Ahmedabad-based Sarmista Sheth is at the cusp of retirement, a time when most people seek to enjoy their lives, and if health permits indulge in their long-lost hobbies.
“Honestly, age is only a number. Cooking is my passion, and can you ever tire of pursuing it? I don’t plan to retire anytime soon,” the 84-year-old Gujarati quips, as she settles down on her sofa post-dinner.
Though she had a long day, which included spending an hour in her rasoi (kitchen), her childlike enthusiasm about her 40-year-old entrepreneurial journey as a caterer, is palpable in her voice.
When asked how she manages to run her business, she lets out a light-hearted laugh and tells The Better India:
“Gujarati cuisine must have all kinds of tastes and colours. So, setting menus for weddings is my most favourite part, as there is a science behind it. Age may not allow me to go to weddings and set the counters, but thanks to technology, I can video call or ask for photos. I like my catering event to be detailed to perfection.”
‘Sarmista Sheth Catering’ has been providing the most delectable Gujarati food to weddings and other occasions for the last three decades. With almost 20-30 weddings every year, Sheth claims to have served her food in over 700 weddings in 34 years!
Although her catering business is one of the most popular in Gujarat, it neither has a presence on social media nor a website. It runs solely on word of mouth.
“I began my business in the 80s when the internet was an alien concept. I never spent any money on marketing or publicity. Instead, I channelised all my energies on perfecting my food. So, why change that now? Sometimes being old-school becomes your USP,” she says.
It is no wonder her clientele ranges from business people, politicians, actors to commoners. The praises she garners propel her venture.
A Gujarati to the core, Sheth has treasured the traditional dishes and given a contemporary twist that brims with protein, fibre, and an explosion of flavours.
The catering company serves a plethora of mouth-watering vegetarian dishes from the famous Undhiyu, Dhokla, Patra to the lesser-known lip-smacking foods like Ghevar and Dal Dhokli. That said, Sheth does not shy away from serving international cuisines that are popular among millennials.
Starting With A Humble Kitchen
Sheth was encouraged to study and make a career. She speaks fluent English, has an LLB degree, and was a part of the first batch that graduated from Food Craft Institute in 1969.
A year later, with support and encouragement from her husband and mother-in-law, she started her baking and cooking classes. What made her classes popular was teaching international dishes like pies, cakes, puddings and so on, something that was uncommon back then.
She converted a big room into a rasoi and took classes for the next ten years. She whole-heartedly welcomed foreign fast food like pizza, burger, noodles, and so on and imparted lessons.
She claims to have passed the food art to over 6,000 girls, some of whom have started their food ventures.
With time, Sheth progressed and became a visiting faculty at the SNDT Women’s University in Pune. She also began consulting at Agashiye in Ahmedabad and Thackers Caterers in Mumbai, some of the oldest hotels serving traditional Gujarati dishes and thalis.
These stints made Sheth a brand within the food industry, “‘Why don’t you start catering at small social gatherings?’ was a question that turned out to be the turning point of my life. So, I started with catering for friends and relatives in the early 80s.”
Sheth was already 40 when she decided to take a plunge and started her catering venture in 1986. “I guess age has never been a point of consideration in my life. You don’t necessarily have to be in your 20s to start a business. Hard work and commitment is all you need.”
She hired cooks and began her amazing journey at 40!
Catering To 700 Weddings
Catering at Gujarati weddings is no doubt one of the most stressful professions. Timely delivery and taste are two crucial aspects where no caterer can afford to go wrong. They have to ensure that food doesn’t run out but is neither excessive such that it goes to waste.
She makes sure that every employee in her company learns this, “Our USP is on-time deliveries; not once in 34 years have we received any flak in this area,” says Saurin, Sheth’s son who joined the business in the late 80s, along with his wife, Vaishali.
Along with setting an elaborate food menu, the catering company also offers hand-crafted brass and copper vessels and crockery. They believe that a premium visual display makes for a memorable experience.
When Sheth started, rarely did caterers provide such a flamboyant service that ranged from deciding menus that had an exquisite blend of flavours, crockery, and live counters to table decor. Doing this helped Sheth expand her business and build clients through word of mouth. Her dessert bar, coffee bar, and after-meal section is the talk of the town.
Every year, she takes around 20 catering orders for weddings that begin from October and last until March, “We provide a minimum of 30 dishes with wedding guests from 200 to 2,000,” she adds.
In terms of revenue, Sheth is a proud owner whose growth rate ranges between 15-20 per cent.
Her splendid efforts and hard work paid off when she was conferred with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the city-based Food Entrepreneurs Association recently.
Sheth has traversed through quite a few challenges, be it setting up a trustworthy and efficient team or choosing quality over revenue. But amidst all the obstacles, she continues to flourish her food identity.
She has indeed defied age constraints to fulfil her entrepreneurial aspirations.