IIt’s the usual Thursday morning and Mumbai resident Shamii Sethi is perfecting his baked blueberry cheesecake.
This dessert is a bit different from its confectionery counterparts around the corner, mainly because of its ingredients. The healthy dessert contains cashews, lemons, almonds and medjool Appointment.
This cheesecake is just one of the many delights on the menu at Rare Earth, a vegan cafe that Shamii launched in 2019 in Khar. At the same resort, he runs the organic store Rare Earth, where he sells vegan milks, butters, cheeses, spreads, fake meats, and more.
As you might have guessed, Shamii is vegan. He hasn’t always been.
I ask him, how did you go from real estate to selling vegan products?
“It’s a long story,” he says.
“Making veganism practical”
When he was 14, he was walking the streets of Bandra when he saw a goat being slaughtered at a butcher’s shop down the street. The incident stayed with him for days, but the delicious homemade tandoori chicken served as a distraction. Being born into a Sikh family meant that shamii and non-vegetarian food were best friends, he says.
Several years later, while browsing WhatsApp, he came across another such video – about how cows were treated in the dairy industry. The first incident of staring at the helpless goat flashed vividly in her mind.
This time he knew he had to act. “I promised myself never to touch meat again,” he says.
He also points out how interested he was in Reiki for a while. “It talks about how we shouldn’t harm animals, because every being has a life force within them,” he notes.
It’s been 30 years since this realization dawned on Shamii. At that time, he was running another business by the name of Rare Earth – a real estate company. Today, only the name remains, but almost everything else has changed in the company.
Throughout his growing years, he was a dairy lover. “I ate paneer three times a day,” he says. “So when I started my vegan journey in 2016, I faced two challenges. One was shifting gears with my eating habits. The second was finding vegan products.
In due course, the entrepreneur realized that he was not alone. Emerging vegan groups on social media platforms are proof of this. “I was one of those groups where members often discussed the lack of vegan options. One thought struck me: if people could easily find vegan products, more would embrace this lifestyle.
So began his quest to find where these vegan alternatives were available and then bring them back to his office in Khar. Here he had set up a display to display them so that people could come, see and buy.
The initial list of items included soy milk, almond milk, vegan curd and ice cream. As time went on, social media groups – once filled with posts lamenting the local vegan market’s swerve – were now abuzz with regular updates from Shamii about new items he had purchased.
“What I was trying to do at the time was just to make veganism convenient for people,” he says, adding that at first he wasn’t focused on profits at all. The products were sold to their MRP.
Such was his passion that for two years he traveled to Pune every few days to bring home bean curd to store in his office. “I only knew one person in Pune who made vegan curd and I wanted my customers to get a taste of it. I fixed it at Rs 20.
Before he knew it, the real estate office was filled with more racks, more products, and more love from the vegan community.
“We needed a kitchen, so I turned my bedroom into one.”
Once business picked up speed, Shammi was now faced with the difficult choice of whether to devote her attention to real estate or veganism. He decided to focus on the latter and dreamed of one day having a full-fledged cafe and store to replace the rack.
Although the idea came to him, all he needed was a little nudge, in the form of a conversation with a café owner.
“Around March 2019, the cafe across the street was closing,” says Shamii. “After negotiating a good price, I got some of their furniture, some tables and chairs, and two refrigerators. Now the only problem was, ‘Where would I put all this?’ »
Since the office space was too small to accommodate all the furniture, he turned to his ancestral bungalow, which was on the same lot.
Imagine, as a parent, waking up to learn that your son wants to turn his bedroom into a kitchen for his business. There would probably be reluctance, maybe shock. This was also the case for Shamii’s parents.
Explaining their disdain, he says: “Coming from a family where tandoori chicken is our favorite, my parents never really understood my need to switch completely to this vegan lifestyle and go all out to bring those huge changes.”
He adds that he too never planned how far he would go. “The only intention I started with was to make veganism convenient for people.”
So from a bedroom to a kitchen, how did it go?
“That wasn’t the original plan,” he told me. “I first thought of setting up a sitting area in the backyard behind the house and also installing the kitchen there. I imagined a picturesque view, an open sky and a nice sit-out. But my plans were interrupted when the chef I hired said it was too hot to work.
It was then that the 53-year-old decided that if he wanted to achieve his dream, he would have to give up his bedroom space. The lounge area could remain in the café, while his bedroom would be transformed into a kitchen.
Fortunately, a few years ago, while renovating his house, he had another door built in the bedroom, one that would allow him to enter and leave the house without disturbing his parents. “It worked well when I had the bedroom converted into a kitchen. As far as modifications go, we didn’t have to do much. A bit of plumbing for the sink and an induction cooker,” he tells me.
After these first adjustments, the kitchen was ready within a week. Shamii had a fully planned menu in his head. Rare Earth, the vegan cafe, was ready to explode.
A “parallel vegan universe”
Today, Rare Earth is divided between the store and the café, the former in the office that was once for real estate, and the latter in the courtyard of his ancestral bungalow. Both are on the same property. The cafe sees a quaint setting where people can enjoy healthy alternatives – from popular vegan milk and fancier faux meat ice cream, to makhanas-based gulab jamuns, tandoori burgers and watermelon feta salads.
If you’re in town, don’t miss the Testarossa pizza, which Shamii says is a hit. While I’m in shock at the surprising alternatives on this menu, I’m curious about the cafe’s slogan which reads “Creating a parallel vegan universe”.
This, Shammi explains, sums up what he set out to do. “I don’t want vegans to feel like they’re missing out by choosing this lifestyle. If they want butter chicken, that’s what I’ll give them.
“The vegan version, of course,” he laughs in response to my bewilderment.
At the cafe, Shamii works with a chef to create a menu that people will enjoy. It also caters to home cooks and other stores, and sometimes collaborates with them as well.
“As the menu began to grow, we began to diversify our products and launched various cloud kitchens on Zomato, all under the Rare Earth banner.”
The products cost between Rs 20 and Rs 2,000 and are shipped all over Mumbai, and some across India. Shamii says they are also planning to expand to other cities. The self-funded business, which started with an initial investment of Rs 4 lakh, is now seeing a turnover of Rs 9 lakh per month, he says.
Customers also love the cafe, describing it as “a cute little place with vegan wonders” and a “healthy experience.”
Sustainability takes shape in paper bins replacing plastic. Shamii uses organic waste from her kitchen as compost in her garden to grow papayas, bhindi, lemons and karipatta.
With his business booming and hundreds of vegans finding a place that suits their tastes so perfectly, Shamii says sacrificing his room was the least he could do, even if it meant sleeping on the couch in the hallway.
But all in all, he says he’s happy. “I think every human being is capable of creating the heaven or hell they want to live in.”
As our call comes to an end, Shamii tells me the blueberry cheesecake is ready. Guess I found my reason to stop by the cafe today.
You can place orders for home delivery from the cafe on Swiggy and Zomato.