I started the vegetarian cafe from my bedroom and now earn 9 lakh rupees/month

IIt’s a typical Thursday morning, and Mumbai resident Shami Sethi is busy perfecting a baked blueberry cheesecake.

This dessert differs slightly from its down-street confectionery counterparts—mostly, because of its ingredients. The healthy dessert contains cashews, lemons, almonds, and medjoled dates.

This cheesecake is just one of the many delicacies offered on the menu at Rare Earth, a vegetarian café launched by Shamii in 2019 in Khar. In the same complex, he runs the organic Rare Earth store, selling vegan dairy, butter, cheese, spreads, mock meats, and more.

As you must have guessed, Shami is vegetarian. It wasn’t permanent.

I asked him how you moved from real estate to selling plant products?

“It’s a long story,” he says.

‘Make plant life comfortable’

At the age of 14, he was walking the streets of Bandra when he saw a goat being slaughtered at a butcher’s shop on the road. The incident stayed with him for days to come, but the delicious home made tandoori chicken was a distraction. He says being born into a Sikh family meant that Shami and non-vegetarian food were best friends.

Several years later, while browsing WhatsApp, he watched another such video – about how cows are treated in the dairy industry. The first incident of seeing the helpless goat flashed clearly in his mind.

This time, he knew he had to take action. “I promised myself I would never touch meat again,” he says.

It also indicates how much he has been interested in Reiki for some time. “It talks about how not to harm animals, as every being has a living force in them,” he notes.

It has been 30 years since this realization dawned on Shami. At that time, he was running another project called Rare Earth – a real estate company. Today, only the name remains, but almost everything else has changed in the business.

Rare Earth, the vegan café
Indoor seating at Rare Earth, the vegan café in Khar Mumbai
Rare Earth, Vegetarian Café, Air Conditioning Department

Throughout his growing years, he was a fan of dairy products. “I used to eat paneer three times a day,” he says. “So when I started my vegan journey in 2016, I faced two challenges. One was changing my eating habits. The second was finding vegan products.”

In time, the businessman found that he was not alone. The emerging vegan groups on social media platforms were proof of this. “I was part of these groups where members often discuss the lack of vegan options. I was struck by the idea – if people could find vegan products easily, more would adopt this lifestyle.”

Thus began his quest to find these available plant-based alternatives and then brought them back to his office in Khar. Here, he has set up a shelf to display it so people can come in and see it and buy it.

The initial list of items included soy milk, almond milk, vegan yogurt, and ice cream. Over time, social media groups—which used to be full of messages lamenting the gap at the local vegan market—are now teeming with Shami’s regular updates about new items he’s bought.

“What I was trying to do, at the time, was simply make veganism convenient for people,” he says, adding that in the early days, he didn’t focus on profits at all. Products are sold at MRP.

His passion was so much that for two years, he would drive to Pune every few days to bring soy curd back to his office. “I only knew one person in Pune who was making vegan yoghurt and I wanted my customers to taste it. And I priced it at Rs 20.”

Before he knew it, the real estate office was filled with more shelves, more produce, and more love from the vegan community.

“We needed a kitchen, so I turned my bedroom into one.”

Once the pace of work picked up, Shami now faced a difficult choice whether to devote his attention to real estate or to vegetarianism. He decided to focus on the latter and one day dreamed of having a coffee shop and a full-fledged pantry to replace the shelf.

Although the idea came to him, all he needed was a small push, which came in the form of a conversation with a coffee shop owner.

“About March 2019, the cafe across the street was closed,” explains Al-Shami. “After negotiating a good price, I got some of their furniture, a few tables and chairs and two refrigerators. Now the only problem is, ‘Where do I put all this?'”

Since the office space was too small to accommodate all the furniture, he took refuge in his ancestral house, which was on the same plot of land.

Imagine, as a parent, waking up to the news of your son’s desire to turn his bedroom into a kitchen for his business. One might feel hesitant, perhaps some shock. This was the case with my Shami father as well.

