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Home, Food & Business: Mandy of Sambal Shiok

As part of research for this project I have been speaking with people in London about food and home. In the series ‘Home, Food & Business’ I have been focusing on those who have developed a career around food that reminds them of home and who predominantly have ‘home’ in multiple places.

Safiah and I are bad Malaysians. We hadn’t been to Roti King in Euston till Monday 6 July. Luckily Mandy, of Sambal Shiok, saved the day and showed us the road home. Roti canai and kopi. Real kopi, kopi with sweetened condensed milk.

Sambal Shiok is a Malaysian Street Food stall, run by Mandy. Sambal is a Malaysian chilli sauce, often made with shrimp paste served as a condiment. Shiok is Malaysian slang for delicious.

Mandy started her business in December 2013 at Harringay Market on Sundays as a guest spot for Christmas/New Year. Speaking to Mandy it’s clear to see the drive and the passion. Originally trained as a lawyer, Mandy worked as a partner in a corporate law firm in London, before realising that that pace of life was no longer making her happy - and food, and cooking was something that did.

Having spent years helping her clients run their businesses Mandy was in an excellent position to put together realistic, yet ambitious plans for her dream of running a food business. Very bravely, she quit her job and began working full time running Sambal Shiok. The key for her succeeding she realised, was to be trading three days a week, within three months. Having clear goals meant that Mandy could work towards something and know what she had to achieve.

Winter is a hard time to start a street food venture - for starters, it’s cold. Mandy realised that if she could survive this, she could survive anything!

Once a lawyer, always a lawyer; Mandy did her due diligence, she spoke to other stall owners, gathering information, such as what equipment they used, what was most practical. As a woman, operating a stall on her own, trying to find the lightest gazebo was key! One thing that helped about starting in the winter season was it gave Mandy time and space to perfect her recipes, to hear feedback, to streamline organisation and to be ready and prepared for the busy summer season. Within businesses like this, it is always the little things that make a difference, a chance meeting or a small utensil can be game changers. Mandy only half jokingly said that her vacuum packer is “the best thing in my life” - being able to carry larger quantities of sauce means selling more product.

Joking aside, Mandy was vey serious when she spoke about how people have helped her, encouraged her and through this support (and the excellence of her product) she was able to achieve her three days trading, in less than three months. Her schedule was two days (Thursday and Friday) at Street Food Union, Rupert Street in Soho and Sundays at Haringay Market (now closed); and now she has added the Southbank Centre Market on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

This is a huge workload, and to achieve this Mandy has her right-hand-woman Rosie helping to manage her stalls, an assistant during the week helping her cook (she does all the cooking in her home kitchen!) and a rota of dedicated part-time workers. Monday is admin day - invoices, stock take, meetings; Tuesday is peanut sauce day and Wednesday is rendang day. And the rest is trading! Although Mandy conceded that this year, she is making sure she now focuses on ‘time off’, which is hard when it is your own business, but so important.

One of Mandy’s objectives was to introduce Malaysian flavours, those of her childhood, to the UK. This meant thinking about the best way to do this - burgers seemed the perfect choice, a familiar type of food, plus perfect for eating on-the-go, as you do at Street Food Markets. The menu is Chicken Satay, Beef Rendang, Lentil Satay all in brioche buns - but there are also gluten free rice or salad boxes.

It seems that Mandy likes to work in threes - when asking her what other objectives she had with her business, as well as the original three days, in three months, she laid out her three business goals:

1- Amazing, consistent food. Food works best when promoted by word of mouth, so you want everyone to have similar experience.

2 - Fast delivery. People don't want to be standing around waiting, particularly if it’s a hot day, or raining.

3 - Great service. Cheerful, friendly staff are the sure way to have regular customers!

To me it seemed that Mandy’s success is not only down to a great product, but also about how and what she sees is important. Her business hinges on the fact that she believes that her work needs to make her happy - “you spend so much time at work, it’s important you like your work and those that you work with”. Food makes people happy, and so feeding people makes Mandy happy. Getting the food right, making sure she is staying current with her food, building relationships with her customers, knowing the people around her, makes her happy. This resonated with me, as I have always felt that food is about friendship, family, and community. Feeding people is a giving, that gives back - as cliched as that sounds, which is why I always find myself writing about food. Food and eating is shared experience.

Like most entrepreneurs, Mandy is clear in her focus, she has complete passion and belief in what she does. I found speaking with her inspiring and rejuvenating, she balances her very obvious business thinking with generosity and understanding of communities. In the busy world we live in, and the bustle of London, building communities to work within, operate on a daily life, as well as within personal spaces, is so important to continue to develop and grow. Mandy expressed the fact that she was ‘“part of something” and that she is always open to feedback and advice. More on Mandy and her ethos of building relationships in part two!

Last tip from Mandy - The trick with belacan, is to cook it after the sun sets! Mandy cooks hers in her parents garden, goodness know what the neighbours think!

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