipes passed down from her grandmother to her mother.
She opened a new production plant for the spices and sauces in Newport Station, just outside Windsor, N.S. Located inside a former school, the facility called the Station Food Hub has a commercial kitchen available for rent to small food businesses like Dhamija's.
"It was a very different thing. A restaurant is a completely different industry," she said. "It was a lot of learning and a lot of investment; I'm still learning."
She is now selling at approximately 150 grocery stores and specialty food stores across the Maritimes, and even sells through a couple of locations in Maine.
"Our current plan is, by the end of the year, we want to get into Ontario, Quebec, and the northern part of the United States. That's our first focus," she said. In the long-term, she hopes to sell products throughout North America.
Dhamija recently applied for, and won, a $10,000 prize from CUA bank in a business competition. The prize will help purchase equipment like a freezer and a spice-filling machine so her team can increase production and export for their products.
"I think Shivani's Kitchen is a great example of what's actually been happening in our province and with small businesses in the past year," said Marie Mullally, president and CEO of CUA.
Mullally said the prize was given after the judges were impressed by the innovation of the business, but Shivani's Kitchen is far from the only restaurant she's seen that is working on new ideas.
"We've seen restaurants who are pivoting to sell take-home meals, groceries, they're adapting their space to create other dining experiences while still maintaining the safety measures that are so critical to all of us," she said.
Although 2020 was tough, Dhamija has realized a lot about the direction she wants to take her business and the kind of work-life balance she's striving for.
"I would never start a restaurant again," she laughs. "I want my weekends off."
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