A vegan, entrepreneur and former head of PETA India, Anuradha Sawhney shares the story behind starting her successful ventures – ‘Back to Basics’, ‘Bombay Cheese Company’ and the recently launched cruelty free sweets line - ‘Meethi Kahani’
The first thing that PETA’s former head, animal-lover and practicing vegan Anuradha Sawhney did after finishing her tenure was starting a vegan home-delivery service ‘Back to Basics’. She was the head of PETA India for 9 years and became a vegan from vegetarian the day she joined PETA. And one of the main problems she had was sourcing vegan alternatives. ,
The urge to do something for the cause she believes in made her start ‘Back to Basics’ in 2009, where she ended up delivering the first meal order personally. Soon, the orders increased and there has been no looking back. What started as an answer to one of the major problems at the time, continues to be one of the sought-after vegan food delivery brand. A restless foodie and a passionate vegan entrepreneur, she began to explore, experiment and soon ventured into making vegan cheese, and founded the 'Bombay Cheese Company', by introducing a cheddar cheese block.
Even as innovation is under way, mozzarella cheese was added to the portfolio and more are on the way. Anuradha launched ‘Meethi Kahani’ in July 2021. She takes us along her journey – the tale of a vegan, woman-entrepreneur and cheese-maker.
“I joined PETA to help animals. Until then, I was a vegetarian, and I had the habit of drinking milk every day. I was also not into cooking and food had become a major challenge. Around this the time, no one wanted to hear about being a vegan. The high point came when I first rescued monkeys from a lab. When I saw the caged monkeys – fed with maggot-filled water and rotten vegetables – walk free into sunlight and into the rehabilitation centres, the scene pumped me up. I rescued many animals from the circus. I could see how animals were suffering in the thabelas. I am glad I hung in there and continued to be a vegan.”
It all Began With a Book
“By the end of 2009, I put together a cookbook that had 50 recipes I sourced from Bollywood celebrities: The Vegan Kitchen – Bollywood Style. They were not complicated or fancy recipes, but many popular actors like Dilip Kumar, Saira Banu, Gulshan Grover, John Abraham, Hema Malini, Sonam Kapoor, Akshay Kumar, Akshay Khanna – all of them shared one vegan recipe each.
I had been a vegan since 2000. However, during the time, the alternatives were not easily available and whatever little available was not of good quality. I ate whatever I found that was vegan. I did not look into whether it was balanced diet, if it had protein or if I ate enough fruits or right kind of food. As a result, I ended up with high cholesterol, diabetes and high triglycerides.
Then, I shifted to plant-based and oil-free diet, and reversed my health condition. For the book, famous Indian and international doctors wrote on reversing heart disease and diabetes etc., with plant-based diet. I had two big launches – one in New Delhi by the king of Bhutan and the other in Bombay where all the actors in the book ended up, and there were others like Mahima Chowdhury – it was a star-studded event.
Growth of Veganism in India
By the time the book came, there were at least some vegan alternatives available in the market, unlike when Anuradha became a vegan way back in 2000. She relates, “There was probably one brand that made soy milk somewhere. It was probably in 2003 and 2004 that Godrej started soy milk, and fake meat was also found once in a while. Soya Nuggets were always there.
By 2005, we could go and order a vegan dish in a restaurant, and if it was a manager or a chef or someone senior, they would understand and make your order. Until then, we used to carry a long list of things we couldn’t eat and told the staff we had allergy – otherwise they would end up using at least a little dairy. By 2010, vegan products grew well even though it wasn’t anything like now.
Rise of the Vegan Entrepreneur
After the book, I started making wholegrain and oil-free tiffins, and called my tiffin service in Pune – Back to Basics. The first tiffin, I went and delivered on my own. But within a week, orders grew and I had to hire people. Soon, I started making vegan cakes at a time when there was no one else doing this. I used to make gluten-free cakes, keto varieties – 20 varieties of cakes – it was a vegan bakery, but a cloud kitchen where people could order what they liked. Using jaggery, stevia, dates etc., and soy cream, almond or cashew cream, and customising cakes according to preferences was what I did.
Bombay Cheese Company
Once the vegan cakes began to roll, I started exploring vegan cheese. Whenever, I went abroad, I would scout for vegan cheese and brought it home. I began to experiment, and try various concoctions until I reached the perfect cheese. After 18 months of trials, I made what I called Cheddar cheese. This was just before the pandemic. During the pandemic I made Mozzarella.
The ‘Meethi’ Kahani
In addition to cheese, I realized that Indians are big on mithai and there aren’t many mithai shops making vegan sweets. Not many can imagine making sweets without using dairy. ‘Meethi Kahani’ offers a wide choice. The sweets are completely handmade, healthy, and are shipped across the country in boxes where each sweet is diligently wrapped and separately packed.
I will not make one item that my mother won’t eat. Be it ‘Bombay Cheese Company’ or ‘Meethi Kahani’, I make the products safe enough and if she can eat it, then everyone can eat it. That’s my benchmark. For making sweets, I use dry fruits, seeds, nuts, jaggery as much as possible. I use dates or figs to sweeten as well.
We use silver foil that is made using machine and does not have any animal product involved. All the sweets are handcrafted and finally, we pack by wrapping each piece individually. We do not add preservatives, but make them fresh and hence the shelf life is 7-9 days.
Passion Helps Overcome the Challenges
The volume of work has increased. I just happen to be the one who can never relax. I basically am very involved in every aspect. I have a good team. And we manage.
Even now, the biggest challenge, though not as strong, is the Indian mindset. We have grown up watching cows around us, and dairies closely. Using dairy is a normal activity. Even I never understood about the cruelty in dairy industry until I learnt about it. It is difficult for many to accept anything other than dairy as an alternative.
Today, the vegan movement in India is spearheaded by younger generation that is very receptive. The older generation is forced to go vegan for health reasons. Yet, unlike West, Indians are not open to the idea.
My plan is to continue working on cheeses. Plans are afoot to launch four more types of cheeses, and diversify the plant-based sweets menu.