Liza Yunis is determined to fight for the survival of her business, her staff and their families, through the downturn of covid19.
This, despite having to decrease staff for production and focus on keeping the shelves at groceries stocked.
Yunis is the owner/operator of Soca Samosa, a blend of vegetable and/or meat fillings packed into a triangle of buttery homemade pastry dough.
"The severity of the virus' impact on Soca Samosa's operations is hard to accurately predict, but I will surely be fighting for its survival. As a result of covid19, Soca Samosa's employees are all self-isolating, with the exception of our delivery man. We want to work, but the risk of infection via increased contact is just not worth it. With our children dependent on us, we are putting health before wealth, recognising that this choice is very worryingly not a sustainable one," said Yunis during a recent interview with Business Day.
The brand, she added, is stocked in several selected locations at major groceries and popular gourmet stores and has a long shelf life and can be easily sanitised.
Yunis said she is mindful of the adverse impact her decision will have on the lives of her five part-time workers. So much so, that she has begun calculating how her business can best offer them some means of short-term support.
More than just social food
While her product could be positioned as a snack for social gathering, Yunis believes many of her customers also see it as a family meal or a snack for children. Particularly, she said, as school is out, after Government's decision to suspend all educational institutions (until April 20 for now).
In a further attempt to curb the spread of the virus, Government also urged citizens to practise social distancing, which led to the cancellations of events across the country.
Initially, no more than 25 people could gather at any social event. That figure was dropped to ten, and now, five.
"Taking into consideration the self-isolation and quarantining advice, we immediately began offering free deliveries to the West, East and Central for a minimum of four packs and have received orders every day since. It's a delivery service for an affordable meal that you can easily prepare for yourself. Knowing that many customers are on social media at all times now, I have to be innovative with my messaging and aim for a confident presence on those platforms. The future is very uncertain," said Yunis.
She said it has come down to assessing buying patterns and the mindset that she will have to now be a one-woman production show until further notice.
"If the sales slow down, production will no doubt follow suit and it will not just be Soca Samosa that suffers but so many entrepreneurs, micro-businesses, their employees and their families," she noted.
This comes on the heel of a bumper Carnival season, where Soca Samosa was included on the menu list at several major all-inclusive fetes.
Yunis, a supporter of buying local, ensures that her product contains no additives, eggs or dairy. Vegans have options, as well as her "meat-mouth" patrons, she said.
Each samosa is made with a khastha (silky-flaky) pastry, and is also homemade from scratch, she added.
Their seasonings are manufactured in-house from local produce.
"2020 was Soca Samosa's first Carnival. It was fun, rewarding and so exhausting! As a new supplier to corporate events, all-inclusive parties and to large fetes we were intent on bringing our best game and it certainly paid off. Both the various types of samosas and our Soca Samosa brand were very well received," said Yunis.
Their vegan options, she said, were especially favoured and has encouraged her to look at creating new and exciting alternatives for her customers.
Out of London to Hawaii
Yunis lived in London for 15 years and in Oahu, Hawaii for two and holds a BSc in management studies.
The mother of three once ran a hardware and construction company in London and became somewhat of an expert on tea while in Honolulu, the state capital of Hawaii.
Never one to do things haphazardly, Yunis weighed her options while there and opened her own Hawaiian Tea Room. Yunis is a certified tea master with the UK Tea Council. While she served Hawaiian tea at her shop, The Monarch Tea Room, Yunis introduced an Indian afternoon tea event, which soon became a huge hit on the island.
It's no surprise that she served her tea with samosas, which also became in demand.
Her efforts at her shop saw her nominated for the title of Best Newcomer at the Ilima Restaurant Awards (given annually by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in recognition of the best dining in Oahu), after only six months of being in business.
Competition, she said, was fierce within the food industry. She quickly applied her business acumen and learnt two valuable lessons, she recalled.
"Fantastic and professional customer service is non-negotiable and secondly to separate your business from the others, you must offer a unique and heightened emotional experience. Your food must capture all the senses," she advised confidently.
Upon her return to TT, Yunis decided to get back into the food industry, but opted instead, to pair family tradition with her knack for strategic business management.
"Trinis have a great appreciation for quality food, well-seasoned and affordable. Samosas ticked all the boxes and more for me. It was also a real drive to share our family staple with others and also keep our home connected to our generational story and culture," she noted.
It started as orders from friends and family for a dozen at a time and quickly escalated into retail orders of anywhere from three to 30 dozen for parties and special events. Yunis recalled having to switch operations from her home kitchen to a fully commercial kitchen.
She also leans heavily, she said, on the support of her husband, Shakkel, who was born in the UK to Pakistani parents. He is also her biggest fan, she quipped, as it's his favourite snack.
Going into business, though, didn't happen "willy-nilly." Yunis was very meticulous in even choosing the name, deciding on her brand and logo and conducted relentless searching and dialogue.
And again, she leaned on her husband, she joked.
"His experience as a business mentor provides me with the sounding board that I think every start up business needs. Sometimes I can get so entrenched in the details of operations or in trouble-shooting, that the strategic overview is put on the back burner. Keeping strategic is not just necessary though, it's critical," she said.
Yunis recalled one challenge that saw them shift their thinking.
"The struggle to recruit for our team is real. Often people would agree to interviews or jobs and then not even show. Initially, we looked for skills match and industry experience, but skills we can teach and experience we can offer. So now we recruit based on work ethic, talent and people that show potential. My small team is made up of young people who are trustworthy, very productive, who take initiative and are focused on solutions, not problems."
Extremely family oriented, Yunis was very mindful of the support of her parents, Mike and Julie Lee Pow and sisters Nadia and Joni, who help with her daughters, ages 24, 13 and seven, "when things get manic."
A graduate of St Joseph's Convent, Port of Spain and the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Yunis said while she has been able to juggle motherhood and a demanding business, she works hard on not neglecting one for the other. This she learnt from experience when she ran her earlier business and her eldest girl was a teen.
"With my previous businesses, I made the mistake of assuming that my then teenage daughter did not need as much support and attention as this ‘newborn’ startup. In fact, she really needed me to be present. I promised that I wouldn’t make that mistake again but honestly, it’s a daily struggle," she admitted.
For Yunis it has now come down to multi-tasking daily, as she remains determined to see her business survive this pandemic and not drop the ball on motherhood and marriage.