Explaining their disdain, he said, “Because we are from a family where tandoori chicken is our goal, my parents didn’t fully understand my need to completely transition to this vegan lifestyle and then do my best to make these huge changes.”

He adds that, too, he never expected how far he would go. “The only goal I started with was to make vegan friendly for people.”

So from bedroom to kitchen, how are things going?

“That wasn’t the initial plan,” he told me. “I initially thought of creating a seating area in the yard behind the house and equipping the kitchen there as well. I envisioned a breathtaking view, open skies, and beautiful seating. But my plans were paused when the chef I hired said that the place was too hot to work in.”

That’s when the 53-year-old decided that if he wanted to make the dream come true, he’d have to give up his bedroom space. The sitting area can remain in the cafe, while his bedroom turns into a kitchen.

Fortunately, a few years ago when he was renovating his house, he had another door built in the bedroom, one that would let him in and out of the house without disturbing his parents. “This worked really well when the bedroom was converted into a kitchen. In terms of the alterations, we didn’t have to do much. A little plumbing for the sink, and an induction hob,” he told me.

After these initial adjustments, the kitchen was ready in a week. Shami had a completely striped list in his head. Rare Earth, the vegan café, was ready to blossom.

Parallel botanical world

Today, Rare Earth is divided into the shop and café, the former in the former office of the estate, and the latter in the courtyard of his ancestors’ home. Both are in the same property. The café sees an inviting place where people can enjoy healthy alternatives – from the popular vegan milkshake and ice cream to the more refined mock meats, gulab jamun made with makhanas, tandoori burgers, and watermelon feta salads.

A vegan drink of hollowed out cantaloupe at a vegan café in Khar Mumbai
The food at Rare Earth is fresh and unique

If you’re in town, don’t miss the Testarossa Pizza, which Al Shami says is a hit. Swinging by the amazing alternatives to this menu, I’m curious about the café’s slogan that reads “Create a Parallel Vegetarian World”.

Al-Shamy explains that this sums up what he plans to do. “I don’t want vegans to feel like they are missing out on choosing this lifestyle. If they want butter chicken, this is what I give them.”

“The vegan version of it, of course,” he laughs in response to my surprise.

Mock meats at Rare Earth Vegetarian Café in Khar Mumbai
Mock meat at Rare Earth Café

At the café, Shami works with a chef to create a menu that people will enjoy. He also communicates with in-house chefs and other stores, sometimes also collaborating with them.

“As the list started growing, we started diversifying our products and started several cloud kitchens on Zomato, all under the banner of Rare Earth.”

Gulab jamun made with khana at Nader Earth Vegetarian Café in Khar Mumbai
Gulab jamun made of mukhnas

The products are priced between Rs 20 and Rs 2,000 and are shipped all over Mumbai, some across India. Al-Shamy says they are now looking to expand into other cities as well. He says the self-financed company, which started with an initial investment of Rs 4,000, is now seeing a turnover of Rs 9 lakh per month.

Butter chicken at Rare Earth
Vegetable Butter Chicken at Rare Earth

Customers love the café, too, describing it as a “sweet little place with vegan wonders” and a “helpful experience”.

Sustainability is shaped in paper basins that replace plastic. Shami uses organic waste from his kitchen as fertilizer in his garden to grow papaya, pendi, lemon and caripata.

With his business booming, and hundreds of vegetarians finding a spot to suit their tastes perfectly, Al Shami says sacrificing his bedroom was the least he could do, even if it meant he had to sleep on the sofa in the hall.

But all said and done, he says he’s happy. “I believe that every human being is capable of creating the heaven or hell he wishes to live in.”

As our call came to a close, Shami told me that the blueberry cheesecake was ready. I think I found my reason for being at the coffee shop today.

You can place orders for home delivery from the coffee shop located in Swiggy and Zomato.

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