"Innovation to me represents that ingredient for success that helps an organisation to continue to grow."

We interview women in our community about innovation and what drives them to make a difference in their industries. This week we spoke to Sunita Kumar, Chef d’inspiration and Director at Daana.

What are you working on?

Daana restaurant showcases the richness, or as I like to call it, the kaleidoscope of Indian cuisine. When we opened Daana, my husband Sanjay and I were determined to break the mould of the ‘curry in a hurry’ and takeaway expectation of what an Indian restaurant has been in Australia.

Sanjay and I met in 1990 when we were both studying to be Chefs at the Indian Institute of Hotel Management (IHM) in Bangalore, India. We both have a love of cooking and a deep desire to share our love of food, community and generosity with others. In January 2012 Sanjay and I packed up our lives in India, our two young children and Sanjay’s mum, and arrived on a one-way ticket to Canberra. We arrived with the long-held dream and plan of one day ‘doing food’.

Our first food business opened in September 2015 – offering Indian street food from a 40ft shipping container in the pop-up village on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin. One year later, we relocated to premises in Curtin, and Daana restaurant was born. In Curtin, the menu shifted from street food to a full a la carte menu. Having commercial premises has allowed us to create a unique and authentic dining experience for our guests. We are immensely proud that Daana now ranks as one of the top dining experiences in Canberra.

Our focus at Daana is on South Indian and regional Indian food. While you won’t find a butter chicken or vindaloo on our menu – you will find heritage dishes, like our Rampuri Taar Gosth, that used to be served to Rampuri royalty. It is a 24 hour slow cooked lamb shoulder in a rich onion and saffron gravy, that literally falls off your fork and melts in your mouth! The dish comes dressed in ‘varq’ or (edible) silver leaf – fit for a King or Queen. Or there’s our Tamarind Seared Scallops with Manuka Honey and Finger Lime dip. This is one of the choices from our current Confluence menu that blends traditional Indian flavours with native Australian ingredients.

In 2018 we saw an opportunity to launch Daana Catering – our second food business.  Daana Catering fills a gap in the Canberra catering market by providing chef-prepared menus, products and services from international cuisines. For instance our clients can choose from a quintessential range of hot Mexican dishes from our Hola Mexico menu, or enjoy a cold lunch menu with our Mediterranean selection.

Our soon to launch third food business is Daana’s Pantry. Daana’s Pantry is a subscription-based food service – delivering chef-prepared meals direct to your door!  Daana’s Pantry will allow our subscribers to choose from our Meal Kits and Ready Meals. The Meal Kits include a recipe card, local ingredients and will arrive pre-cut, pre-prepared and pre-marinated. Then all our subscriber needs to do – is get cooking! The Daana’s Pantry Meal Kits will be a unique opportunity for the home chef to, cook and serve a restaurant quality meal at home! Then if subscribers need a break from the kitchen, they will also have the option to order chef-prepared Ready Meals – these will only need heating, to serve.

We are currently working behind-the-scenes to have Daana’s Pantry ready to launch in 2021.

Why is innovation important to you?

The hospitality industry is one of the toughest industries for small business. Approximately 60% of hospitality businesses fail in their first year, and 80% go under in five years, which is 10% above the normal business failure rate. In 2019 the Australian hospitality sector earned just over $26.7 billion nationally. To stand out in a market flooded with new fit outs and flavours – innovation is the secret ingredient to our success.

At their core – all of our businesses are food focused. Yet each of them addresses a different market.

Daana’s Pantry will benefit both the home chef and busy professional. Daana Catering provides tailored catering services to businesses, organisations and individuals to make their events both easy and memorable. While Daana restaurant is for those who have a discerning appreciation for authentic Indian cuisine, are eager to try new flavours and enjoy a night of hospitality and attentive service.

To me innovation is about pioneering and leading change that will enhance our guest experience, as well as add value to our core business. Innovation gives me permission to try new ideas, it pushes me to move away from the status quo. Innovation is the opportunity to learn and grow – to grow myself as a business leader and to grow my business and our offerings.

Without innovation Daana wouldn’t deliver traditional Indian flavours with a modern twist, or create our Confluence menu which blends authentic Indian cuisine with native Australian ingredients, or launch Daana catering or develop the fresh approach to meal subscriptions that will be Daana’s Pantry.

What drives you to make a difference?

I owe my drive and passion to make a difference to my parents. They instilled in me the values to always work from my heart, be true to myself, to take pride in whatever I do and do it to the best of my ability. While they instilled these values they also instilled in me a sense of being of service to others – to never forget to help others where I can.

