Street food has this incredible power to connect people from all walks of life through a plate of food. It has always been a celebration of diversity among cultures and cuisines, and perhaps this ethos is no more apparent than with Scotland-based, authentic Nepalese business Choola.
They have had the most amazing year, with claiming an unexpected victory at the Scottish Street Food Awards, only to go and do the same at the British Street Food Awards and then win the Future Food Legend Award at the European Street Food Awards! What’s their secret? We spoke with owners Ameer and Nicole (who also happen to be husband and wife) to find out:
Congratulations on the recent experience being crowned Overall Champions of the British St Awards 2023 – can you talk us through that?
It was a massive surprise and we’re still at the stage where it’s not quite sunk in yet. We didn’t really expect it. Even with the Scottish Awards where we were joint winners, we didn’t expect to be. We just thought we’ll turn up, meet some people, serve some great food and take it from there – so to actually win the Award at one was incredible, never mind both!
We only started trading at markets in June, so this is our first summer trading, and is something we never thought we’d be getting to experience this year. It was a great honour to win and a great experience both times, and now we’re headed to Germany for the European Street Food Awards!
You’ve only just been trading since June – so what’s the idea behind Choola and how did the business come to be?
I (Ameer) work as a chef. Growing up in Nepal where food is such a massive part of our culture, I was always hanging around the kitchen as there was always lots of cooking going on and its always been something I’ve loved. I met Nicole at university, we were both studying different degrees. We both liked the idea of having our own business, and after years of deliberation, the time came when we both thought why not – I was doing agency work while we were setting everything up and Nicole was working a 9-5 which she left this year to come on board full time.
We both felt that while there are a lot of diverse restaurants and cuisines available particularly here in the UK, we’d never really found the traditional, authentic Nepalese cuisine that Ameer grew up with, and we saw a chance to change that. So, we had a plan to set the business up, but of course it’s a scary concept to really commit to and especially to leave a job for, but it quickly became clear that in order to take the business forward, we both really needed to commit to it. So it’s been a sharp learning curve, but a fun adventure so far!
What have you each found the most challenging aspect of the business so far?
Nicole: Coming from a totally different background means there is so much to learn. It’s a huge culture shift, the environment, the demand of the work as well – being on my feet for 14 hours a day for example, considering I used to spend all day at a desk. Even the customer facing aspect, you’re dealing with people all day every day which is great but again can be demanding. Balancing everything has certainly been a challenge, but something we’re getting better at as we go.
Ameer: As I’ve worked in the industry already, I understand quite well how kitchens work, how a fixed site premise runs, but street food is a whole other beast. There’s so many unknowns – we’re always going to a different place, so sometimes you’re unsure what kind of place you’re setting up at. Even thinking about how much do we cook / prepare for a certain event can pose a challenge, but these are good challenges and we’re confident that the more events we do, we’ll get the hang of it a bit more.
What’s your favourite kind of event to cater?
There’s two sides to that really because from a financial point of view, private events are the way to go because you know exactly how much people are going to be there and they’ve paid for it in advance, so it’s effectively a guaranteed income. On the other hand, markets are great for meeting and interacting with a lot of different people, like you don’t know what kind of customers are coming in and it’s just different people we meet every time which is lovely and that’s one of the parts we love most.
If you’re trading at a food focused market, it’s great because people are there for exactly that, you know you’re going to get a lot of interest and meet with like-minded people. So, you’ve a much better chance of receiving good feedback and can learn a lot. It’s also about the other traders you’re working with, there is such a nice community and working markets like that are a good way to engage with the community.
How would you describe your food to someone that’s never had it before?
It’s such an amazing fusion of flavours and dishes. Because of where Nepal is situated – right in between India and China, it has a rich food heritage, and as you can imagine the food is influenced by both. So we’ve got dishes like dumplings and chow mein from the North, Tibet and China. From the South, we have curries but they’re a completely different style. Not only that but of course there’s loads of amazing native dishes as well, which are unique to Nepal and where you just can’t see it anywhere else.
