With her eyes on the prize, Sopem MK, a resident of Manipur, worked hard to shed the trauma of growing up amid a family struggling with addiction, and learned how to make fruit wines on YouTube to open a successful bakery.
For anyone who has ever doubted the phrase “one door closes, another opens”, Sopem MK’s story will make you a believer again.
As she speaks to The Better India over a call, she is hustling to get her bottles of juice ready for the day for a long line of customers. In her words, this is what gets her excited every day.
To get to this stage of life has been tough, recounts Sopem. Having grown up in a family where her father and brother would abuse drugs, she had no one to turn to for support.
“From a young age, I used to look for ways to earn money,” she says, adding that when she was 16, she began working with a family and taking care of their children in order to support herself.
When she somehow managed to complete her Class 12, she was unable to study further due to family circumstances. And so she decided to pack her bags to venture into the real world that lay beyond the hills.
After a winding road and a series of twists and turns, today her fruit wine venture Great Pair has an ardent fan following.
But the journey certainly wasn’t an easy road.
Multiple jobs and a host of challenges
As the 26-year-old from Manipur recounts, she left for Delhi after Class 12, where she worked in a showroom that sold gowns and dresses. “I stayed in the city for six months but then had to leave as my salary was not enough for me to afford my rent.”
Following this, Sopem went to Chennai where her relatives lived and got a job as a hostess in a Korean restaurant.
“It was a lot of multitasking,” she says, adding that some days she even cleaned the toilets and swept the place. But since she needed the money, Sopem decided to carry on, but fate had other plans.
“Over time, my health started deteriorating as I was working almost 18-hour shifts,” she says. “My motive was to earn at least a little money so I could afford a flight ticket back home.”
Within three months of working, Sopem was able to finally return home and while in Manipur, took admission in a course of food and beverage at a government college.
“I had no one to guide me. I would study for the exams and work the rest of the time as a hostess in a restaurant,” she says.
Unknowingly, while Sopem thought life was going nowhere, it is during this time that the roots for her venture were sown.
As she recounts, she would go into the kitchen during her breaks and ask the chef about the mocktails and cocktails he was preparing, as well as their recipes. She would spend time after her shift understanding how to cook different dishes and one day in 2019, she got a small break.
Selling smoked pork and egg roll at a festival
“I received a call from a cousin, who told me there was a festival happening in the city and that he had the idea. He explained that we could set up a small stall for the four-day duration,” says Sopem, adding that she loved the idea and thought this would be a great chance for her to showcase everything she had learnt in the culinary scene.
“We ran the small cafe for four days and the business was a hit. I sold rice beer, pomegranate juice, smoked pork and Korean egg roll.”
Following the thrill of the festival, Sopem had to go back to her usual way of life, to the restaurant and to study. But this time, she had an enthusiasm to drive her.
“At my food and beverage course, I had a friend who was into baking and we got talking about selling momos on the streets of Manipur. We put up an umbrella and started,” she says. While the momos were a hit, rains soon hit the city and they had to stall the idea.
Once again as Sopem was losing heart, she got a call.
Life can surprise you
One of Sopem’s friends told her about a bakery course that was happening in Manipur itself. She went for the interview the next day and was immediately selected.
During the two-week course, she learnt the intricacies of baking, as well as the tricks of the trade and how to cook the best dishes. She also began watching YouTube videos on how to make wines from fruits and was intrigued with the process.
Once done with the course, Sopem decided to open a venture in her kitchen itself wherein she would make fruit wines in quantities of five kg.
“These include juices of jackfruit, plum, prunes, and blackberries. Along with this, I started making seasonal fruit pickles and candies, and selling the mushrooms from my family farm,” says Sopem.
She says she would have liked to make and sell more, but space was a limitation.
Anyone who visits Sopem on a usual day will see her bustling around the kitchen, preparing the fruit wines. As she explains, there is a lot to do.
She first washes the fruits and soaks them in sugar and herbs, which she collects from the forests of Manipur. “The herbs enhance the flavours of the fruits,” she says, adding that she lets this soak for 20 days. Then Sopem, who doesn’t have a filtration machine, removes the sediment and bottles the clear liquid.
She then sells the wine to shops and restaurants in the area. “My doughnuts are priced at Rs 30 per packet, cupcakes at Rs 10, organic fruit candy at Rs 50 for 100 grams and mushroom pickle at Rs 250 for 350 grams,” she says.
While Sopem receives orders worth Rs 1,000 for the bakery every day, she sells around 60 bottles of wine per month.
Sopem says that starting a venture of her own has not only made her proud but also an inspiration to her family. “I see myself as a strong woman and I believe that if I could overcome my situation, other young girls too can,” she says.
She adds that through the years, she has seen her father, brother, and sisters mend their ways. “I am working hard to support my parents and when my siblings see this, they too feel that they should step up.” In the process of becoming more responsible, they have changed for the better.
“Early on in life I learnt one thing,” she says. “If you don’t have the life you want, create it.”
Edited by Divya Sethu