Namji / Give Back 2U UK
“We are not just any restaurant. Eating here helps fund somebody to change their life.”
I was working in the care industry, but I felt I wasn’t really making the difference I wanted to. I wanted to help women. I wanted to open a training company.
My husband Malik said ‘why don’t you open a restaurant’. But I never had an interest in cooking. I just hated the whole concept of being a woman in the kitchen.
And I’m like, ‘but I don’t like cooking!’ And he said ‘you’d be surprised. You cook really well.’ So I said, OK.
So we decided to create a community interest company (CIC) called Give Back UK, but combined with this idea for a restaurant. My son came up with the name Namji, so this name is very personal.
Namji opened in January 2016. I was cooking, taking orders. Malik was helping me and a few friends used to come and help me. I had no idea how to start a business, and I was doing two things together – the restaurant and the CIC. But we managed it.
The first three months, I was cooking food on FaceTime while my mum was telling me the recipes. Everything I cook here, it’s her recipes! And we put on new things when she tells me new stuff. She’s the best cook I know.
The cuisine is from Kenya, Punjab, Pakistan. Although my grandfather was from Pakistan, I’m from Kenya. That’s where my mum and dad were born. So I just say it’s from my mum, because it is, it’s from the heart. Although my mum is terminally ill now. It breaks my heart. I want her to come here, and I want her to see.
And I am very proud, I have achieved number one in Tripadvisor, and number three overall in Milton Keynes. We won a Best Restaurant award and even hosted Jeremy Corbyn. But for me the most important thing is when people eat here, they know we are not just any restaurant. Eating here helps fund somebody to change their life.
When Namji opened, I went around recruiting ladies I already knew. One lady used to have a small business cooking samosas, and I convinced her to come and work for me. When she started earning money, the ladies in the community saw that and realised, ‘oh so we can actually work, and earn.’ So then I employed two other ladies too.
We did the food hygiene course with them. It was very difficult because they couldn’t speak English, so I had to train them, and then translate the test for them. That was my first project. And I said to Malik, look, this is really successful now. We need to do more. Because three women is not enough for me.
What I learned from my first project changed my second. This time we started with learning English. And I don’t want to only train women to cook. That’s not all women can do. So apart from Maths and English skills, they also learn skills like how to write a CV and how to do an interview, and we’ve got a psychologist to speak with them about confidence.
Some will be employed in my kitchen, and train to be sous chefs. Others want to go through all the levels of English, and work in Admin. I teach a sewing class on how to do repairs, because they can earn money from that. And we will buy sewing machines for them so they can start their own business.
This is about empowering women. Women can respect their religion, their culture, their husbands and family, and still have their own identity. And it doesn’t have to be sous chefs. It can be anything they want. But I don’t want anyone to think I’m only doing this for ethnic minorities. It’s open to anybody. It’s for any lady who needs to come and learn.
We also do a lot for homeless people, with a scheme doing suspended meals. We have lots of customers giving money for those. We work with Trish and Maddie from a charity called Homeless but not Hopeless. They collect hot meals from us every Tuesday. At the moment we are providing about 60 hot meals a week.
In order for me to continue supporting women to gain employment, I’m going to have to grow. But I don’t want to get a bigger restaurant, because it will take away what I have in my kitchen. At the moment everything is freshly cooked. So rather than changing that, I’m developing another side of the business – catering – to employ more people.
My dream is also to have my own accredited training centre. I’m using other companies to do the certification tests now, but my goal is to have accreditation from at least one of the awarding bodies.
I’ve been appointed as a local Councillor, as well. So that’s going to help me network, and see where I can make a difference.
I love Wolverton because it’s given me the tool to do what I wanted to do. I couldn’t do this in any other town.