My dad has always been one to help others. In recent years I have seen him, as a retired senior citizen, after a fraudulent bank scam saw him and thousands of others loose their entire lives savings – champion and lead the court case. The legal proceedings were an uphill battle, mired in politics, that went on for years. He personally led from the front, rallying others into something of a class-action. He used his law degree to argue and eventually win – resulting in many of the retirees receiving back their life savings.

All this he did just six months after a major heart attack, with surgery that only gave him a 10% chance of survival. All his work was done pro-bono. He needed to find justice for himself and the others involved.

He has instilled in me the belief that one person can make a difference IF they are willing to try!

It is this sense of being of service to the community, contributing in whatever small way that we can, that drives Daana to make a difference in the Canberra community.

We started hosting Karma Kitchen in 2016. At Karma Kitchen we hold a dinner service where guests decide how much they would like to pay for the meal. All profits from the service are then donated to a local Canberra charity or cause. To date where we have raised and donated over $18,000 to 11 different organisations.

We have a ‘all-tips-to-a-cause’ policy and that has helped ACT Down Syndrome Association provide their VOICE magazine to families within their community. Without our support the magazine would have stopped being published in 2017.

We also believe in employing staff from diverse backgrounds. Daana’s first employee was Peter. Peter has Down’s Syndrome and has been with us now for almost 5 years. To see how confident and capable he has become, brings us immense joy. Daana supports the Woden Special School’s work experience programs. We have given employment opportunities to several others with special needs. Once they have gained employable skills with us, we have then helped them move on to other positions and opportunities.

Daana’s Pantry will further our ability to support staff with diverse needs by providing employment opportunities for them. We have completed a program run by The Mill House Social Enterprise Accelerator. We completed this program to learn the fundamentals of building a profitable business model that also has social impact.

Our efforts at Daana have been recognised as Finalists in the ACT Chief Ministers Inclusion Awards for Inclusive Employment in 2017, 2018 and 2019. This has been thanks to the parents and carers of special needs employees nominating us.

Do you have any advice for getting more women into the innovation ecosystem?

I summarise my life journey with the last two lines from the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, and I quote: “I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

My message to other women embarking on a business journey or career change – follow your passion and dare to be different. Have faith in your convictions, work hard and you will realise your dreams. When the entrepreneurial journey becomes difficult, and it will – push on and persevere. Know that the journey can be lonely, but help and support are available, you only have to reach out and ask.

The Canberra business community have always been very supportive of Sanjay and I. Our local suppliers, our professional service partners, each and every one of them have been supportive, patient and understanding and helped us during our struggles and applauded and encouraged our victories. When we started our business, we knew no one in the industry or the business community – but every time we reached out to someone for help or advice it was always forthcoming.

Meeting people like Lisa LaMaitre of Canberra Wise Women and Therapy Masters, through our food photographer Amanda Kelly, being invited to speak at their event helped me find a business mentor and forge connections that are so meaningful. Recently, I connected with Regional Development Australia’s Michael Claessens who invited me to work with the Food in the Capital initiative. He asked me to join so I can share my perspectives of being both a restaurant owner and chef to the projects and task force being developed. This kind of encouragement and collaboration for a small business like ours is invaluable and an honour.

While I have recently been named the Rubik3 Canberra Women in Business – 2020 Business Woman of the Year, I am also the first Canberra Business Woman of the Year from Indian origin. This is a proud moment for the Indian community in Canberra and Australia. I am aware of the responsibility that comes with the Award. I am mindful of the other women, particularly other immigrant women, who that I might inspire.

While I am fortunate to be multi-lingual with a proficiency in English, other aspiring women face not only language but other cultural barriers. I admire organisations like Global Sisters and Canberra Women in Business who are doing such fabulous work in either reducing and removing barriers (like Global Sisters) or celebrating and encouraging businesswomen and entrepreneurs (like Canberra Women in Business).

I hope that my award win, determination and courage inspire others in future. One of my goals is to empower and support others, as a mentor or coach, if they are seeking to be entrepreneurs.

What are you proud of right now?

I am truly honoured to be the 2020 Canberra Business Woman of the Year. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Chamberlains Law Firm for sponsoring the category. Two weeks later I am still pinching myself!

I am also extremely proud that Daana has been named as Finalists in three categories across both the Restaurant Catering Association Awards for Excellence, and the Canberra Local Business Awards. We have to wait until December for learn of the results.

Each accolade that we receive for Daana, ourselves or our team allows us to reflect on our journey so far and bolster our courage and conviction for the next steps on a business journey.  

In 2012 if someone was to have predicted THIS for my future in 2020, I would have laughed! Who knew that two passionate chefs, along with their family and four suitcases, could arrive in a new country and not only follow their dreams, but also achieve them!

2020 Canberra Business Woman of the Year, Sunita Kumar
2020 Canberra Business Woman of the Year, Sunita Kumar
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