‘Earned My First Income at 64’: Inspiring ‘Aai’ Whips Up Success With South Indian Food

Aai's kitchen

During the lockdown, Mumbai’s 64-YO Nirmala Hegde started her food business with help from her son Gautam. Here's how the woman entrepreneur tasted success by giving a Maharashtrian twist to South Indian food.

For 64-year-old Nirmala Hegde, better known as Aai, the concept of selling the food that she cooked was completely alien. “While I would always feed my own friends and son’s friends, the idea of starting it as a business was not one that  crossed my mind until the lockdown was announced in March 2020,” says Nirmala to The Better India.

Thus was formed ‘Aai’s Kitchen’ in May 2020, a home cooked food delivery service based in Mumbai.

Aai's Kitchen
Nirmala Hegde at work.

“During the lockdown, Aai was cooking for the building security guards. This was a time when they could not leave the premises and were stationed inside the building for days on end. Aai was making simple home food for them. She’d also often send food for my friends who were all stuck in Mumbai, away from their homes,” says Gautam.

“Many of my friends wanted to order on a regular basis from Aai and were constantly telling me to encourage her to start a business,” adds Gautam. That was perhaps how the idea was planted and within two months it took off.

‘Earning From What I Love’

Nirmala’s life trajectory is similar to that of many Indian women. She was married at 22 and moved to Mumbai soon after from Karnataka, where she grew up. Within a span of two years she had delivered her child and was a mother at 24. Thereafter the responsibilities of managing the home and child took over and before she realised it, she says, she turned 60.

“Cooking and feeding my family and friends was always an integral part of my life and that continued through all these years,” she says. It is the small things that Nirmala brings to the cooking that makes all the difference. “I have been cooking for over 40 years now, so it comes naturally to me. Making small changes can help in making the food not just tasty but also healthier,” she adds.

“On the day we launched the response was so good that we ran out of batter [to make the appams],” she says.

Aai's Kitchen
Appam anyone?

She adds, “I had thought that selling about 20 plates of food the first day would be a good number to target, but the response exceeded all our expectations and we ended up selling close to 80 plates of food the day of the launch.” That gave Nirmala the much-needed boost of confidence.

“Since I had never done this earlier I had no idea how to pack or even how much to pack to begin with. Many of Gautam’s friends would come bringing their dabbas and I would pack the food in it and send it with them. We became more organised and started using disposable containers for the food only later,” she says.

In a span of two days Nirmala had earned Rs 8,000 and that was also her first-ever income.

“I felt so good and, suddenly, I had this feeling of being empowered,” she says. Until then Nirmala had never imagined doing a job that would lead to her earning from it. Cooking was something that she did on a daily basis and being able to earn from it was truly the icing on the cake.

One of the bestsellers, since the beginning, has been the appam and garlic chutney and Nirmala says that the dish has been ordered over 100 times already.

Aai's kitchen
Gautam and Nirmala.

“Tamarind rice, tomato rice, lemon rice, kurma are some of the other bestsellers. Mostly I make food that I have grown up eating and preparing, which is South Indian. Since I have stayed in Maharashtra for long, some of that influence is also there. I also make sabudana vada, puran poli, misal pav, vada pav etc.,” she adds. For a plate of eight appams, she charges Rs 100.

While she says that she has no one favourite dish, she adds that Gautam enjoys the idli-sambhar that she makes. “I do not use the sambhar powder from the stores and make it myself at home. That is what gives it that distinct taste and flavor,” she says. At Aai’s kitchen you can order Maharashtrian, Goan and Karnataka cuisine.

With able support and help from Gautam, who is in-charge of taking down orders, packing and having it delivered as well, Nirmala says that she is happy to have found a way to incorporate her passion into this small business.

In conclusion, she has a few words of encouragement for others and says, “Always find ways to stay in touch with things that you are passionate about. You never know when you can use that to start a business. And never let your age define what you do.”

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)