Like our Aloo Dum Sel Roti which is a potato Curry with a fried bread which almost looks like a doughnut, it is so unique to Nepal. There’s such a diverse range of food across the country depending on the environment. So obviously you’ve got the mountains with the Himalayan region. And then you’ve got the planes, which is closer to India. So you’ll get dishes in the east that you don’t see in the West.
What is one dish that you would you’d recommend that a customer should try?
We always tend to recommend our Pork Momos, because they are such a staple of every street corner in Nepal – you get different varieties like buffalo, chicken or pork. I (Ameer) am from the east of Nepal, where we tend to go for more of the pork. So that’s one dish we always do highly recommend. The other award-winning dish is our Buffalo Curry – most people haven’t tried buffalo before and it’s something that’s quite unique. Particularly with the varied spices and things we use to accompany the dish, it really does taste different.
What would be a highlight of the business for you so far?
You can’t really say anything else – obviously the British Street Food Awards win was huge, and the Scottish one was unexpected and just massive. Ameer’s mum was down there helping us in London on the day and it probably made things a bit more emotional, to be able to share something like that with her was brilliant.
Obviously we’re really passionate about the food and it’s something we wanted to do for a long time, but you just never know how it’s going to be received by people and especially because it is quite different. So some of these experiences we’ve had and even just some of the comments people have made about how much they liked the food means so much to us – it’s really nice seeing people happy, and for us to be able to provide that through food is amazing.
If you could go back now and give one piece of advice to yourselves starting up the business, what would it be?
Honestly, that would be to just take the plunge. Of course it’s easy to say now, but to not be scared because whatever happens in the future is going to happen. Just don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith (to put a cliché on it). Also, buy a bigger trailer!
Obviously starting a business is mega, it’s so scary and there is so much to consider. It’s about trusting in yourself that you’ll be able to deal with the problems that arise and not being too scared to actually do something like this.
Something we are still reminding ourselves about, is to take the time to enjoy it. It can be hard and you get really caught up in just the day to day running of things, but to remember to enjoy it is really important and there are loads of nice moments and memories to be had.
What is your plan for the future?
In our minds we have a very long term goal of building a brand, having multiple locations and things like that. Sort of an ideal case scenario, but we’ve not thought too much to that extent just yet, we’re much more focused on the short term goals at the moment, it’s about getting our name out there for now, getting some exposure and learning as much as possible.Which is something that the awards are helping with massively. We’ve had so much press and awareness about our food spread from the awards, which has been great. We even got to appear and cook on Saturday Kitchen recently, which is such a ‘pinch me’ moment!
We thought this year would be all about local, small markets, and building our reputation and momentum slowly – and then the Awards happened. We are quite wary of trying not to expand too fast as we’ve seen some businesses do that and go under. We want to take things steady so we can keep on top of everything, not compromise our main values and ethos. We do hope to expand, but we want to make sure that’s the right move for the business at the time – that we’re ready to successfully do that. Having said that, a bit like with the Awards – if a golden opportunity comes along, we’re not going to say no to it.
What led to you joining NCASS and how have you found your membership so far?
We were doing some research last year and NCASS kept popping up, for help with traders and the services you provide. It appealed to us because we were so inexperienced in this industry, we didn’t know anybody who had actually done it, so we had no frame of reference. The membership is something that’s given us confidence because we know we have help and support there if we need it, all the help with paperwork has been great and it’s just saved us a lot of time and stress overall.
Things like the risk assessments have helped so much, when we did a couple of smaller events where things were quite casual we didn’t really need much of that, but at bigger events where they’re asking for all this paperwork and we weren’t sure, so having the templates really helped us out. The courses as well – Nicole got her Food Hygiene Level 3 with you which was brilliant to have that resource available.
You can find out more about Choola and follow their journey here.
For more member interviews and relevant industry news, click here.